Tenement Museum Displays the Transformation of the Lower East Side and Beyond
No neighborhood has transformed quite like the Lower East Side. In the 1840s, it was known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”. In the 1920s, it was the center of Jewish immigrant culture. In the 1970s, parts of the neighborhood became Chinatown with the arrival of Chinese immigrants. Today, it is a predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican community. The neighborhood holds generations of immigrant stories, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells the tales of ordinary families who lived in tenements on Orchard Street.
The Hard Times: 1880s tour transports visitors to a time when the Lower East Side was primarily occupied by German immigrants. The tour starts on the second floor of the Tenement Museum building on 97 Orchard Street where the Gumpertz family lived. A tenement is essentially an apartment. However, the term became synonymous with slum housing because many tenements in New York were overcrowded with poor sanitation. According to the 1870 Census, Natalie Gumpertz and her husband Julius Gumpertz were living here with their two daughters, and Natalie was left alone with an additional child to care for by 1880. Standing in the recreated 300-square feet apartment, one can imagine the single mother working on the sewing machine in the parlor, cooking on the coal stove in the kitchen, sleeping in the bedroom which shares a thin wooden fire door with her neighbors, and juggling chores and childcare in the meantime.
The second part of the tour takes place in the basement of the building. John and Caroline Schneider lived in the apartment in the rear and operated the Schneider’s Lager Beer Saloon in the front from 1864 to 1886. Different from men-only bars run by White Anglo-Saxon Americans in other parts of the city at the time, German saloons were a social place for families to enjoy drinks and food. The apartment was also an extension of the Schneiders’ social life. John hosted club meetings in the living room to discuss political agendas with men while women and children chatted in the saloon. The basement was an important community space, and the tenants even worked together to keep it in operation when the city prohibited saloons to be in business on Sundays.
Parts of the building are purposely left in the dilapidated condition the museum found them in. The peeling walls revealed on average forty layers of wallpaper, each with a unique story like that of the Gumpertzes or the Schneiders. These recreated apartments show how far building codes have evolved. Now, ventilation, daylight, heating and cooling, and water are basic amenities that were unimaginable in the 1880s. It is important that these immigrant stories are kept alive, to serve as a reminder of the past and an opportunity to learn from history.