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Tenement Museum: Immigrants' Lives, Past and Present


While in New York last December, we ended up touring something I didn’t even know existed. After meeting some friends for lunch at Katz’s Deli for lunch, we headed over to the Tenement Museum. It is located at 97 and 103 Orchard Street which is only a few blocks from where we were. It was a pleasant walk, and we stopped into a few shops along the way.

Like I said, I didn’t know it was there, but apparently it is a National Historic Site which opened on November 12, 1988. The two historical tenement buildings were home to an estimated 15,000 people, from over 20 nations, between 1863 and 2011. The Tenement Museum, which includes a visitors' center, promotes tolerance and historical perspective on the immigrant experience. It didn’t know what to expect, so I went in completely open to learning some history.

Tenement 2When first constructed, it contained 22 apartments and a basement level saloon. Over time, four stoop-level and two basement apartments were converted into commercial retail space, leaving 16 apartments in the building. Modifications over the years included the installation of indoor plumbing (cold running water, two toilets per floor), an air shaft, and gas followed by electricity.

Tenement 3In 1935, rather than continuing to modify the building, the landlord evicted the residents, boarded the upper windows, and sealed the upper floors, leaving only the stoop-level and basement storefronts open for business. No further changes were made until the Lower East Side Tenement Museum became involved with the building in 1988. As such, the building stands as a kind of time capsule, reflecting 19th and early 20th century living conditions and the changing notions of what constitutes acceptable housing.

Tenement 6Today they have several tours, as well as unique experiences, which share the restored apartments and businesses of past residents and merchants from different time periods. There were several tours to choose from. Here they are listed by the floor they are on:

Tenement 1st Floor

  • Shop Life -  Family-run stores filled the lower level of 97 Orchard for over a century, where they struggled to adapt to an ever-changing neighborhood and achieve the American Dream. Visit the 1870s German saloon of John and Caroline Schneider, and use interactive media to trace the stories of turn-of-the-century kosher butchers, a 1930s auctioneer, and 1970s undergarment discounters.

Tenement 2nd Floor

  • Hard Times - Discover how immigrants survived economic depressions at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. Visit the restored homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, whose patriarch disappeared during the panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • Hard Times: Tour and Discussion - Spend extended time inside the Baldizzi apartments and join in a discussion about themes arising from the tour. Share your experiences, thoughts and family histories with your educator and fellow visitors.

Tenement 3rd floor

  • Sweatshop Workers - Pay a visit to the Levine family’s garment workshop and the Rogarshevsky’s Sabbath table at the turn of the 20th century, when the Lower East Side was the most densely populated place in the world. Explore how immigrants balanced work, family, and religion at a time of great change.
  • Sweatshop Workers: Tour and Discussion - Spend extended time inside the Rogarshevsky apartments and join in a discussion about themes arising from the tour. Share your experiences, thoughts and family histories with your educator and fellow visitors.
  • Under One Roof - In the decades after World War II, the Lower East Side became one of New York’s most diverse neighborhoods. Visit the homes of Bella Epstein, whose parents survived the Holocaust, Jose and Andy Velez, whose mother left Puerto Rico for garment work, and the Wong siblings, whose stories of their mother and other garment workers are highlighted in an interactive, recreated Chinatown garment shop.

Tenement 4th Floor

  • Irish Outsiders - Meet the Moores, an immigrant family struggling with prejudice while celebrating their Irish identity in 1869 New York. Visit their restored home as they prepare for the City's renowned St. Patrick's Day parade. Through their experience, you will discover how immigrants from different backgrounds forge their own American identities.
  • Exploring 97 Orchard -  Go behind the scenes at the Tenement Museum and explore the layers of history in the tenement’s physical fabric. Learn how legislation and fashion spurred landlords and tenants to leave their mark on the building, and how paint experts, wallpaper conservators and urban archeologists "read" these layers to uncover 97 Orchard's stories.

Tenement Unique Experiences

  • Tastings at the Tenement:- Taste a variety of foods from the neighborhood while exploring the influence of immigrant culture on what all Americans eat. Your group starts with a visit to 97 Orchard Street and continues with a sit-down tasting meal in our private dining room overlooking Delancey Street. As the group tastes the flavors of the Lower East Side past and present, they share stories about their most memorable culinary experiences and watch interviews of local store owners who sold us the foods we'll be eating. This tour is air conditioned. Thursday evenings at 6:30
  • A Day in the Life: Rogarshevsky Family:  Explore the story of the Rogarshevsky family, featured on our Sweatshop Workers tour. Visit the family’s home inside our historic tenement building at 97 Orchard Street in 1911, then continue the journey outside and see the neighborhood through the eyes of the Rogarshevskys. This tour is available on Thursday evenings in July.

Tenement 4They all sounded interesting, but we decided to do the Hard Times tour. This tour shared how the immigrants survived economic depressions while living at the Tenement building between 1863 and 1935. We visited the restored homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, whose patriarch disappeared during the panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Tenement 5Sadly we weren't allowed to take any pictures inside, but before we toured the Tenement building, we watched a short film. We learned a little about their continued projects as they continue to forge emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present.  I will leave with some visitor information, but please check out the website if you would like more information about their tours and times.

Visitor Information

Ticket Prices

Adults: $25
Students: $20
Seniors (65+): $20

Visitor Center and Museum Shop Hours

10:00 am - 6:30 pm Fri - Wed
10 am - 8:30 pm Thurs
103 Orchard Street New  York, NY

Join Samantha Tuesday nights at 8 pm Eastern on Zoom for "Let's Talk Travel"


Images (6)
  • Tenement 6
  • Tenement 5
  • Tenement 4
  • Tenement 3
  • Tenement 2
  • Tenement 1

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Thank you for this! When I was a high school history teacher in the early 90s, I used to take small groups of students there;  the staff were very welcoming, and helped students work out for themselves what the different ways of life and work had been, and how it connected to their working-class lives today.

I remember, on one of those visits, a docent pointing to the upper floors of a building down the block, where a garment sweatshop operated with recent Chinese immigrants; one of the students told her "my sister works in a place like that in Brooklyn."

I feel another connection at both ends of the story; in the 1890s, my grandparents arrived in the neighborhood  from eastern  Europe; in the 1970s and 80s, when my kids were young, we used to shop the discount clothing stores on Orchard Street.

By the way, the Museum has had serious financial difficulties recently; if you can, donations are appreciated!

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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