Art Nerd New York | Los Angeles

From a Tenement to a Museum

As an alumnus of New Explorations into Science, Technology, and Math High School, I commuted to Delancey Street via the F train every morning. Once I got out of the station, it was always a mad dash to school since it was located about 10 minutes away from Delancey. I never really had the time to savor the beauty of the Lower East Side. I only knew of its heavy immigrant population. Other than that, it was just a neighborhood adjacent to Soho.

Too bad I never got the chance to explore more of the neighborhood, especially the historic Tenement Museum. It’s located at 97 Orchard Street, a quiet side street lined with mid-rise apartment buildings. The Tenement Museum is known for recounting the stories of the immigrants that lived in New York’s tenement housing in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s the first museum in the country to preserve a tenement building and have it designated a National Historic Site.

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It all started in the Lower East Side, the local hotspot for immigrant families looking to reinvent their lives in America. By the 1850s, the city’s population increased over 58% due to the influx of new citizens. As a result, more apartments were constructed to accommodate the growing population.

Narrow, low-rise apartments known as tenements sprung up across the city. A tenement building typically stood five to seven stories tall with multiple rooms on each floor. The rooms closest to the street usually received the most light and adequate ventilation. If you lived in the rooms farther from the street, then you were out of luck since it was difficult for light and ventilation to reach those rooms. The buildings were equipped to house multiple families, which enticed the thousands of foreigners arriving from Ellis Island.

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The Tenement Museum was built as a tenement in 1863 by Prussian-born immigrant Lukas Glockner. The five-story building featured 20 3-room apartments with four on each floor. Only one room in each apartment received direct light and ventilation. There weren’t any toilets, showers, or baths. A privy (like a modern-day porta-potty) was set up in the backyard for the residents. Each kitchen consisted of a fireplace intended for cooking and heating purposes. Garbage was placed in bins in front of the building for pickup.

Tenement living conditions weren’t the best; therefore, appropriate legislation was enacted. In the last half of the 19th century, several tenement laws were issued in hopes of improving the living conditions. The new laws required that each room have access to air and windows and each privy consist of a sink and connect to underground plumbing. Over the years, more improvements were implemented such as the installation of indoor plumbing and electricity. In 1935, out of nowhere, the landlord at 97 Orchard jumped ship. He evicted the residents living on the upper floors and boarded up the floors. The first floor and basement remained open for commercial use.

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Fast forward to 1988.  Ruth Abrams, a social activist, along with her friend, Anita Jacobson, decide to restore 97 Orchard Street and transform it into a museum devoted to honoring the lives of immigrants. After years of restoration efforts and research investigations, Abrams and Jacobson opened the first restored room in 1992. The tenement was designated a National Historic Landmark on April 19, 1994. Since then, 5 more rooms have been restored and a Visitors Center building was built at 103 Orchard. Visitors have the opportunity to take guided tours of the 97 Orchard tenement followed by a walking tour of the Lower East Side. The perfect mix of art and history.

97 Orchard Street

New York, NY 10002

 

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