On Manhattan’s Lower East Side you can visit a haunting re-creation of a life that was at once harder and better than we remember
For many immigrants, moving to a new country is in ways like becoming a child again. Like children, they have few connections outside of their immediate families; some cannot speak the language well and are assumed to be ignorant and mute; they may have few skills or few ways to apply those skills. And like children, they feel strongly the pain of loneliness. The vast majority of American immigrant families, whether they came here in 1790 or 1990, have known this loneliness, but their descendants don’t know what that feels like. Now a museum in New York City has taken up the task of reminding them.
No. 97 Orchard Street, in the downtown area known to New Yorkers as the Lower East Side, was once a tenement. The word—from the Latin verb tenere , or “to hold—at first simply meant a property. As immigrants began to flood New York City in the nineteenth century, the word was adopted to mean a shared building with multiple housing units—in modern parlance, an apartment house. But before long the Lower East Side had acquired so stark a reputation that New York’s superintendent of buildings described the tenement as a place where “the greatest amount of profit is to be realized from the least possible amount of space, with little or no regard for the health, comfort, or protection of the lives of the tenants.” In 1879 the city passed a reform that came to be known as the Old Law, requiring that air shafts provide light and ventilation to interior rooms in tenement buildings. An aggressive reform campaign led to the Tenement House Act of 1901—the New Law—enforcing and expanding prior requirements that every room receive direct air and sunlight and, more significant, that indoor toilets be installed. In 1929 the Multiple Dwelling Act demanded that additional toilets be installed at the rate of one per private apartment (though the subsequent stock market crash made paying for these changes virtually impossible for many landlords). The era of the tenement, at least as it was remembered by millions of immigrants between 1840 and 1935, had come to a close.
Orchard Street took its name from the path it follows, which once led to the arbors of the colonial British landowner Lord Delancey, but by the late nineteenth century there wasn’t a tree in sight on this crowded block. No one admits to having designed No. 97, which was built in 1863. It fits the usual pattern for pre-Old Law tenements put up during the 1860s. Each of the five floors has four apartments, and each apartment consists of three rooms: a front room, roughly eleven by twelve and a half feet, a bedroom of about eight by eight feet, and an even smaller kitchen area, originally with a “slop sink,” and then, probably around 1905, with running water, adding up to about 325 square feet. (To today’s New Yorkers a 325-square-foot apartment might sound relatively comfortable. But imagine living in it with your ten closest relatives.) At first, of these three rooms, only one had any windows. The toilets were outdoor privies, and the only source of fresh water was a pump in the same yard, creating a major sanitation hazard. Yet it was good enough for Lucas Glockner, who put up the building and then served as its first landlord. He lived there himself.
But after the Glockner era and with the ever-growing stream of immigrants into the neighborhood, the building’s identity began to change from a middle-class multifamily home into something more closely resembling slum housing. Gas lighting arrived in the late 1890s, followed by electricity thirty years later, so 97 Orchard Street remained in a swamp of shadows for most of its seventy-two-year existence as housing. Indoor toilets were finally installed—in the hallways, two on each floor servicing four families—about 1905. Perhaps unable to pay for a toilet in each apartment as city law later demanded, the landlord closed down everything in his building but its storefronts in 1935, evicting all its residents. The building’s apartments stayed vacant for about fifty years, until Ruth Abram, a vigorous and imaginative social worker and historian, and the museum’s founder and president, first set foot inside.
The Tenement Museum had modest beginnings, starting in 1988 as little more than a photography exhibit as its researchers began to gather information about immigrant communities, placing ads in local newspapers to seek out those who might know people who had lived there. This expanded into an ongoing search through census data, occupational directories, municipal archives, voter registrations, even Civil War draft records. Today, out of an estimated seven thousand people who lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935, the museum lists some fourteen hundred by name. From those names, more information has come to light—a family that had been involved in a court case, for example, plus a family remembered by those who responded to the museum’s ads—and so the Lower East Side Tenement Museum grew up. By now its curators have been able to reconstruct the lives of some real families who actually made the building their home.
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.
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.
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.
Josephine died in April of 1998, but to the shock of visitors near the end of the tour, she speaks. Hiding in the tidy kitchen is a loudspeaker that brings her voice back to the apartment again: “I remember how we used to sit here in the kitchen, me and my father and mother and my brother, eating eggs and ketchup, with a roll and butter on weekends.” (The ketchup bottle is standing on the small table.) “My father loved to play games, so we’d sit there at the table, playing cards, checkers, riddles, me and my brother and my father.” (Next to the ketchup is a pack of playing cards.) “Cleanliness was very important to my mother. She would stand all night polishing pots—‘Shine ’Em Up Sadie,’ they used to call her.” (Scrub brushes and steel wool hang on racks above the sink.) “And then she’d turn on the radio and listen to Italian soap operas, and I remember my mother crying, because she missed her family in Sicily.” (Portraits of Josephine’s grandparents are framed on the wall, beside the icons.) “She had left them to come to America. She never saw her mother or father again.”
Up on the building’s third floor, the Rogarshevskys’ place also gleams bright and clean, the front room shimmering with rich red wallpaper and the bedroom half-blinding the visitor with its violent green walls. The apartment shows the cultural marks of its inhabitants in 1918, who were Lithuanian Orthodox Jews; the many sets of plates reflect the Jewish dietary laws’ demand for eating meat and dairy products off separate dishes. A generous spread of bagels, bialys, and hard-boiled eggs lies heaped on a table in the front room, making the apartment seem more lavish, if a bit cramped. But then the guide tells us exactly how many people lived here: Fanny, the mother of the house and later the building’s janitor right up until 1941; her four sons, who slept on the sofa with their legs supported by chairs; her two daughters; and Abraham, the father of the house, a garment presser. The piles of food on the table are here because Abraham isn’t. He died of tuberculosis a few days earlier, and the family is now “sitting shiva,” observing seven days of the initial period of mourning.
The Rogarshevskys’ tiny rooms are filled with stools and wooden crates because mourners must sit on low seats to express their grief. Mirrors are covered, since mourners must not be distracted by vanity. During the week of mourning the Rogarshevskys could not leave the apartment.
The evidence of Abraham’s demise is everywhere. Tuberculosis was considered a “Jewish disease” (it flourished in the close-packed housing of the Lower East Side) in early-twentieth-century America, despite the fact that, statistically, few Jews suffered from it. It was common in the garment workers’ industry, where many Jewish immigrants, including the entire Rogarshevsky family, first found work. Abraham had begun to return home from work pale and weak, pausing frequently as he climbed the steps up to the third floor; his family soon realized he had TB. Around the apartment are remains of their attempts to treat his illness: a creosote inhaler, a bottle of “Orion Eucalyptus and Tar Expectorant, Mentholated.” Abraham Rogarshevsky had come to America for a new life; that new life finally killed him on a hot Friday night in 1918. Because of the Sabbath, the family was unable to move the body. Eight people were occupying a 325-square-foot apartment with only the most minimal ventilation during a hot month in one of the most overcrowded places in the world, and one of the apartment’s occupants had just become a corpse.
Upon Abraham’s death something unexpected appeared— or so it seemed to those used to a European life of distance between various ethnic groups. When Abraham died on that summer night, his non-Jewish neighbors either saw or heard about the family’s inability to respond properly to his death on the Sabbath. They came over bearing buckets of ice to cover the body that would have to stay in the hot room for fifteen hours until the men from the burial society could arrive. Later they came to visit during the shiva, bringing eggs and bagels and friendly faces to comfort the Rogarshevskys. The men and women who put that food on the table in the front room might never have heard of a shiva, but they had heard of Abraham Rogarshevsky, and that was what mattered. In a building filled with lonely, homesick people, the new American residents of 97 Orchard Street had figured out a way to fight loneliness.
This is no ordinary museum; it has a mission. Ruth Abram founded the institution with sociological goals in mind. “I wanted to create a national conversation among Americans,” she says. “Most of us are descendants of working-class immigrants, and we hold our forebears in high regard. But we might not relate to the newest wave of immigrants or realize how similar their experience is to our own families’. I thought that if I could bring Americans home to meet their own ancestors before they were ‘acceptable’ or economically comfortable, I could build that understanding.” The museum is part of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, a classification that includes a slave house museum in Senegal, a workhouse museum in England, a gulag museum in Russia, and Terezin in the Czech Republic. Most of the world’s historical sites, Abram points out, tell the stories of kings and queens; even in the United States it’s surprising how infrequently we learn about the history of people more like most of us or many of our ancestors, particularly the people Abram likes to call “urban pioneers.” In the Tenement Museum you don’t just meet the first urban-working-class family presented in a museum; you also meet the first female-headed household, the first family on welfare, the first family that asked its child to leave elementary school to go to work.
The presentation has been immensely successful. In 1998 Congress passed a bill making the Lower East Side Tenement Museum into a National Historic Area, affiliated with the National Park Service, and it continues to expand as its curators research new apartments to fill the remaining floors and to teach its thousands of visitors. (Apartments currently in the planning stages include an Irish family’s home and a sweatshop.) The museum runs classes and educational programs for both children and adults, as well as theater presentations and even a “Tenement Kitchen” that can be rented out for dinner parties.
To give an idea of just what sort of raw material the museum’s researchers are confronting, all tours stop by the “Ruin Apartment,” a part of 97 Orchard that has been left just the way it was found, with chunks of plaster fallen from a stained ceiling and walls scribbled with garment inventories from the days it was used for storage. According to the museum’s curators, their own skills were trumped by those of the building’s last residents, rats who built their homes out of dolls’ heads and watches and business cards. But aside from just showing off the work of the now-evicted rats (and, of course, the curators), the Ruin Apartment serves as part of Abram’s educational enterprise, playing host to a children’s math project. After a school group arrives in the apartment, they are given a reproduction of a 1905 Sears, Roebuck catalogue and told to have a “family discussion” on how they plan to furnish their new apartment—on a twenty-five-dollar budget. “Some kids just want to buy beds, beds, beds,” the education director, Kate Fermoile, says. “Others just want to decorate. Eventually they have to compromise.” Their compromises aren’t that different from the ones the original inhabitants once made: using a row of chairs as an extra bed, letting children sleep on the floor, making one room double as living room and bedroom. But the children who come to visit the museum aren’t satisfied with just trying on immigrant lives. They want to meet the immigrants themselves, and the museum tries to grant that wish.
Like all the apartments at 97 Orchard Street, the Confines’ shows a family’s life frozen in a single moment: in this case, 1916. There is one difference, though. In this apartment a person is part of the exhibit. Victoria Confino is a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl, played by an adult actress, whose family moved from Turkey to the United States three years before the exhibit’s date. The family was Sephardic (Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492), tagging the Confinos as outsiders not only among Americans but among Jewish immigrants as well, most of whom were Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe. Yet when you meet Victoria Confino, you meet a canny and eager young American.
The Confino apartment tour is mainly geared toward children, because the museum’s staff noticed that school groups were always itching to get their hands on the furniture. In the Confino home, you can touch everything: the Victrola (playing a fox trot), boxes of “prophylactic tooth powder,” Victoria’s petticoats (she invites children to try them on), the books on the shelf ( Lives of the Presidents in Words of One Syllable ). Hidden speakers blast 1916 street noises —clopping horses, the cries of pushcart peddlers—and as if all this weren’t enough to sustain the illusion, visitors are required to get in on the act. According to Victoria, we all are new immigrants, asking her for advice.
Still carrying the mop and bucket she was holding when she answered the door, Victoria says, “So you want to know about the building, huh? What countries did you come from?” The children on the tour, as instructed, name the places that they or their ancestors came from: Poland, Korea, Italy, Jamaica, Ireland, Germany, Taiwan.
“I know you probably all worried, yes? It’s hard,” Victoria tells them in her newly minted English. “The first year I am here, I cry every day. But you get used to it. Don’t worry, you not gonna be lonely. Eighteen families live here, and they all got kids.”
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.”
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.