Neighborhood attraction explores 19-20th century living conditions
Although seeming like ordinary buildings located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Tenement Museum reveals real history inside its 19th-century hallways and apartments. With two buildings filled with over 200 years of history, the organization strives to reimagine the roles that museums can play in the lives of vistors.
The Tenement Museum tells the stories of immigrants who traveled to New York in the late 1800s in search of a new start. Over time, the tenement apartments housed 15,000 working-class immigrants from over 20 different nations.
Historian and social activist Ruth Abram opened the museum in 1992, after spending four years renovating it to its original state. When they first inspected it, the building was in ruins, as if someone had picked up and left. Now the museum is open to the public so that they may witness the hardships immigrants endured.
There are three ways to tour the museum: walking the neighborhood, meeting the residents dressed in costume, or touring the buildings. The Feather students took three different tours of the buildings; two of which were Sweatshop Workers and Irish Outsiders.
Irish Outsiders shared the story of a couple, Bridget and Joseph Moore, Irish immigrants who traveled to New York in search of a new start for themselves and their three children. However, the family struggled with their living conditions. The Moores shared the building with 21 other families with no bathrooms and limited amounts of light. Women would have to go down at least four flights of stairs several times a day to even get drinking water.
John Zhang, the tour guide for Irish Outsiders, has worked at the museum for 6 months. Zhang enjoys telling the Moores’ story and loves to not just talk about history but be apart of it.
“The Moore’s were a very interesting family, that they really stood out from the other families that were living in this building at the time period,” Zhang said. “They actively made a choice to move out of a neighborhood which was dominantly Irish to a neighborhood where there were few Irish people living there. There’s a lot of discrimination the Irish faced. There are lots of parallels you can make to what the Irish faced to what people face today.”
Canadian police officer Karen Irwin visited the Tenement Museum in hopes of providing her children with a perspective of their Irish ancestry.
“You don’t even realize they are traditions until you actually look back and do research about it,” Irwin said. “For sure we are potato and meat people. The other part of the Irish side of it, is usually we have tea. We love our ciders; we love our beer. It is very much a social thing. We are from the Protestant side of Ireland.”
Sweatshop Workers described the hardships Jewish immigrants struggled with as they made clothes. According to Billy, they came to escape prejudice and oppression, but they were instead greeted with tight quarters and hard labor.
Billy was the tour guide for Sweatshop Workers. A French immigrant herself, Billy realizes a lot of things about her own identity which she never considered before she left her country.
“What you bring and what you leave behind defines you as a person,” Billy said. “Even though my experience is different from the immigrants were talking about in the museum, I can really relate to coming from not speaking the language, being an outsider, and not fitting in. I’m really interested in the journey of these people and what they went through. It makes you think about your own life.”
Kaylie Clem went through the Sweatshop Workers tour and enjoyed the experience the tenements housing provided.
“It was really interesting getting to see firsthand the living conditions of the immigrants and how the sweatshops worked,” Clem said. “It was crazy seeing how little privacy the people had. The conditions were so tiny and dark I could never imagine being in that situation.”
The Tenement Museum hopes to continue to play a part in shaping America’s evolving national identity. Check back throughout the week to stay updated with The Feather’s adventures.
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