United States

New York tenement living: Telling the forgotten history of 97 Orchard Street and its residents

With paint peeling off the walls and exposed, tatty floorboards, it is an apartment that seems far from the trendy homes that Manhattan has become famous for in recent years. But given that the Lower East Side has experienced a wave of gentrification in recent years, you could wonder why the owners of 97 Orchard Street haven’t cashed in and sold to developers.

This however is a special New York building in that as the Tenement Museum it helps remember the relatively recent social history of the city that would otherwise be forgotten. But don’t expect to find endless display cases and panels here, the story the institution tells is that of a tenement block and, perhaps more interestingly, the 7,000 or so people from more than 20 countries that lived in the 20 apartments between 1863 and 1935.

When New York was booming as a city in the late 19th and early 20th century, not everyone shared in its riches. Many immigrants, such as the those that lived in the three-roomed tenements (offering a mere 325 square feet of floor area) at 97 Orchard Street, had precarious occupations where work could never be guaranteed and extended families lived in cramped, dingy homes. The tenements originally had no running water or electricity – and the inside toilets were only added later.

While the first apartment I went to in the building was pretty shabby, the museum has worked hard to restore other individual tenements to specific periods in the building’s history. On hour long tours, guides focus on showing visitors a couple of homes in the block and talk about the families that would have lifted there. The rooms have been set out as they would have been when they lived there, but they have done meticulous research on the past residents.

Birth certificates, census material, voter records, immigration applications and court papers are among the resources that are quoted during the course of the tours. Visitors learn of the occupations of the people that lived there, as well as what became of them. I went on the ‘Hard Times’ tour, which visits recreated tenements from the 1870s and 1930s, and in the first visitors hear of the tragic story of a husband who fled from his family because he became so poor. His wife went to her deathbed thinking he had died, but the museum’s research traced his later life to another part of America.

Manufacturing centre

By the early 19th the Lower East Side had become the New York’s manufacturing centre and immigrants, sometimes fleeing persecution back home, were attracted to the area in their droves to seek employment. In 1820 Irish and free blacks each composed a fifth of the local population, but over time other groups arrived such as Chinese and Italians in this overcrowded district of the city.

So many Bavarians moved into the Lower East Side – to work as tailors, shoemakers, upholsters and other trades – that an area became known as Kleinduschland and was equivalent to the fifth largest German city in the world. Between 1880 and 1890 some 60,000 Jews from Eastern Europe settled in the area, while later others came from parts of the former Ottoman Empire.

Homes were desperately needed for the influx of new immigrants and the tenement was born as a way of cheaply housing multiple families in towering blocks. The first of these constructions was built on Water Street in 1833 and others soon followed, often replacing small single simple family homes to make maximum use of the space available.

The Lower East Side became extremely overcrowded, with something like was 250,000 people living per square mile at one point. Most families lived in cramped tenements, liked the one I visited at 97 Orchard Street, which originally had little natural daylight and only a small courtyard outside. In 1900 three apartments here each housed eight people and one was home to nine. And it has been said that in 1903 the square block on which the Tenement Museum sits was most densely populated place on earth.

Tenement construction wasn’t originally subject to any regulation, but in 1867 – four years after 97 Orchard Street was built – the Tenement House Law stipulated that tenements had an outside for privvy for every 20 occupants. And in 1879, a new law was limiting the portion of a plot that of land could be built on and stipulating better ventilation. In 1901 landlords were required to provide one indoor toilet for every two families.

The big change came in 1934 when landlords were required to make expensive improvements to tenement blocks, such as fireproofing public hallways. At 97 Orchard Street, the owner of the building – like many others of similar properties – decided to evict the remaining families, rather than modernise. Restrictions on the number of immigrants permitted to come to America in the 1920s had reduced the demand for accommodation anyway – the population of the Lower East Side halved and thousands of apartments were left vacant anyway.

At 97 Orchard Street, the upper floors remained empty from 1935, while those on the ground floor were used by businesses. The apartments were shut up, used only for storage, and left to be re-discovered all these years later.

One tenement, many stories

Ruth J. Abram, the founder of the Tenement Museum, had a dream to buy a tenement and open it up so the public could understand what it was like to call one of these blocks home. Nearly three quarters of New York’s population lived in this form of accommodation in 1901, so what she and the team have created at 97 Orchard Street therefore represents a much bigger story in the city’s social history.

“Behind every door is a family with a different religion, a different language, each unique,” Abram said. “But in the hallways, stoops, and streets, all those people are together pursuing the American Dream.”

The tenement block at 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863 by a German-born tailor called Lucas Glockner to provide a home for his family as well as receiving additional revenue from renting out to others. In the 1640s the land on which the structure would later have been constructed on had been part of a farm, owned by the West India Company, and it was then passed to James Delancey, who ran an orchard there (hence the later later name), before in 1811 it was divided into smaller plots. The land had several other owners before the Glockner family bought and developed it.

Abram spotted in 1988 that the Orchard Street property was available to rent in and the group she formed managed to purchase it from its owners $750,000 in 1996. Some 1,500 artefacts, including a calendar dating back to the last year it was occupied, were unearthed during the restoration of the tenement block and have been used to tell an aspect of New York’s history that could be easily forgotten.

The first tour offered was what is today known as the ‘Hard Times’ visit, the one I went on, and takes visitors into the Gumpertzes’s apartment as it would have appeared in 1878. Julius Gumpertzes, a shoemaker and later a small-time merchant, and Nathalie Rheinsberg were Prussian immigrants who met in New York. They were hit by the 1873 economic depression, when around a quarter of those living in the city lost their jobs.

One day in 1874 Julius vanished without trace, leaving his wife and four young children behind. Nathalie was forced to get work as a dressmaker, turning the front room of her apartment into her workshop, hence the fabric swatches and Singer sewing machine on display. The museum’s research found that she later went to declare her husband dead, so she could take the inheritance from her father-in-law. But it recent years it turned out he was living and working on the other side of America.

The second apartment I visited on the tour was that of the Baldizzis. Adolpho arrived from Italy in New York in 1923 and his wife Rosaria came to the city a year later. They started a family and in 1928 moved into 97 Orchard Street. But they were hit badly during the Great Depression and Adolpho, who had trained as a cabinetmaker, was forced to walk the streets in search of odd jobs. The family were amongst the last tenants to live the in block and were evicted in 1935.

Walking into the apartment today, with its authentic linoleum floor, visitors have a chance to hear a recording made in the 1990s where the couple’s child Josephine describes what it was like to live there in the 1930s. She talks about her childhood, including how she was scrubbed clean in the kitchen sink and how her mother over-starched clothes with Linit.

The Lower East Side – an area of four square miles – has been given many names over the years, but for many the cramped conditions that its residents faced remained a constant. There has been considerable regeneration in recent years and the district is today home to numerous trendy restaurants, galleries and bars, however its notorious past has not been forgotten thanks to the Tenement Museum.

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