My mom turned 80 in August and to celebrate we planned a long weekend in New York City to enjoy as much theater as possible. We arrived very early the morning of September 11. The television was dominated by coverage of the reading of the names of the victims in New York City on that fateful day. It made for a somber start. The National September 11 Museum was having a grand opening, but we decided to visit on a less crowded day and instead hopped in a cab to visit the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side.
My friends Harriet and Brian raved about the Tenement Museum and on their recommendation we purchased tickets to the “Hard Times” one hour tour. We arrived a few minutes late, so one of the docents escorted us to 97 Orchard Street. Laura, our tour guide and storyteller, was still explaining the history of the building when we joined.
The museum has carefully preserved the building and its apartments. They have reconstructed families’ stories to share with visitors. In this particular tour Laura told us about a German Jewish family who lived in the building during the recession of 1873 and then an Italian family who lived in the front apartment during the Great Depression. We learned about the various waves of immigration arriving on New York City’s shores and the laws that shaped opportunities. Immigrants are generally the most vulnerable in a economic downturn. And for these families there was no safety net from the government or from charity.
The small space and basic accommodation was a reminder of how much the dream of a better life in America sustains people. Afterward we talked to our tour guide Laura about her family experience coming to America from Cuba and mom shared how our ancestors immigrated to the Minnesota prairie and lived in sod houses. Immigration became something of a theme for this trip.
The first family we visited were Jewish. At that time they had only water and out houses in the courtyard. No heat except the kitchen stove. The apartments were three rooms: a kitchen, a living space and a bedroom.
The second family had about the same space but by then they had cold water in the kitchen and a john in the hall. They were Italian. By then the Jewish families were doing better an had moved uptown.
Afterward we walked toward SoHo and stumbled upon the Feast of San Gennaro (September 10-20). It was a combination street fair and carnival with a distinctly Italian flare.
We walked on to Houston Avenue and caught a cab to the hotel. My mom has the spirit of a 40 year old and the knees of someone her age. I was going to realize later that there is only so much we can walk.
The Hard Times tour tickets were $25 each and available in advance from the website. Tickets may also be purchased at the corner museum shop at Orchard and Delancey in the Lower East Side.