Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Tenement Museum

Jon and I continue to "Staycation" - or rather explore our surroundings in the remarkable city we live in full of wonderful new learning experiences! A couple of weeks ago we visited a museum that we've tried to visit 3 times since we've moved here - The Tenement Museum.

I'm sure you're asking yourself "What do you mean tried to visit mulitple times?" The first time we went we could not find it, literally. The 2nd time we tried to go during the weekend of my grandmother's 75th bday extravaganza but the family lost steam and interest and The Tenement Museum was swapped for shopping and the South Street Seaport.

Thus, on this our 3rd time we were determined to find it and enjoy our experience. We got to the street it is on and once again could not find it. We hopped into a visitor's center for the Lower East Side and they kindly gave us the correct address (our guidebook had it wrong!) We walked back up the street to 108 Orchard Street and found the visitor's center for the Museum. It was jammin' - tons of people deciding which tour to go on.

There are 5 tours in all: Getting By, Piecing It Together, The Moores: An Irish Family in America, Confino Family Living History Program, and the Lower East Side Walking Tour. After researching the different tours and the times we decided that for our first visit to The Tenement Museum we were going to do the Getting By: Immigrants Weathering Hard Times. The description reads as follows:

Discover how immigrants survived economic depressions at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. Visit the restored homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, whose patriarch disappeared during the Panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression.

We felt that given the economic times in NYC currently this tour would be very interesting. After purchasing our tickets we watched the 2 short films they show in the visitor center. The first film is about The Tenement Museum, the history of the museum, the programs the museum offers, etc. The second film is part of a documentary from the hisorty channel about the history of life in the tennements on the Lower East Side. Both were very interesting and an enjoyable way to pass the time as we waited for our tour.

The Tenement Museum is best saved for a nice weather day. Part of the tour is outside and even the part that is inside is in a very very old building that doesn't have the luxury of central heat. We started out our tour on Orchard Street where our guide (wish I remembered his name because he was great!) gave us a general overview of life in the tenements on the Lower East Side and tried to paint the picture of what it might be like to be an immigrant new to this country back in the 19th Century.

Then we walked over to 97 Orchard Street just across the street where we were able to enter this building built in 1863. It was like stepping back in time. The hallways were narrow and dark and we spent some time initially in the front stairwell talking about what life would be like in the common spaces shared by the 110 occupants in the building. When the building was originally built there were outside privy's (no indoor plumbing in the building then!)

After our discussion in the stairwell we walked up one flight of stairs and entered the Gumpertz Apartment. What's so fascinating about The Tenement Museum is that the stories of the families that they share with you are true. They've actually found living family members who know the outcomes of what happened to these people and they research any documents they can find in any kind of public records. This makes the experience so much more interesting because you stand their imagining a real family in this tiny 300+ square foot apartment and what it must have been like for them.

Once we heard the story of the Gumpertz Family we moved down the hall to another re-furbished apartment of the Baldizzi family. Here we even got to hear a tape of an interview with the daughter of the family that actually lived in the apartment. The tour was informative, and everyone on our tour was full of questions and were great participators making the whole experience interactive and engaging.

Jon and I had such a great day visiting The Tenement Museum and we cannot wait to come back and take the other 4 tours that are available. It's definitely worth the visit - it's a very different museum experience in NYC. As we left we stopped at Gus' pickles where they have barrels of pickles out on the sidewalk like the old times - we got two sour dill pickles for $1. Rare that you can get anything for $1 nowadays - they were delicious!

After our tour we sauntered over to McSorley's Old Ale House for an afternoon pint sticking with our theme of "transporting" ourselves back in time. You certainly feel transported as you walk into McSorley's filled with people lining up at the bar and sharing old round wooden tables, sawdust on the floor and waiters carrying upwards of 10 half pints in each hand! It was a fun way to relax and take some time to talk about our experience at the museum and what it must have been like to live in the tenements back in the days and for that matter what it's like to live in the tenements in the Lower East Side today.

All in all it was another great day exploring NYC!

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