What I love about preservation is that it allows me to take a step back into all walks of life. Just as I can visit Newport Rhode Island to follow in the Vanderbilt’s footsteps, I can also come back to NYC and visit a historic tenement and see how my ancestors lived when they first came to this country.
The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of NYC is a great organization that has restored an entire building and has many different types of guided tours for whatever experience you are looking for.
When I went this past fall, I went on the “Getting By” tour. I climbed two stories into this building on Orchard Street and learned of the two very different families that lived on that floor in two very different time periods. It is so hard to comprehend a family with several children living out of a three room apartment with the dim lighting, coal burning for fuel, lack of space, and the stress of going through the Great Depression. It is also hard to imagine that neighborhood as it appears in the many photographs on exhibit in the Museum’s gift shop. That so many people filled the streets and lived on that block is amazing and hard to picture now since that area was so quiet that particular Sunday morning I visited. This tour brought to light the many ethnicities that went through that area year after year and how they each made their mark and found sense of community that aided in their survival.
I was in awe of the spirituality of this place. You can feel the history in the halls. You can sense the laughter of the children that once played here. You can imagine the heartbreak and hard times endured by those trying to build a better life for their family. The fact that we can go here and pay homage to the past and acknowledge the crucial link immigrants will always have to America is something I appreciate. Learning how other generations “got by” makes you wonder if you would have had what it takes to make it under those circumstances. It also makes you appreciate what we take for granted and how lucky we are for the kinds of problems we complain about in today’s society.
I love that there are new tours sprouting up every day and changes are constantly being made at this museum. You can go back again and again and never have to worry about repeating a tour. You can tour the buildings or just the neighborhood. I highly recommended this for anyone visiting NYC or anyone who lives in NYC and like me, is a tourist at heart.
For the Tenement Museum: