We visit the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side of New York to learn more about the immigrant stories that have shaped the East Village and Alphabet City neighbourhoods where we’re spending our time.
The multicultural make-up of the East Village and Alphabet City, our ‘home’ for two weeks on New York’s Lower East Side, is what makes these neighbourhoods so fascinating for us, so we decided to head to the Tenement Museum to better understand their history.
As we explore our ‘hood, the main language we hear on the streets and in the grocery stores is Spanish. A large percentage of the local population is from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Ecuador, and every restaurant kitchen seems to be staffed by Mexicans, who chat on the pavements outside the eateries as they smoke cigarettes on their breaks.
Historically, the whole area was known as the Lower East Side, or ‘Loisaida’ as the Latinos called it (a name now mainly referring to Alphabet City and specifically Avenue C), although these days the East Village (a name adopted in the counter-cultural days of the 1960s), is separated from the present-day Lower East Side by East Houston Street.
We’re spending a lot of time in both areas, and in neighbouring Nolita and Chinatown, where we hear an array of Asian languages on the streets.
After the languages, the next most notable aspect of the districts is the architecture, specifically, the tenement building.
Punctuated as they now may be by postmodern glass condominiums and the towering low-income housing projects, the narrow nondescript brick buildings, identifiable by their rickety fire escapes, once dominated the streetscapes here.
We wanted to learn more about both so we signed up for the ‘Getting By’ tour of the Tenement Museum.
Built in 1864, the Tenement Museum is located in one of the first tenements built in New York and the only way to experience it is on one of their excellent tours.
Our tour begins in the dimly lit stairwell where our guide turns off the lights – it’s pitch black! – to show us how dark it would have been before electricity was introduced. And how cramped – some 22 families lived on the five floors.
Our guide points out that everything in the tenement building is the way it was in the late 1800s, from the original imitation leather wallpaper and tin ceilings, to the furnishings and personal mementoes gathered from former residents whose stories are brought to life in each apartment.
Before we head upstairs to visit two apartments on the first floor, our guide gives us some background. At the time, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated areas on earth – 1.8 million people lived below Fourteenth Street to Chambers Street between the Bowery and the East River.
Until the 1830s, the area was populated by American-born workers of Dutch and English descent, along with Irish immigrants and African Americans who made up around 20 percent of the population. Wooden, two- and three-story single-family homes, small factories, and shops lined the dirt roads, until cobblestone paving was laid in the 1850s-60s.
The most notorious section of what would become one of America’s most infamous immigrant neighourhoods was the depressing ‘Five Points’, built on swampland.
With the lowest rents on the island, the Lower East Side was an obvious home for new immigrants who came by the millions during the 19th century. First, Irish and German immigration soared, the latter creating a ‘Little Germany’ by 1870, then Southern Italians began to arrive, forming their own ‘Little Italy’ after 12,000 arrived in 1880 (growing to 400,000 in 1920). A Chinese community developed in response to anti-Chinese sentiment on the US West Coast, growing to 40,000 by 1940.
Eastern European Jews came in 1880. An estimated 135,000 living here by 1890, increasing to 322,000 by 1915, when they’d comprise 60 percent of the population. They were the last major group to arrive before the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act set quotas favouring immigrants from northern and Western Europe. It wasn’t until 1965, when immigration was liberalized that immigrants began arriving again, this time from the Caribbean and East Asia.
As the ethnic make-up of the area changed, our guide tells us, so did the landscape. In the 1850s and 1860s, the wooden houses were knocked down to make way for five-and six-story tenements, built to accommodate the poverty-stricken immigrants, who crowded into the dark, dank buildings.
Garment and furniture factories were built to take advantage of the cheap labour and a chaotic shopping and entertainment district developed. In 1880, elevated railways were built over Allen Street up to First Avenue and on the Bowery, adding to the bedlam.
In the basement of the building, like many, our guide explains, was a ‘saloon’, and the tenants shared their putrid backyard toilets with its patrons. This included residents such as Nathalie Gumpert, whose apartment we visit.
A single mother after her husband didn’t return from work one day, Nathalie brought up three children on her own (all slept in the one bed), while eking out a living as a seamstress. Many women in similar positions resorted to prostitution. She had to go downstairs to haul up coal and water for cooking, which she did in her tiny apartment, and she did washing downstairs in the backyard.
Living conditions remained bleak until a photographer, Jacob Riis, took photos of the buildings, resulting in the 1901 Tenement House Act and some reforms, including the introduction of internal shafts, windows between rooms to provide ventilation and light (there was still no electricity by this time of course), and gas and water into the apartments. Conditions still remained fairly miserable due to overcrowding – one block nearby was found to be housing 2,200 residents in 1903.
Following construction of the Williamsburg Bridge that year and the subway in 1904, immigrants, especially Jews, streamed across to Brooklyn. Deemed unfit for inhabitation many of the tenements were demolished in the 1920s and 1930s to clear the slums and widen streets such as Delancey to build schools and parks.
Although the population declined, it still remained the island’s most densely populated neighbourhood, its chaotic streets crowded with peddlars and pushcarts – in the early 1900s, there were some 25,000 pushcarts operators!
Interestingly, despite the changes in the neighbourhood, some aspects of Lower East Side life that our guide described still exist. Many tenements still house the same number of people (although now they have bathrooms in their apartments), sweatshops still exist, Asian food stalls dot Grand and Essex Streets in Chinatown, and pushcarts still dot our ‘hood, selling everything from halal food to shaved ice.
The tenement building we visit was condemned in 1935, and remained empty until 1988 when the Museum took over.
Tenement Museum Ticket Office
108 Orchard Street
Lower East Side
T 212 982 8420