Having just arrived back in New York from Europe, it occurred to me that this was the perfect time to stop by a Lower East Side gem, and one of my favorite New York excursions, The Tenement Museum. Founded in 1988 by Historian and Social Activist Ruth Abram, the museum is dedicated to keeping alive the story of immigration to America.
Ruth initially had much smaller ambitions. Setting out to find an empty storefront in which to establish her institution, she stumbled on 97 Orchard Street. On further exploration she discovered the building was virtually unchanged since its construction in 1863. Eventually taking over the whole building and starting the Tenement Museum, she lovingly restored and authentically fitted out each apartment to tell six different immigrant stories, representing a cross section of the New York immigrant experience.
What’s unique with this institution is that it is a museum within a museum. The whole Lower East Side remains, in large part, as it was originally built in the 19th century. So tours relate the stories of immigrants’ personal living space, as well as reaching out into the neighborhood to tell the larger urban story of immigrants’ day-to-day lives.
In the many years I have lived in New York I can number on one hand the native New Yorkers I have met. It seems that almost everyone in New York hails from elsewhere, and the character of the city owes a lot to the people who have come here seeking opportunity. I, too, am an immigrant to New York, though I am lucky to have had a relatively easy time of it. My experience was worlds away from what early immigrants would have faced arriving on a boat via Ellis Island.
The real charm of the Tenement Museum is its knowledgeable team tour guides, or “educators,” as they are called, that bring immigrant stories to life.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could actually ask an early immigrant what it was like? Well, if you are lucky you might meet one in the Tenement Museum. On most weekends Victoria Confino, a 19th century teenage immigrant from Greece, can be found inhabiting the museum. She will happily answer your questions about the trials and tribulations that she faced after leaving her home and family in Greece to make a new home in America.
You might also be interested in the Sweatshop Workers Tour where you will be introduced to the Levine family working and living with up to 8 people in one apartment. Or visit the Rogarshevskys family at their Sabbath table, set on the third floor, and imagine sitting down with them on a Friday night for Shabbat.
The real charm of the Tenement Museum is its knowledgeable team tour guides, or “educators,” as they are called, that bring immigrant stories to life. Various professionals – historians, teachers, actors, musicians, even a fashion designer – will tell you in great detail about what life was like at 97 Orchard Street.
Start your visit with the 20-minute documentary. It really sets the scene for your visit and helps transport you to life 150 years ago. And don’t forget to stop by the well-curated gift shop on your way out. You will find some great souvenirs for friends and family back home.
Located on the corner of Delancey Street, the Tenement Museum visitor center and shop is where tours start and end, and where tickets are sold. The wheelchair accessible door to the Visitors Center is located on the Delancey Street side of 103 Orchard. The closest street address is 81 Delancey.
B or D to Grand Street
Exit at Grand and Chrystie. Walk east (away from Bowery) on Grand Street for four blocks. Take a left at Orchard Street and walk north for two blocks to the Tenement Museum Shop 103 Orchard Street.
If you are coming by Public Transport:
Take the F train to Delancey Street or the J, M or Z trains to Essex Street. Once you get off any of these subways, walk two blocks away from the Williamsburg Bridge (west) on Delancey Street to Orchard Street, turn left and walk 1/2 block south to the Tenement Museum Shop 103 Orchard Street, between Delancey and Broome, near Delancey.
The Delancey-Essex F, J, M and Z subway station has an escalator but no elevator. The nearest wheelchair accessible subway station is B, D, F, M and 6 station at Broadway-Lafayette.
The M15 and Sightseeing Buses stop at the corner of Grand and Allen Streets. Exit the bus and walk one block east to Orchard Street. Then walk one 1/2 block north towards Delancey Street.
The tour schedule varies so check the Tenement Museum’s calendar to see what is on when you plan to visit, and then book your ticket online.
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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