“…Imagine the noise…Imagine the smells…in your mind it’s a hive…”
This was our docent Marc Burch. His voice quavered with passion, even though he likely has lost count of how many tour groups he had led up these narrow tenement stairs to learn the stories of two families—one Orthodox Jews of German descent, and the other Italian. He had been talking for more than an hour at that point—sentences teeming with facts ,much as the tenement had overflown with humanity, soot from coal fires, slop from chamber pots, and in this case, noises from the beer hall below.
He later concluded the tour, saying, “..We are only as strong as the threads… No famous people lived here.”
These “threads” are the people of this tenement, whom we get to know as the museum curators have via census records, letters, newspapers, old black and white photographs, peeling layers of wallpaper and soot covered paintings in the tenement halls, and in some cases, the threads connecting to their living descendants who helped fill in gaps with childhood memories.
It’s difficult not to admire the people of this tenement, if not love them, and their keep-on-keeping-on stories. We learn, for example, how when Julius Gompertz went missing, his wife Nathalie was able to survive thanks to the help of the United Hebrew Charities who found her character staunch enough to award her the sewing machine that launched her dressmaker career. That was how she managed to keep out of the debtors’ prison of Randall Island. It’s why her children weren’t taken away and put on the orphan trains to work farms out west. The records of the United Hebrew Charities show that other women and families were not deemed so worthy, and were not so lucky. SPOILER ALERT: Later, in the potboiler of this family’s story, we also learn how this living museum only recently was able to piece together what did happen to her husband Julius.
How timely to also learn the history of the Italian family that later lived in the same tenement building. One of the highlights of the HARD TIMES tour is hearing an audio recording of one of this family’s daughters who painted a vivid portrait of how life unfolded in the small kitchen we were crowded into, as her large family was. We get a picture of her mother ever scrubbing with fanatic energy –both them in the bathtub with water heated by the pay-as-you-go gas meter, and the entirety of their small surrounds. When she wasn’t scrubbing she was likely pressing their over-starched clothing. All this, our docent explains, was to do anything one could to avoid the stigma of their poverty.
Tenement Museum Tells America’s REAL Story of Immigration- Legal and Otherwise
That this mother was an illegal alien because she feared the sometimes brutal treatment that arriving immigrants would find on Ellis Island, and instead smuggled across the Canadian border, of course resonates with today’s headlines. So too does the family’s history of finding their big break from poverty coming via the New Deal and WPA projects that enabled the family’s father to get work in the shipyards.
Expect your emotions to be roiled by this tour colliding with today’s politics. For this reviewer, it is especially gratifying to know that roughly a third of the people who visit the Tenement Museum are foreigners learning about the “threads” of the American fabric here. You too might feel pride swell to hear and see our so American story of immigration presented by this tour.
For more information on tour times and ticket costs visit the Tenement Museum website.
Editor’s Note: Read the related story, “Tenement Museum THEN & NOW WALKING TOUR Review – Lower East Side New York Unveiled”
Photos courtesy of the Tenement Museum.