Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tenement Museum

We love immigration stories about struggle and survival since we come from immigration families ourselves and can relate first hand, so we finally went to the Tenement Museum in our last month in New York.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a landmark 1863 five-story tenement building that was home to about 7,000 people from over 20 countries between 1863 and 1935. Visits to the building are available only through one of their one-hour guided tours, which share the stories of actual families that lived in the 97 Orchard Street building. The apartments have been decorated to look as they would have of the actual residents that resided at the time. Tours are also available via Spanish and sign language.

Of their tour options, we decided on the Getting By tour. We visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, whose patriarch disappeared during the Panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression. We tried to imagine how it felt for a woman at that time to be suddenly left without her husband who had been the financial caretaker. More chillingly, we were told that generations later, a similar scenario took place to the same family (due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City).

And although we found the true stories of these families compelling, especially the parts about their determination to succeed and thrive, the tour itself felt a bit sparse. Adult tickets are a whopping $20 per ticket for a short one-hour tour (in comparison, for the same price you can spend all day at the MET plus visit the Cloisters). There was way too much Q&A that our tour guide was trying to force on us and we wasted time talking outside the building before and after the tour. The tour would have been much better if they extended the tour by 30 minutes and allowed visitors to visit all the apartments in the building. It was a shame they only allowed us to see two small apartments when we clearly could have had time to see more.

This lady pictured below brought her son and grandson to the Getting By tour. We spoke with her after the tour as her grandson and son stood in line for ice cream. She seemed to think the tour was just okay as well. She talked to us about her travel stories, about how after she lived in New York City for quite some time, she moved away. But she said even at her age, she missed New York City so much that she had to move back. It was bittersweet listening to her tell this story when we knew we'd be leaving (and missing) New York soon thereafter.

It's best to avoid going on this tour during the summer months since it's too hot inside the tenement building. We cooled off after the tour by eating at il laboratorio del gelato. The flavors they offer are ridiculously drool worthy.