The Tenement Museum: A Journey Back in Time

By Kait Kennedy, Steelcase 

Have you ever thought about time travel? Wanted to see what life was like in New York during prohibition, the Gilded Age, or the Great Depression?  The Tenement Museum makes the journey back in time possible and is only a subway ride away to the Lower East Side.

Many people think of tenements as the less-than-desirable living quarters that working-class families lived in during the Industrial Revolution, often evoking images of squalid and crowded living conditions with poor ventilation and sanitation. In actuality, a tenement is simply an apartment. The term “tenement” went out of style when the French term “apartment” came into fashion. The Tenement Museum, located on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, shares a glimpse of how people of the past lived in this incredible city. Its occupancy reflects the changing patterns of immigration and commerce in New York City.

The Tenement Museum is comprised of two buildings on Orchard Street that showcase the dwelling of its inhabitants as they were when they were occupied by them. 97 Orchard Street was the first building purchased by the museum. Built in 1863, this structure operated as a tenement building until 1935, when the occupants were evicted due to changes in building codes—all residential properties were required to have fireproof stairs, a costly upgrade. Rather than incur the cost of installing stone and wrought iron stairs, the building owners found it to be more economical to shutter the dwelling portions of the building and use them as storage for the businesses located in the basement and 1st floors. The building had been untouched for about 50 years when the Tenement Museum bought it and now showcases original details as well as the modifications it underwent during its time as a residential establishment, which from an architectural and historical standpoint are fascinating. The original mahogany banister still guides visitors up the stairs, serving as a true touch point to the history of 97 Orchard Street. It’s one of the only pieces that visitors are encouraged to touch since the oils from our hands help preserve the wood. But it is the stories and experiences of the residents and their historically-accurate apartments that make a visit to the museum such a unique experience.

103 Orchard Street is the second building owned and inhabited by the Tenement Museum. It was built as a tenement apartment building in 1888 and was home to many families until 2011. Both 97 and 103 Orchard Street have witnessed the evolution of the Lower East Side, a community characterized by the waves of immigrants that have made the area their home and left their mark on the neighborhood. The cultural evolution of this neighborhood of immigrants is an incredible example of the melting pot that is America.

The Tenants of the Tenements

When both buildings were built, the Lower East Side was known as Little Germany and was one of the first immigrant neighborhoods in the United States. 97 Orchard housed a German Saloon on the ground floor.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was largely populated by Eastern European Jews and Italian immigrants. At this time, a Kosher butcher was 97 Orchard’s commercial tenant, while the tenements were home to many families. As these families established themselves, they strived to escape the cramped tenement-style apartments and moved to the outer boroughs.

During the 1920s the racist and discriminatory Johnson-Reed Act was passed by Congress, which made immigration difficult from Southern or Eastern Europe and banned it from Asia. This was the first time in American history that immigration declined, as did the population of the Lower East Side.

The Lower East Side became home and refuge during and after WWII to Holocaust survivors, like the Epstein family that lived in 103 Orchard. They were one of the lucky families that were able to get refugee status under an order by President Truman in 1945. The directive circumvented the Johnson-Reed Act, allowing a fraction of the homeless Europeans that were displaced by the war to legally enter the US.  Regina Epstein, a concentration camp survivor, and Kalman Epstein escaped war-torn Europe and arrived in New York Harbor on April 22, 1947. They were among some of the first Holocaust refugees allowed to enter the US. Within a year of making 103 Orchard Street their home, the Epsteins welcomed their first child, Bella. The Epstein daughters attended a Jewish school in the neighborhood. Kalman was able to find work nearby in his uncle’s dress shop and eventually became the owner of the business before the family moved out of the building.

Between the 1940s and the 1960s, there was a large migration of close to half a million Puerto Ricans coming to New York due to mass unemployment caused by rapid industrialization. A majority settled in East Harlem, Northern Brooklyn, and the Bronx, but there was a segment that moved to the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side became known as Loisaida.

In October 1965, the Hart-Celler Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. This act did away with the quota system of immigration, removed the restrictions on immigration from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and opened the doors to Asian immigrants for the first time in 83 years. The Hart-Celler Act directly led to the influx of Chinese immigrants to New York and to the next cultural shift to the area of the Tenement Museum—Chinatown.

The Garment Influence

The garment industry has been pivotal in shaping the Lower East Side and employing many of the residents in the district’s tenements. When touring these structures you are able to see the evolution of this industry as techniques and technology changed. The Levine family ran a garment factory out of their tenement at 97 Orchard in 1902. The front room of their apartment is filled with pieces of hot pink dresses in various stages of completion. A pedal-powered sewing machine sits on a table to aid in the construction in addition to the hand stitching that can be seen on these items. The techniques used to make these dresses would be considered couture today but were the typical construction method of the time. This was the birth of ready-to-wear fashion with middle and upper-middle-class women now able to order dresses like the ones manufactured by the Levines through mail-order catalogs. Workers, however, were paid per piece and were not at the economic level to afford such luxuries. As the 20th century progressed, the garment industry moved from apartment work into factories in the area. This industry was heavily unionized, meaning that wages were high and benefits were desirable. The garment industry employed many of the skilled immigrants that lived in the Lower East Side, and several of the residents of 97 and 103 Orchard Street worked as union garment workers. Ramonita Rivera Saez moved to 103 Orchard with her sons during the Puerto Rican migration of the 1960s. She was able to easily find a job working in a garment factory. Ramonita took pride in the work that afforded her and her family their life in New York. She and her family have held on to her Union Card, a relic from her days as a garment worker.

Although many garment companies began moving out of New York in the 1960s, many Chinese entrepreneurs moved into the area to set up garment shops with a focus on fast fashion. These quick garment factories boomed through the 1980s and 1990s. The Wong family moved to 103 Orchard Street in 1965 from China. Mrs. Wong was a union garment worker, who was able to create a life for herself and her family, sending all four of her children to college. She lived in the building until its closure in 2011 and still lives in Chinatown to this day. The museum showcases not only Mrs. Wong’s apartment but also has set up an additional room as a garment factory like the one in which she worked.

The garment industry was a booming industry on the Lower East Side until globalization took hold, making it hard to compete with resources overseas. The final straw for this industry in the neighborhood was surprisingly 9/11. After this tragic event, access to the neighborhood was restricted, leading to a 60% reduction in production. Today, there are fewer than 10 garment factories left in the area.

There is so much to see, experience, and learn by visiting the Tenement Museum. It helps us better understand those before us—their plight, their opportunity, and their impact on how we live our lives today. It immerses you in the lives of its former occupants and tells the tales of their experience living in these historical buildings, giving us all a greater understanding of the multicultural history of this vibrant neighborhood.