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Lower East Side Tenement Museum

If you're in New York City, have an afternoon to spare, and have a penchant for history you should put the East Side Tenement Museum and neighborhood walking tour high on your list.

We went on Dec. 26, 2010 (they are open the day after Christmas) which happened to be one of the heaviest snowfalls in NYC and surrounding area in many, many years. It actually counted as a blizzard (by Minnesota standards) by early evening.

For our part, the snowfall was light and the temps in the 20s when we embarked on the 90 minute guided walking tour at lunch time. Our guide was an enthusiastic woman in her middle 20s, bearing the cold slush in rubber galoshes ("wellies") rather than winter boots and bundled into a coat and scarf. She enjoyed giving the tour, did a great job, and was very good at answering questions. We did not enter any buildings during this part of the experience, but stopped outside several as she told us about their origin and significance between the 1880s - 19-teens. We would have heard a lot more about the Socialist movement speakers that would gather in Straus Square if she hadn't been so cold. The Ridley & Sons building and the Allen St. elevated train (torn down) were interesting a new for me. Thinking of turning to a life of prostitution in 1900? A woman working in a factory could earn $30 a month...being a street-walker under the Allen St. train a woman earned $25-30 a week.

The museum itself has a small storefront, book store, and theater at 108 Orchard Street. The theater area plays a narrated looped tape that shows and documents pertaining to the immigrant residents of the lower east side. The book store, if you like common-man history and photo-history books is a treasure trove. The "movie" was interesting, but not the best done that I've seen as far as the narration, sub-titles, and imagery staying in sync...they had a tendency to keep the narration about 1 person or family but change the photos to other people. It was an informative thing to watch none-the-less. I confess to having a small moment of feeling affronted by the closing words of the tape, where a board member for the LETM is praising the institution as "the only place in America where you can learn what happened after an immigrant go off the boat [and through customs/immigration]." That's a healthy dose of NYC egotism and myopia. Having worked for nearly a decade in a large and well regarded historical society (far from NYC) and been hands on with excellent collections of primary materials from immigrant and 2nd generation Americans, I found it rather annoying and stupid that they could make such a claim.

The tenement building itself is at 68 Orchard Street and is 1 complete tenement building. It was built in 1863 and boarded up in 1935...it stood empty until 1989 when the building was make a historic landmark and the LESTM group began fundraising to pay for stabilization of the building and creation of the museum. They have semi-restored several apartments to different decades and you can take a guided tour. Many tours talk about specific former tenants. The apartments were each 3 rooms: front room "living room", bedroom, and kitchen totaling 325 sq ft. Until the late teens, the building did not have running water or in-door toilets. You'd have had to go down to the well or privy behind the building. These were often shared by the building behind and sometimes with businesses. When toilets were added, it was 1 toilet per floor...1 for 4 apartments. The running water was added directly to the kitchen of each apartment.

The tour guide told us that an average family size for these apartment was 5 (in 325 sq ft !!!!) and the largest *documented* number of people living in 1 apartment was 14. We toured an apartment that belonged to a garment industry worker in the era that saw a boom in ready-made clothing but pre-dated a lot of the single-site factories for assembly. The workers would have the sewing machine in the apartment and would get the necessary pieces from the "jobber" (middle man that coordinated all the assembly steps) and worked right in the home. So, in that instance, not only was the apartment tiny, a significant portion of the space was dedicated to a pedal sewing machine, a dress form, and bundles of pieces.