There were some rude shocks for landlords in New York’s 1901 legislation. Fire escapes were to be made of metal, not wood. Each room had to have a window. A minimum of one toilet per two families was to be provided.
After unsuccessfully fighting the new laws in the courts, many slum landlords chucked it in the too hard basket, evicted their tenants, boarded up their tenements and invested their money elsewhere.
In 1988 Ruth Abrams and Anita Jacobson found 97 Orchard St in original condition, and set about turning it into a museum. Anyone with the slightest interest in America’s immigrant history should be very grateful to them.
The Tenement Museum is open to the public daily, but can only be seen on one of the museum’s guided tours. Mevrouw T and I joined the Irish Outsiders tour.
Our trip began with an excellent short film, showing how immigrants arriving on Manhattan after processing on Ellis Island settled in the first place they came to – the Lower East Side. By the 1860s, thousands of new arrivals each week packed into the area, living among the piled garbage and sewage, and competing for the right to live in the squalid tenements.
Educator Ruth led our small group up the five flights of stairs to the tiny, dark apartment where bartender Joseph Moore and his wife Bridget lived with their three daughters. We learned of the discrimination against the Irish, who despite representing 25% of the New York population, were depicted as sub-human monkeys in newspaper cartoons, and refused jobs and lodgings. ‘No Irish need apply.’
We listened to Irish songs bemoaning their conditions and saw their living room decked out for the wake for their youngest daughter, probably dead from drinking the cheap ‘swill milk’ sold as a poisonous alternative to breast milk.
This is not a large museum where visitors can stroll at their ease, taking their time to examine artifacts. Photography is not allowed. Due to the necessarily cramped rooms and the fragile condition of the building, we are dependent on our guides to tell us the story. Ruth did so with humour and clarity, and it was a moving experience.
Once outside, we explored Lower East Side, which is now becoming quite desirable. Tiny one bedroom apartments rent for $1500-2000 a month. We presume they have toilets and windows.
Tenement Museum tours cost US$22 for adults. Discounts for seniors and juniors.