Last night I watched a very old film, called A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I remember seeing it when I was a child. It starred Peggy Ann Garner, as the imaginative daughter of a poor Irish family living in a tenement.
This little girl would have been about my age, was reading her way through the library, by author, so she could know “everything in the world.” (She had only gotten as far as “Burton”)
She spent a lot of her time on the fire escape outside their kitchen window, reading those books that would take her far away from Brooklyn.
I could not imagine, as the child I was, in a small town in Connecticut, what it could have been like to live in a tenement in Brooklyn. I lived in a whole house, although I did know people who lived in two- and three-family houses.
It was not until recently that I got a huge eyeful of tenement living.
Our trip to the Tenement Museum in New York City was a very memorable one. When you walk through those apartments you can almost feel and talk to those who lived there.
This is a very worthwhile venture for those of us who think of New York City as “shops, theatres and major museums.” This is a another world, within that city, and an extremely eye-opening one to see, at least it was to me.
First of all you might like to get on the website at www.tenement.org where you can learn about the multi-media reach of this new and powerful place.
They have an evening lecture series, panel discussions, wonderful films, all of which provide historical and contemporary perspectives on New York City’s rich culture.
Folks like us, who do NOT know their way around, need another website, called www.LowerEastSideNY.com which provides a map and directions to and from subway stops.
There is a lot going on in the Lower East Side, most of which I had ignored for years. (OK, I did go down to Orchard St. to get some great discount fabric about 20 years ago.)
Now, back to the Tenement Museum itself. There is a visitors’ center, but it’s really the Museum Shop. This is the heart of the museum, which comprises several buildings.
It is in this Museum Shop that you begin to feel the excitement, and become absorbed in the life of tenement dwellers. Well, not so much the things for sale, they are a bit hokey, but attractive, the usual T-shirts, shopping bags, etc. But, the books are fabulous, if you have any interest in history at all.
It is really the films they show that start to take you back to earlier times, to times even earlier than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Here you can discover how immigrants weathered hard times at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. The History Channel film is a mandatory prelude to an actual tour, in my opinion.
However you do it, take one of the tours. There is one called “Getting By” during which you visit the restored homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family who lived throught the panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic family who survived the 20th Century’s Great Depression.
Then there is “Piecing It Together” about the garment industry, during which you how the Levine family operated a garment factory in their own apartment, and how the Rogarshevsky family confronted “tailors’ disease.”
In a tour called “The Moores”, you experience the restored home of the Moore family, through the music of Irish America. You are warned that this tour starts in a fourth floor walk up, “61 steps up, then 53 steps down.” Just the fact that they tell you how many stairs each of the tours requires is reminder enough of some of the hardships the residents endured.
Another tour takes you back to the life of a Sephardic Jewish family, which includes an actor, and a hands on experience. Since we didn’t do this one, I’ll have to go back. I have to say that just writing about this museum, and looking at my notes and a book that I purchased, really make me want to go back, which I will do when the weather warms up.
At the end of our tour, we were asked if we wished to stay for a “facilitated conversation,” which we did. There were indeed visitors from around the world, including some from South America, and some from the mid-west and Boston, in all age groups. The conversation was about immigration-related issues, and proved most interesting, and a lot more fun than I expected.
During the tours, all the stories you hear are about actual people, who lived in these small dark apartments, going about their chores, and trying to keep their families together and food on the table, trying to educate their children, and keep them healthy. You are really thrust in to the center of these lives.
The guides are extremely well trained and exceptionally enthusiastic. They seem to be history majors, actors, and descendents of former tenement dwellers, all at once.
When the museum first opened in 1988, its founder, Ruth J. Abrams, declared it would “stand as a vibrant beacon for tolerance.”
“For a nation of immigrants,” she said, “there is no single site more historically significant than the tenement.”
Everyone whose family came from somewhere else should visit this museum.
If you do go to this neighborhood, there is also the New Museum at 235 Bowery, a place that has been in the news a lot, mostly I think for its strikingly modern (some would say “out of place”) architecture.
While it did not hit me with the emotional force of the Tenement Museum, it is certainly worth the time to see. After all, you will be seeking out some of those wonderful lower East Side ethnic restaurants while you’re there, and probably SHOPPING, and, oh my, what shopping there is! It was either on Delancy or Orchard Street where we were enveloped by street merchants as we exited to the surface from the subway. I’m sorry I can’t remember exactly where, because I want to go back just to take in the street scene, when I have more time, and not in such a hurry to get to the Tenement Museum once again.
(Published in the Northern Dutchess News, April 29, 2009)