Tenement Museum highlights immigrants

NEW YORK — Most New York City residents will say the hardest, most expensive thing about living in Manhattan is finding a place to live. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New York’s Lower East Side is about $2,200 a month. Included in the rent are usually a full kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. With luck, utilities might be included as an added bonus.

Nearly 150 years ago, Lower East Side apartments were tenements and for $18 a month immigrants and their families lived in conditions unheard of in today’s Manhattan.

The tenement store front once belonging to a garment shop (photo by Leslie Carleton)

Families of 10 or more persons crammed themselves into tiny three-room tenements with no plumbing and no electricity. Today, it would be a family of 10 persons living in a studio apartment with a cast iron stove, one bed and no bathroom.

Lukas Glockner built the tenements in 1863. Glockner was a tailor who emigrated from Germany. He invested $8,000 in the project, hoping it would be his ticket to prosperity. Glockner’s investment paid off handsomely. The tenements were home to more than 7,000 immigrants over the course of 72 years. Residents journeyed from 20 countries to start new lives at 97 Orchard St.

Today, the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum National Historic Site preserves the buildings and has opened them to the public. As part of the National Park Service, visitors can tour the museum. Not only can people see the tenements, but also learn about the families who lived there. Tours are divided into three floors each with its own family stories. Visitors commonly choose a tour based on the stories in which they are most interested.

Pam Jones and her husband toured the tenement while on vacation in New York.

“Both our ancestors came to Manhattan from Ireland. We did some research and found out a few of them lived in this area,” said Jones. “It’s amazing to see how they lived and realize all they went through so we could grow up here,” she added.

The tenement store front once belonging to a garment shop (photo by Leslie Carleton)

The first tour, on the second floor, is titled “Getting By.” It tells the story of Jewish and Italian Catholic families surviving the great depression. The second tour, is called, “Piecing it Together.” It is the story of the home and garment shop once occupied by Jewish families. These families lived in the tenements during the “Great Wave” when emigration was at an all-time high.

The fourth floor tour tells the story of the Moores. The Moores were an Irish family who lived in the tenement in 1869. Their story is centered on the death of a child. During the time the Moores lived at 97 Orchard St., milk was delivered by wagon with no method of refrigeration. Often the milk delivered to residents was bleached white to hide the light yellow color caused from spoiling. The Moore’s baby died as a result of the tainted milk.

Helen Louise, a visitor on the Moores tour, shared her grandfather’s story as a milkman during the time of the scandal.

“My grandfather delivered milk on this street in a covered wagon. He had no idea the milk he was delivering was bad,” said Louise. “He used to tell me stories about his job and cry, wishing he had known,” she added.

Tour guide Ya Yun Teng (photo by Leslie Carleton)

Ya Yun Teng is a Korean immigrant and a volunteer tour guide at the museum. Since the tenement was built, nearly 150 years ago, Teng’s story is not unlike the families whose stories she tells visitors. She was offered a scholarship to New York University making her the first in her family to go to college. Moreover, she is the first in her family to come to America.

Teng’s experience sparked an interest to volunteer for the museum.

“The opportunity to educate people on their ancestors starting life in America is something I can relate to,” said Teng. “I often tell people my story at the end of the tour to show people America remains the land of opportunity and my story is no different from that of their families,” she added.

Visitors to New York usually tour a national monument such as the Statue of Liberty. What was often an overlooked national park is becoming more and more popular. The Lower Eastside Tenement Museum provides a unique look into the immigrant experience.


If You Go . . .


The Lower Eastside Tenement Museum

Ticket Office and Gift Shop (all tours begin here):
108 Orchard St.
New York, NY 10002

Tenement Museum:

97 Orchard St.
New York, NY 10002

Ticket Information:
Adults: $17, students: $13, seniors (65+): $13, museum members: Free
Discounts available for multiple same-day tours




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