A visit to the past – New York’s Tenement Museum

Social history fascinates me – from looking at the names of the men on the local honour rolls when I was a kid and wondering what happened to them, to stopping and trying imagine what it was like to live in Walwa at the start of World War II. It was this interest that had me visiting the New York Tenement Museum when I was in NYC two years ago.

According to their website

We tell the stories of 97 Orchard Street. Built on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1863, this tenement apartment building was home to nearly 7000 working class immigrants.They faced challenges we understand today: making a new life, working for a better future, starting a family with limited means.

In recognizing the importance of this seemingly ordinary building, the Tenement Museum has re-imagined the role that museums can play in our lives.

Going there is literally stepping back in time – the tour I was fortunate to do with my fantastic guide from Big Apple Greeters, Fred, (more on them later) saw us being shown apartments of two families who lived in the building in the 1880s and then later in the Great Depression.

Through great research, including talking to one of the children who grew up in Great Depression as part of one of the featured families, the Museum has put together a vivid and extremely moving story of New York. It is surreal walking into these apartments and seeing what they’d have been like – from the small size of the apartments, to the type of cooking implements and what families did for entertainment. In fact, it was like asking yourself into someone’s house and sticky-beaking at their stuff – 100 years later. Surreal doesn’t come close, but of note was how the small group in the tour spoke in hushed tones, knowing we were fortunate to be there.

We were.

It was a journey to a world most of us would have never experienced; according to their website, indoor toilets were added to the building in 1901, electric lights until 1924.

The Museum’s blog notes

97 Orchard Street was home to an estimated 7,000 people from over 20 nations from 1863 to 1935

One building, in one street, in one (albeit, rapidly growing) city, in one of the fifty-plus states of America. 7,000 people with their dreams, hopes, fears went lived in that one building. Between 1863 to 1935 America went through some incredible, massive changes – the Civil War, expansion to the West, the industrial revolution, World War I and the Great Depression. 813,000 people lived in New York City in 1860 – by 1935 there were 6.9 million – a figure that is staggering.

Among the glitz of Times Square, the thrill of walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge, the sadness of visiting the 9/11 site, and the delight of devouring oysters at Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar, it was this visit with Fred that really left me with the most poignant memory of my week in New York. Among the bustle and brisk walking pace that New Yorkers have perfected, the ever-constant refrain of buses, car horns tooting and police car sirens, it was this place that summed up my visit to the Empire City – perhaps appropriately before I headed to the Civil War battlefields a few days later.

People come and go – and in this one building, so impressively presented and carefully and gently explained – you get a very personal understanding of ‘what’ New York is.

At the end of tour we walked outside into the cold, rapidly-darkening January night. At the end of the street I looked and saw the Empire State Building in the distance. Time had not stood still, but those hours we spent at the Museum were a highlight of my visit to New York City.

Go there.

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