Friday, May 6, 2011

Tenement Museum: Orchard and Delancey Streets

The word "tenement" brings to mind dirty and dark over-crowded spaces, perhaps lacking indoor plumbing, and impoverished immigrants.  The tours at the Tenement Museum in the lower east side do not white-wash the realities from 97 Orchard Street, which was built as a tenement apartment for 20 families in 1863 and operated through 1935.  Rather, they provide a fuller picture of what it must have been like to live there throughout the years.

I took the "Getting By" tour (one of several available--check out the various tour descriptions and times at Tenement Museum) and learned about 2 tenant families living in the house after the crash of 1873 and the after WWII and during the Great Depression. 

It was truly humbling to see an apartment re-created to the early years of the building.  Visiting the restored homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, we heard about the patriarch abandoning the mother and 4 children during the Panic of 1873.  Through public documents, the museum researchers were able to find out that after the father disappeared the youngest child died before reaching his second birthday.  However, the story was ultimately one of triumph.  The mother/homemaker was able to secure a loan, start a sewing business and raise her three other children to maturity.  An interesting addition to the story is that about a year and a half ago, a visitor to the museum who is a historian/genealogist was able to identify that the Gumpertz father had moved to the mid-west and died there in his 70s.

The second apartment on the tour was one that was the home of the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression. What was so special about this part of the tour was that the the museum was able to contact the daughter who grew up in the apartment (recently deceased but who had been living in Brooklyn, NY) and have her record her memories of living in this apartment.  You really can get a sense of what it was like for this family four to live in the 3-room apartment with shared toilets down the hall (at least an improvement from the 4 outhouses that the Gumpertz family used -- see left).  Also quite heartening was the clear expression of the Gumpertz's American pride.  Remember in WWII the US joined the Allied Forces so the Gumpertz family had to decide whether to support America or Italy--they adamantly chose their adopted home, the US.  You can see a faded embroidered pillow of the American flag in the main living room and the prominent picture of FDR in the corner.

After the tour, I was tempted to go on another tour, but time was running short so instead I watched some of the 30 minute informative film made by the History Channel at the visitor center (very unassuming and easy to miss -- see right; they are building a new larger one currently across the street) and then headed home.  What a great afternoon "re-living" history.

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