Stepping Back in Time at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Ever visit Ellis Island? Well now Americans can take the lesson forward by seeing how their forebears lived in cramped apartments in a tiny corner of Manhattan.

NEW YORK – We’re crammed into a narrow, dark hallway after climbing a flight of stairs back in time to 1916. It’s the same red-brick tenement house where German, Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants began their lives in America.

In the name of historical reenactment, white slips and tzitzit, Jewish ritual fringe, hang on a clothesline in the cold winter air. My family and I and our fellow visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum have been cast as a Russian Jewish immigrant brood. We’re freshly landed and processed at Ellis Island alongside some 5,000 other immigrants that day.

And now we’re looking for a place to live. Our tour guide, in the guise of one of the period’s settlement-house workers, has brought us here to a second-floor apartment on 97 Orchard Street to ask a tenant if she might know of a spare apartment in the building.

My 6-year-old careens her head for a better look as the guide knocks on the door. “Yes?” answers a teenage girl in accented English. She’s wearing a blue-and-white-striped kerchief and an apron that covers most of the skirt that falls below her knee.

It’s Victoria Confino, a 14-year-old Sephardic girl from Greece who lives in the three -room, 137-square-foot space with her parents and five brothers. Or rather, it’s an actress playing Confino, who once lived in this very apartment.

She outlines her family story and patiently explains the details of her immigrant life: a weekly shower at the communal bathhouse, one toilet for two families, learning English from Charlie Chaplin movies, and sleeping on the floor next to the coal stove wrapped in a goat-hair rug. After all, there are neither beds nor space to spare. Also, Victoria had to drop out of school to help care for the family instead of studying to become a teacher.

“I felt so angry because I don't want to live in a small box. I grew up in a big house. With three floors!” Victoria says of her first reaction to her new home.

The museum aims to cultivate a sense of communal history and tolerance by making immigrant life vivid through the stories of families that once lived on 97 Orchard Street.

Also on display are the restored apartments of a German-Jewish family whose matriarch supported her four young children as a seamstress in the 1870s after her husband had disappeared. There’s also a family of Irish-Catholic immigrants who lost a child to malnutrition, and an Italian-Catholic family who scraped their way through the Great Depression.

“One of the things that works so well is that it is an immersive space which can be much more powerful than when you go to a museum and see wall text. I think spaces encourage people to imagine, and that is effective,” says Annie Polland, vice president for programs and education for the museum.

“And these are stories of so-called ordinary people ... and that’s empowering to people who can relate to these stories, which could belong to their parents or grandparents. And school kids get the message that ‘my life is important, too.’”

From 1863 to 1935, about 7,000 people lived in the 20 apartments at 97 Orchard Street. Today some 200,000 people a year take guided tours of the restored apartments.

Now there’s also a "Shop Life" tour of immigrant businesses once located on the building’s ground floor, including the recreation of an 1870s German pub and stories of a turn-of-the-century kosher butcher shop.

Work is under way for future exhibits in the building next door, which after World War II was home to tenants who included Holocaust survivors as well as newcomers from China and Puerto Rico.

The lives of those neighbors and the apartments they lived in are being researched and restored through interviews with family members, census and city records, and collaboration with scholars.

In the postwar Lower East Side, no immigrant group dominated the neighborhood; there was overlap between the new arrivals. “One of the things we wanted to talk about in this exhibition is how this speaks to our increasingly diverse New York and nation,” says Polland.

A visit to the museum puts one’s own family story in context. I couldn’t help but think of my great-grandmother Rose Waldman, a headstrong 17-year-old from Romania who arrived by boat alone at Ellis Island. From there she headed to relatives in the Lower East Side, where she would begin her new life.

As for Victoria Confino, she and her family would soon move uptown and leave Orchard Street behind. She had two children, including a son who became a NASA astrophysicist.

She never got a chance to go back to school, though the people at the museum say that through the exhibit she finally became a teacher after all.

Keiko Niwa
Keiko Niwa