97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side is a tenement building. It’s a five-floor walk up with two ground level commercial spaces. It was built in 1863 and before its apartments were shuttered and sealed in 1941, 97 Orchard Street was home to 15,000 people over the decades, immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, Italy, Ireland, and other countries, who settled on the Lower East Side.
I’d been taken to the Tenement Museum once as a child, but hadn’t been back since, but I went with some friends on one of the Tenement Museum’s tours recently. If you’re ever in New York City, I highly recommend going on one of their tours of 97 Orchard Street. The tours run about an hour.
It’s one thing to learn about the waves of immigrants that have come through Ellis Island–perhaps, like me, you have ancestors who came through Ellis Island–and to know that yeah, New York City is a city of immigrants. And maybe you learned about how the Lower East Side was an extremely densely populated neighborhood in the late nineteenth century. Or maybe you learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
97 Orchard Street is where some of those immigrants lived after arriving in America. With the anti-immigration rhetoric we’ve had to hear since the last presidential election, it’s important to remember and acknowledge this country’s immigrant roots.
You can’t take pictures inside the building, so let me set the scene:
First of all, there are five floors with four apartments per floor. And these apartments are the size of my bedroom–there’s a large window or two in the wall facing the front or back of the building. Each apartment has three rooms–a living room, kitchen, and a tiny bedroom. There are windows in the walls between each room and windows facing out to the hallway. Nowadays, New York City apartments have to legally have windows facing outside, but not back then.
There’s also an airshaft in the building for ventilation and the apartments facing the shaft have windows there, facing each other.
Privacy was not a thing in tenement buildings.
Oh, and the bathroom? At first, there were outhouses in the back. There was a German saloon downstairs, by the way, and those outhouses were for the patrons of the saloon and the building’s residents. Later, bathrooms were added in the hallways, so you shared the bathroom with your neighbors.
We took the Sweatshop tour, which focused on two of the families who lived on the third floor of 97 Orchard: the Levines and the Rogoshevskis. They were both involved in the garment trade.
The Levines, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, moved into the building in 1892 with two children. Harris Levine ran a dressmaking factory from the living room, running the sewing machine himself and employing three people. Running a small garment workshop from your apartment was not unusual in that neighborhood. There were a high number of factories being run up and down that block from other immigrants also working in their apartments.
The only part of the building we’re allowed to touch is the stair banister–wooden and original from 1863. That’s almost an everyday item, right? A mother holding onto the banister as she gets her kids up and down the stairs to get to the outhouse. An adolescent coming home exhausted from their factory job, holding onto the banister to walk up to their apartment.
Also, the apartments had layers of wallpaper and paint on the walls–as new families moved in, they used precious money to make the place their own for a little while.
For more information, go to: Tenement Museum NYC