The Tenement Museum

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Something disturbed me about the Gumpertz apartment. In the process of re-creating their lives, the museum also managed to re-create their deaths. The cries of their children, the clacking of the tin plates as Natalie picks them up after breakfast, have been silenced by the years, but Julius, in his stubborn refusal to be dead, seems somehow alive. Just before I open the door to leave his apartment, I can feel him standing in the hallway. He takes a few tentative steps toward the apartment. He raises his hand to knock on the door and suddenly stops, hearing unfamiliar sounds behind it: the clicking of a sewing machine and laughing voices. In an instant that has slipped through a century, he changes his mind, turns around, and disappears.

Right next door I’d never have guessed that the residents weren’t still alive. Step just a few inches away from the Gumpertz home and you’ve stepped through half a century; open the door and you’re standing in the Baldizzi apartment, 1935. The kerosene darkness that made me feel Julius Gumpertz somewhere in the shadows has been evicted by a law that demanded “windows” in every room. At the Baldizzis’ place this means that the wall between the kitchen and the front room has a wide opening cut in it, clearing shadows away, while in the front room a three-bulb electric chandelier casts cool and clean reflections on the blue-and-white checked linoleum. The Baldizzi apartment shines.

 
She saw a sign announcing museum of immigrant lives—in her old building.
 

Adolpho and Rosaria (“Sadie”) Baldizzi, natives of Sicily, lived here with their two children. Adolpho had been a carpenter in Palermo, but America in the early 1930s proved a poor place to find steady work. Adolpho prowled the streets with a toolbox all day, searching for odd jobs. Rosaria worked in a garment factory, but only on the sly, since the family was on Home Relief, a welfare project of the New Deal that handed out food and clothing to the unemployed. The big boxes with their giant letters yelling HOME RELIEF used to shame Adolpho as he carried them back to 97 Orchard, but they also left him grateful enough to hang a portrait of President Roosevelt alongside the gold-painted religious icons on the walls. The flowers on the windowsill add to the apartment’s brightness; frustrated and embarrassed without work and determined to make the best of things, Adolpho Baldizzi used the wooden cheese boxes from Home Relief as planters for morning glories for his family.

Yet what makes the Baldizzi apartment really vibrate with life has less to do with the place itself than with the people in it, and I mean the tourists. The apartment is chronologically the newest in the building, restored to what it was when the landlord closed up shop sixty-five years ago— not recent enough for many visitors to have lived there but recent enough for them to somehow remember it. Almost every tour of the Baldizzi apartment draws comments such as: “My grandmother used to have that kind of suitcase! Just like that!” or “I remember my father getting those same boxes from Home Relief. They were always filled with cheese. Ugh, that cheese was terrible !”

Instead of the museum’s discovering the Baldizzis, the Baldizzis discovered the museum. Walking down Orchard Street one day a decade ago, a woman named Josephine Baldizzi Esposito noticed a sign indicating a museum-in-progress, designed to show the lives of real immigrant families, in her old apartment building. She ran in and could barely speak to the curators from excitement, astonished to see the very apartment from which she and her family had been evicted more than half a century earlier. The researchers immediately began making notes from her memories of what it had looked like, down to the radio that the family used to hide when welfare inspectors came, the gas meter that required a quarter to give the apartment hot water, the icons on the walls, and the kinds of suitcases they had used to move out. Josephine remembered her neighbors too, particularly the Rosenthals, the Jewish family next door for whom she had served as a shabbos goy —a non-Jew enlisted to turn on lights and perform other household tasks forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. With Josephine advising on the restoration of the apartment, there was no need for the guesswork that had gone into the Gumpertzes’ rooms.