The Tenement Museum

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As her guests get up to look around the cramped apartment, stepping on one another’s toes just to find a piece of floor space—with a tour group of eight, it’s easy to see just how tight the Confino household must have been—Victoria points out the boxes on which her parents and siblings sleep. (The bed, of course, is reserved for the family’s two paying boarders.) In the kitchen Victoria brags that “we got running water here” and shows her guests the best ways to do laundry: a metal wringer-washer for big blankets and a tin washboard for clothes, giant metal tongs to hold the cake of soap in hot water. Keeping clean is always a major project at 97 Orchard Street. For washing oneself, Victoria recommends the free bathhouse on nearby Rivington Street. Toward the end of the tour, she shows off the building’s newest amenity: a flush toilet, shared by another family on the floor. “Sometimes the line is long, so make sure you buy lots of pots!” Victoria advises, and then confides to the children, “You have to wait sometimes because of Mr. Elias, our neighbor. He like to sit in here and read the newspaper, and then he fall asleep.”

 
The Lower East Side today is not so different from what it was a century ago.

As everywhere else in the museum, the Confino apartment, including Victoria herself, is the product of prodigious research. Curators chose to represent Victoria specifically because she is remembered in oral histories as a lively and talkative girl who said she wanted to become an actress. Victoria attended P.S. 65 for two years before her father made her drop out to work as a finisher in his garment business. Life at 97 Orchard Street was anything but easy. But through the eyes of Victoria Confino, it wasn’t a Jacob Riis photograph either. As she teaches her guests to dance the fox trot and lets them try on her dresses, you can see for yourself what the Tenement Museum’s education experts have discovered. In an experiment, museum workers once tested schoolchildren’s associations with the word poor . Before visiting the museum, most of the responses were negative: “dirty,” “ugly,” “lazy,” and the like. After meeting Victoria, only a fraction were.

Children aren’t the only ones moved by Victoria’s story. Besides school groups, the museum often opens its doors to groups of new immigrants, particularly students studying English as a second language. Once, a group of Chinese college students fresh from an ESL course came to meet Victoria Confino. She greeted them at the door and urged them to sit down, asking them where they came from and how long they had been in the United States. The guests were just beginning to make themselves comfortable when they noticed an awkward pause in the conversation. Victoria, looking each of them up and down, was shaking her head in disgust.

“Those clothes you’re wearing, they all wrong,” she told the group. “Nobody wears those things in America. If you wanna fit in around here, you gonna have to get some new clothes.”

The students froze, staring at one another in something approaching horror. Wasn’t that exactly what the “real” Americans—their neighbors, their classmates, even their friends—had been telling them for the past year? Hadn’t they tried so hard to buy the right clothes, to wear their hair the right way, to fit in, to become Americans? After all this time had they really failed?

Seconds later, apparently oblivious of her guests’ shock, Victoria pulled out a pile of shirts, dresses, and hats that were clearly de rigueur—in 1916. Her visitors, finally understanding what was going on, breathed a sigh of relief. But their anxiety in that single instant proved that little has changed; how terrifying it still is to arrive in a new country, to be alone.

The Lower East Side today, remarkably, is not so different from the way it was a century ago: a working-class neighborhood with a large immigrant population and an ethnic mix. Only the residents’ countries of origin have changed over the past hundred years. The building where a Yiddish daily newspaper was once printed became the home of a Chinese Bible press; a well-known kosher restaurant has since been replaced with a Chinese takeout. It remains, for many, a poor and lonely place, a first stop for thousands of families, including “single mothers” like Natalie Gumpertz; children fed on welfare like Josephine Baldizzi; parents whose work drives them to illness or even death like Abraham Rogarshevsky; and teenagers like Victoria Confino who bring home small paychecks instead of homework. The year 1935, or even 1878, doesn’t seem so far away anymore. But it also doesn’t seem so hopeless.