A window on immigrants' lives

Sun Journal

Tenements: A New York museum sheds light on the domestic life of new Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

January 04, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Katja Zelljadt is introducing some visitors to the world of their ancestors.

"Will you turn out the light?" she says, and about 15 people in a narrow, dark hallway can just see a steep stairway ascending to the next floor, thanks to a shaft of light entering through a small window at the back.

"If you had lived here in 1864," the tour guide says, "there would be no light at all. The window wasn't there. If you had lived on these upper floors, you would have had to go up and down these stairs often: carrying your garbage, carrying your chamber pots. Women would have had to negotiate these stairs in long dresses with hands full and, no doubt, at times children would have been running through, causing them to fall and spill what they carried.

"It wouldn't have smelled very good in here."

Here is Manhattan's Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St. You can take a cab or you can get in the spirit of the trip and take the subway. The F train will take you straight to a bygone world. You emerge on Delancey Street. The Bowery is just six blocks away.

Immigrants make up much of the area's society: About 60 percent of the neighborhood population is foreign-born. At the local PS 42, the elementary-schoolers represent more than 22 nationalities.

Down Orchard Street the shops spill out their goods onto curbside tables, and sidewalk salesmen promote the wares in accented English.

"This neighborhood is still the first place of settlement for immigrants coming into this country," says Katherine Snider, director of marketing and public relations for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

The museum is housed in one of more than 10,000 tenement buildings closed in 1935 when landlords would not meet new public-health regulations that required hot and cold running water and a bathroom in each apartment.

Home to thousands

Before No. 97 closed, more than 7,000 immigrants -- Germans and Jews, Italians, Lithuanians and Irish -- lived between 1864 and 1935 in just this one narrow, five-story building of 20 apartments.

After it sat boarded up for 53 years, the building was bought in 1988, unboarded and turned into a museum through private funding. Two years ago, it was designated a historic site by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In these past two years, attendance at the museum, which operates on a $2.5 million budget, has jumped. In 1998, visitors numbered 62,000, an increase of more than 37 percent, and the 1999 figure approached 85,000.

No. 97 cost $8,000 to build in 1863. It was a good investment, because between 1850 and 1880 immigrants were arrived from Central Europe in unprecedented numbers.

The story told in this tenement is the story of ancestors and of the lives they led after arriving here. Dutch, English, French, Germans and Irish came in successive waves to New York, Zelljadt says, and made their way to the Lower East Side, seeking the comfort of a familiar language before moving on to other parts of their new country.

Zelljadt is the daughter of an immigrant who came to the United States in the 1950s, by way of Latvia and Germany, and she feels a personal connection to the museum's history.

She asks each person to hold or at least touch the banister while going up the stairs.

"The banister is original," she says, "and everyone who lived here and visited here through the years has touched it. We like to think of it as a continuing connection between the past and the present."

When No. 97 was opened, the museum left one apartment bare, just as it had been found. As the tour group stands in this back apartment on the second floor, Zelljadt explains the two windows cut into the rear walls, straddling the standard three rooms of living space. They were to satisfy a 1901 code that said "each room must have a window".

Light filters through the back window cutouts into what would have been the kitchen and the bedroom.

"It's 325 square feet of bliss," Zelljadt says. "But there would have been from two to 10 or 11 people living here at any one time." Museum research has shown that the population density on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1864 was 240,000 people per acre.

"And you think you could probably deal with that light," Zelljadt says. "But remember, back then, there would have been another row of tenements 20 feet from your back window that would have obliterated most of the light. In between the two buildings would have been two rows of privies, a row for your building and a row for the other one.

"The windows would have been grimy from heating and cooking, and if you opened them the air coming in would not have smelled very good and there would have been noise. Allen Street, the street behind us, was the red-light district at the time, and on Second Avenue there was an elevated train."

Historical detail

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