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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Virtual Tour: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Museum entrance
Photo Credit: Me
There are a lot of museums in New York, like more than I would ever be able to count, but I’m pretty sure that you can find a museum here for whatever you are into. One of the places that has been on my list for a couple years now is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This is one of those boutique style museums – small in size, but big in heart and focused on a very narrow topic. At this museum they represent the immigrant life experiences living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and particularly the goings on at 97 Orchard St where their building is located. They interpret and present the lives of real families and businesses that resided in that building over the course of several decades and bring the different experiences to life. As a museum they have been recognized by or are affiliated with The National Trust for Historic Preservation, The American Alliance of Museums, and The National Park Service. My husband and I had the time in our schedule to visit this museum last month and I wanted to share a little bit about our visit as well as a virtual tour of sorts of the museum.

Unlike many museums where you can just wander through on a self-guided tour, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is entirely fully guided. You must sign up for one of their many tours to go beyond the museum shop. I HIGHLY recommend that you book your tickets in advance online because they do have a set number of spots for each tour and appear to sell out many of their tours. You can buy tickets at the museum if you go on a whim, just know some tours might be already sold out. Speaking of the tours, the hardest part is choosing which one (or ones) you want to go on. They have several tours that feature the inside of 97 Orchard Street (divided up by floors) and a few walking tours of the neighborhood as well. Each tour offers a different type of immigrant experience and I wish I had more time to see more than one. Here are some of the tour offerings they currently have:
  • Shop Life – tours the lower level of the building which features a German run saloon and highlights other immigrant run businesses at the turn of the century
  • Hard Times – tours the 2nd floor of the building and focuses on surviving the depressions. The families featured on this tour are the Gumpertz family (a German-Jewish family) and the Baldizzi family (Italian-Catholic).
  • Sweatshop Workers – tours the 3rd floor and focuses on the garment industry and the Levine and Rogarshevsky families. This is the tour we took, so more on that in a minute.
  • Irish Outsiders – tours the 4th floor of the building and highlights the Irish immigrant experience in the city and the Moore family.

Most of the tours are $25 for adults with special tour pricing for some special tours and events. I would really love to do one of their Foods of the Lower East Side walking tours the next time I go and taste some of these wonderful foods while also getting my history in. They also have special costumed events and even evening special events, so if you live in the city, definitely check them out!

The Original Staircase
Photo Credit: LESTM Instagram

As I mentioned above, we went on the Sweatshop Workers tour. We were among the first tours of the day so we had the benefit of it being a little less crowded and cooler. I recommend starting your day off at the small theater in the museum before your tour starts to get in the right state of mind before embarking. If gives a little overview of the museum and life in New York at the time being featured. As you might just be going on one tour which highlights a specific experience, this will give you a well-rounded intro. Most likely you will make your entrance into the building from the modern outdoor staircase – but we were given the opportunity to climb one flight of the original old staircase, which was pretty cool. We were also able to walk through what they call their “ruin room” – which is one room that they left in the state it was found when they walked in it for the first time in 1988. And let me tell you, it gave me the heebie jeebies!
The "Ruin Room" - Isn't it creepy?
Photo Credit: LESTM Instagram
For our tour, we first visited the Levine family who ran a small garment shop out of their home in the late 1800s. Mind you, I think they said the apartments were 500 square feet, 3 rooms total, and your family is living there and there are probably another 10 people who come in during the day that are working in this apartment too doing piecework. It is stifling hot in the summer and low light. It would have been cramped!  And this was before the "modern" updates to the apartments were required! 
The Levine apartment with costumed interpreters at work on the clothing.
Photo Credit: LESTM Instagram
After learning about this family’s life, we went across the hall to the Rogarshevsky home – this would have been after 1911 when the safety standards changed apartment life and many of the sweatshops had moved uptown. It is a little cleaner and roomier as the family members went to work elsewhere. Our tour guide was excellent – he had great knowledge and was able to answer all the questions we asked. This tour was just over an hour and I love that so much of the information and many of the artifacts have come from actual descendants of the families that lived in these homes.
The Rogarshevsky home - a little more spacious!
Photo Credit: LESTM Instagram
We finished our tour with some time at the museum shop. It was a little crowded here as the check-out line and the ticket line are virtually one and the same and the tours originate at the shop. But, there are some great books and items for sale here all about the immigrant experience. Can’t make it to the museum? Shop the store online!

A couple things to keep in mind if you are interested in attending this museum:
  1. There are a lot of stairs – you are going to walk up or down stairs no matter which tour you choose. The only one that is wheelchair/handicapped accessible is the Shop Life tour as there is an elevator outside down to the lower level. Here is further info about their museum accessibility.
  2. No air conditioning – they have fans in some of the rooms, windows are open, and they do pass out paper fans, but it was still very warm and the air felt close when we went in June.
  3. Each tour is an additional charge, so it can add if quickly if you want to see everything or if you are bringing a family, however there is a discount for additional tours on the same day.
  4. Most tours are recommended for ages 8+ and no children under 6 are admitted except on one family friendly costumed tour, Meet Victoria Confino.
  5. No photography allowed inside the building – all the interior images seen in this post come from the Instagram account for the museum – follow them for some great shots!
  6. Don’t bring large backpacks, bags, etc. if you can help it, they will require you to place them in lockers – they are free, but you will need a quarter to release the key to reserve the locker.
Overall, we had a great time at the museum and I would go back in a heartbeat for some of their other tours or special events. My husband, who is not the history nerd I am, was not looking forward to this part of our trip, but he said, it wasn’t as bad as he expected, which is a GLOWING review from him!  I was also very excited to learn that this museum is still a growing one - they have been working on plans to include immigrant experiences in their local area that occurred after the building ceased to be a tenement house which will include: lives of Jewish Holocaust survivors, migrants from Puerto Rico, and Chinese migrants encapsulated at 103 Orchard Street just doors away.  It shows how this is a living museum that grows and changes with the times to encapsulate all its local history.  You can read more in this press release.

Follow the Tenement Museum on Social Media: Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Other historical stops on my New York Trip: Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge (post to come).


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