Last Christmas I received a gift more precious than gold; it was a piece of family
history, a link to my past. It was the passport my great grandmother used when she
arrived from Italy nearly a century ago.
I was blessed to have known and loved my great grandmother, “Big Grandma”, for
the first 22 years of my life. Her stories fascinated my siblings and me as we learned about a life so
different from the one we were living. It was difficult to imagine the hardships or the living conditions she endured, but we always listened carefully, creating pictures in our minds. “It was this fascination with family history that brought me to a museum in NYC where not only would I hear stories, but I could see first hand what life was like for immigrants in New York City as they began to assimilate into life in America.” This museum is called the Tenement Museum and is located at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. It is a must see for anyone captivated by the stories of their ancestors.
Our visit began with a tour of the neighborhood called “The Foods of the Lower East
Side.” Our guide was knowledgeable and amusing as he helped us to imagine how
families who were new to the country tried to hold onto their culture through the
comfort of food. “He explained that many families cooked meals native to
their countries, substituting local ingredients when traditional ones were
unavailable.” We discovered that many of our favorite foods are actually
Americanized versions of what they once were, based solely on what was available
at the time. We all loved the delicious morsels we were served as we walked down
the street learning the importance of food in the changing society. We ate kosher
pickles from the famous “Pickle Guys”, German pretzels, Italian cheeses and
Chinese dumplings. We sampled “Tostones”, which are fried plantains from a local
Dominican restaurant that provides a taste of home for recent immigrants to the
area. Finally, we concluded our culinary journey with cream puffs filled with a green
tea cream. A nod to the changing neighborhood which is now filled with young
upwardly mobile people who are more inclined to try “interesting foods”; a true
fusion of the generations through food.
Our next tour was entitled “Piecing It Together” and was held on the third floor of the
museum itself. This tenement, built in 1863, was once home to over 7,000 working
class immigrants. Now fully restored, each floor depicts the lives of the actual
occupants of the building at the turn of the century. Our tour focused on two Jewish
families who were in the garment business. Having some knowledge of Big
Grandma’s experiences in garment work I found this all the more fascinating.
What is instantly striking is realizing that the building, which could have
been used to house one family quite comfortably, had been divided into
apartments for twenty-two families! To say it was close quarters is an
understatement! Each apartment was a mere 350 square feet and many families
consisted of up to twelve children. Truly eye opening for my daughter living a
blessed life in suburban Cranford, NJ circa 2013!
Inside the apartment the docent regaled us with stories of how the families who
worked in the garment business might have used their home as both a place to live
and a place of business. We stood crowded in the dimly lit parlor that included a
sewing machine and garments displayed in various stages of completeness. We
admired the wives of the household who would have had to complete all of their
household chores while these garment workers took up space in their small home.
We understood the tensions that everyone would have felt. Though we visited on a
cool day, we were made aware of how a lack of air conditioning in these buildings
would have added to the angst in the room.
This hour long tour seemed to fly by in minutes. It left all of us
craving more. As we descended the stairway we concluded this
was a destination worth returning to and made plans for a trip in the near future. When we
return we look forward to touring one of the other apartments and hearing stories of families
from other cultures and backgrounds. This museum is a must see for anyone who is
interested in what life was like after Ellis Island. I know that it has inspired us to take an even
closer look into the lives of our ancestors!
Lower East Side Tenement Museum