Tenement Museum

January 6, 2010

I’m in NYC at the moment, and next time you’re here, I highly recommend a visit to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. This post is basically gonna be a little commercial for them because sometimes I honestly just like things and don’t feel ironic about them.

It’s located in a building that was an actual tenement for 70 years until it was condemned for housing in the 1930s and the residents were evicted. The apartments were abandoned, but since the main floor had a couple of profitable storefronts, the building remained standing and the empty apartments and hallways upstairs were simply shuttered, then sat untouched from the mid-1930s to 1988.

Walking into this place really feels like stepping back in time- the little apartments in the building have some 20 visible layers of wallpaper and 6 or 8 layers of linoleum on the floor. One is re-created as a tiny sweatshop, a 325 square foot space where six adults plus a homemaker and several children spent 14-hour days sewing before the garment trade moved into large Brooklyn factories across the river.

Among the families who lived there were Germans, Russian Jews, and Italians, and seeing the conditions in which they worked and lived was a really fascinating, thought-provoking look at the ways in which many of our ancestors got to this continent, and a poignant reminder that the definition of “American” has been pretty fluid over the past 200 years.

There’s a virtual tour with audio online here; but still, go if you can- it’s pretty amazing to walk up the stairs holding a bannister that’s been held by people since Lincoln was President.

Thanks to Juliet for the company.