The Surrounding Area
The area of Manhattan that is now known as the Lower East Side developed from what used to be farm territory a little over two centuries ago. Residences began to spring up in the area in the late 1700s—initially, these properties were composed of single family row houses. Soon, though, a rapid increase in the population led to the emergence of buildings with five or six stories that could provide housing for 20 families or more. This led to the development of the early tenements.
97 Orchard Street
Erected in 1863, the tenement located on 97 Orchard Street has five stories and was designed to house 20 families. Eventually, it would become the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Although the architect is unknown, #97 was designed to have a facade that was reminiscent of the Italianate style. The building was composed of 20 three-room apartments, arranged in a simple manner: four per floor—two in the back, and two in the rear. Each room was reached by the same unlighted, ventilated staircase that went through the center of the building. In total, the flat occupied an area of about 325 square feet, and it was typical for each household to contain seven or more people.
The standard bedroom, about 8.5 square feet in area, would have been completely shut off from natural light and fresh air. Despite the fact that the Croton aqueduct had provided the city with water since the 1840s, the apartments initially did not have any running water—let alone toilets, showers, or baths. The privies were located in the rear yard of the building, and it is possible that they were not connected to the sewer pipes running below Orchard. The main source of heat came from the fireplaces located in the apartment’s kitchens. However, tenants had to purchase the cooking stoves on their own.
The ethnic composition of 97 Orchard Street over the years mirrors that of the surrounding neighborhood. In the tenement’s early history, most of the immigrants living there were German-born. By 1900, more than half of them came from Russia. After 1925, however, the tenants represented a variety of eastern and southern European nations. From 1870 to 1890, about half of those living at 97 Orchard Street were Jewish. Throughout the next three decades, virtually all of the residents were Jewish. While the earlier Jewish tenants were mostly from Germany, those after 1890 hailed mainly from Eastern Europe. This reflected the demographic changes in the entire population of the Lower East Side. The population density of the tenement also increased steadily over time. When the building opened, it had 77 tenants, but in 1901 the number was reported as 111. By this time, most of the tenement’s residents were industrial workers, predominantly of the garment industry.
The piece of legislation that most powerfully impacted the 97 Orchard Street building was the Tenement House Act of 1901. Born of the efforts of middle-class reformers, the Act combated the alarming conditions found throughout the city’s tenements: it prohibited tenements to be constructed in lots 25-feet wide, required superior sanitation arrangements, called for greater access to light, and subjected preexisting tenements to higher standards. Despite fierce opposition from the tenement owners, who feared that these modifications would decrease their profits, many improvements were enforced. One of the results of the new legislation was that each tenement was to have flushable, sewer-connected toilets—one for every two families. The last alteration to be made to the 97 Orchard Street tenement was in 1935—from then, it remained untouched until it was purchased for the museum in 1988.
The Perfect Tenement
Historian and social activist Ruth Abram wanted to construct a museum that would honor the immigrants of New York City. By 1988, Abram and co-founder Anita Jacobson came across the uninhabited tenement of 97 Orchard Street. Because the tenement had been untouched for a relatively long period of time, #97 seemed promising right away. “It was as though people had just picked up and left,” Jacobson stated. “It was a little time capsule… I called Ruth and said ‘We have got to have this building.’ It was perfect.” With researchers hard at work, the museum was able to restore apartments that had been vacated for so long—it began by restoring the 1878 home of the Gumpertz, a German-Jewish family. This first restored apartment was opened to the public in 1992. Since then, the museum has meticulously restored six apartments, the most recent being the home of the Moores, an Irish family that lived in the building in 1869. Today, the museum has expanded to provide visitors with several tours, workshops, talks, and performances.
The building at 97 Orchard Street has withstood as a monument of urban poverty in the U.S. and reflects many of the efforts of reformers that sought to alleviate the harsh conditions the poor working class were forced to endure. However, a few questions must be asked: does the Lower East Side Tenement Museum attempt to draw connections to the conditions and circumstances of the present day immigrant population, and link the facts to the persistent reality of urban poverty? Is it its role to do so? How does the museum define and justify its position? Take a look at the section titled, “Poverty: Beyond the Museum.”