The Tenement Museum

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When I visited the museum for the first time, I was prepared for a tour of poverty and despair. I had seen grim photographs of turn-of-the-century slums and thought I knew what to expect. I braced myself, ready for the empty tombs of huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Imagine my shock when I actually heard them breathing.

Stepping into 97 Orchard Street, I saw the darkness I had expected. But the second thing I saw, my first surprise, was color. In the hallway little round oil landscapes had been painted onto the varnished burlap that covers the walls— small evocations of Orchard Street’s original orchards. The ceiling glistens with the dark shine of sculpted sheet metal, their curlicues almost Moorish-looking. A museum guide warned me that the landlords always took pains to make the front hallway look presentable, to lure prospective tenants. So as our group—one goes through the museum in tours of about a dozen people at a time—proceeded upstairs to the first apartment, I expected the worst. Instead I found the real.

Up the dark, worn wooden stairs, down the short hallway and on the left, it is 1878. The apartment, built before city laws mandated windows in all rooms, resembles an underground bunker. Kerosene lamps, now simulated electrically to prevent fire, cast strange shadows on the blue walls and wooden floor. An open door on the right leads to a windowless closet-sized bedroom; a white bedstead occupies nearly all of it. In the kitchen the tiny wooden table is set for a breakfast of bread and cheese, a breakfast likely not very different from the one Julius Gumpertz, a German-born shoemaker, ate on his last day in this room. On one ordinary morning in 1874, Gumpertz finished his breakfast, left his apartment, walked down the dark wooden staircase out of 97 Orchard Street, and was never seen again.

The story of the Gumpertzes, interesting in itself, becomes even more so when one considers the amount of historical digging required to unearth a single family’s life. The museum’s researchers first discovered the Gumpertzes of 97 Orchard Street through the United States Census of 1870, which tallied Julius Gumpertz, his wife, Natalie, and their two daughters. The census of 1880 lists Natalie Gumpertz and three daughters. Julius is missing. What had happened? The museum’s researchers were able to figure it out— almost.

A son born to the couple in 1874 died a little more than a year later, of dysentery that was most likely related to the building’s plumbing, or lack thereof. Sanitation problems contributed to many children’s deaths; one estimate places the child mortality rate on the Lower East Side in this period at 40 percent. The fate of the Gumpertzes’ baby boy was detailed in city death records. When researchers began looking into local archives, more information about the family came to light. The museum had assumed that the Gumpertzes were German Catholic or Lutheran immigrants, part of a group that arrived in New York in large numbers in the 1860s. The family’s marriage and death certificates revealed otherwise. Their wedding had been performed by a rabbi, their funerals planned by the local Jewish burial society. The Lower East Side had been ethnically mixed for a very long time, longer than most casual visitors would assume.

But the mystery of Julius’s departure remained, and here the historians lost headway. There were no death certificates to be found, and it seems likely that Julius simply walked out. An economic downturn in the 1870s led to a phenomenon similar to that of what twentieth-century Americans know as “deadbeat dads.” Fathers abandoned their families so regularly that the largest-circulation Yiddish daily actually had a section called “The Gallery of Missing Husbands,” where wives could post information to try to track down the deadbeats.

Natalie Gumpertz, however, didn’t bother with any of that. Instead she looked adversity in the face and went into business for herself. A door in the dark little kitchen swings open to reveal a room bathed in the sunlight that pours in through elegant fluttering white curtains, and suddenly there are colors: red and blue and orange spools of thread, sagging but shining tan floorboards, and, most of all, beautifully patterned wallpaper. The museum’s restoration team peeled down twenty-one layers of wallpaper to reach the bottom one, which they were able to date to Natalie’s time. Here Natalie and her daughters ran their own seamstress shop, with a treadle sewing machine and patterns posted on the walls.

In 1883 Natalie Gumpertz went to court to have Julius declared dead. Why then, after waiting so long? Because that was the year she received notification that Gumpertz’s father had died in Germany, leaving six hundred dollars to Julius. (For a rough estimate of the value of 1880 dollars, add two zeros. Rent at 97 Orchard Street was eight to fifteen dollars a month.) Natalie had her day in court, put Julius away for good, and pocketed the six hundred dollars. And what did she do with it? The obvious: She moved out.