Glimpse lives of immigrants at NYC’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum
By POLINA OLSEN
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The sewing machine clicked and clacked in Harris and Jennie Levine’s front parlor. Like thousands of early Eastern European Jewish immigrants, they’d arrived in New York, settled on the Lower East Side, and set up shop.
But unlike many whose stories were lost during the Americanization process, the Levine’s immigrant experience remains perfectly preserved. From the candlesticks on the kitchen shelf to the hanging laundry in the parlor, their recreated home shows our ancestor’s lives in a way no book can describe.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum was created from an 1863 five-story apartment at 97 Orchard St. in New York City. The museum contacted and recorded the stories of more than 1,000 former residents and meticulously developed a snapshot from six families lives.
Only blocks from Katz’s famous Jewish Delicatessen, the area looks like early 1900s photos minus the throngs of pushcarts, men in bowler hats and long-skirted women. The timeworn pressed metal ceiling, tile floors and oval wall paintings of rustic scenes decorate the narrow dimly lit corridor. Steep wooden stairs lead to four apartments per floor.
Here, families created a home despite hot and cramped conditions. Handmade crocheted lace lined every shelf; pictures of family hung on the walls. The one toilet on each floor was built into a hallway closet that overlooked the central airshaft, and surely was an improvement from the building’s original backyard privies.
Each apartment was essentially one long narrow room stretching from double-hung windows overlooking the street back to the central airshaft shared with the floor’s toilet closet. With a total of 325 square feet, the space was partitioned into a parlor by the windows, which was the only source of light, a central kitchen, and a back bedroom with a window to the airshaft. Health codes mandated cross-ventilation, which at first upset the landlords. They accommodated by cutting what became known as tuberculosis windows out of the walls that divided the parlor and bedroom from the kitchen. The black coal-burning stove in the kitchen provided heat after parlor fireplaces were sealed early on.
Visitors to the Tenement Museum choose among four guided tours of 97 Orchard St. and a neighborhood walk. “Getting By” visits the German-Jewish Gumpertz family and the Baldizzi home, which includes a recorded interview with a daughter. Like many who grew up in our own Old South Portland, Josephine Baldizzi didn’t seem to know she was poor and fondly remembered the chaotic street life and close community. The Confino Family tour looks in on Sephardic Jews. Visitors enjoy music on the wind-up Victrola and, unlike other apartments, can touch household objects.
The Levine family’s sweatshop employed a presser, baster and finisher. Harris Levine worked the sewing machine himself. They worked 10 hours per day, six days per week ignoring this legal limit when things got busy. Meanwhile Jenny Levine took care of her children, gave birth in the bedroom, and cooked around the presser’s irons on the kitchen stove. Like so many Jewish immigrants, the family eventually left the tenement, taking the “Jewish Highway,” or Williamsburg Bridge, to a new life in Brooklyn.
For more information on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, visit www.tenement.org. The Web site includes a virtual tour of the apartments, a shop with recommended books and tickets to the museum. If you plan to visit New York City, be sure to buy tickets to the museum ahead of time. You must visit the tenements on a guided tour and places fill quickly.