97 Orchard Street

The three most important events in American history were the American Revolution, the Civil War and the mass immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While numerous historical sites commemorate the first two, until recently there were few physical memorials to the immigrants. Then Ellis Island re-opened to the public and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum took over 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan and restored it as an example of an original tenement (according to its creators, one of only two in the world. The other is in Scotland).

There’s something odd about the Orchard Street project, for all its worthiness. We’re used to viewing restored palaces and cathedrals, but a restored hovel? A museum is only as good as the artefacts it displays but the immigrnats were too poor to own anything except a few bits of early industrial dross- a biscuit tin; a hairbrush; a swatch of mass-produced lace. What made the Immigrant Experience (as somebody will surely dub it, if they haven’t done so already) a major historical event was their sheer numbers- and nothing can recreate the crush, the noise and the smells of even a fraction of that indigent army.

17 million people passed through Ellis Island. At any one time, 100 people crammed into the 20 tiny flats at no 97 Orchard Street. Nowadays, Orchard Street itself is empty on a weekday, while the Lower East Side as a whole has become one of those semi-detached, anonymous areas you find in big cities, quarters that have fallen into an urban trance in which they await the arrival of a gentrifying prince or the kiss of the developer’s wrecking ball. Even the ever-inventive New York tourist authorities haven’t been able to find a way to market it. Stencilled on labels attached to the lamposts along Orchard and the surrounding streets, like collars around the necks of dogs, is the only identity the city has managed to come up with, the dreary tag of “Historic Bargain District”.

One spring afternoon, I went down to Orchard Street together with my wife and two, older American friends, both of whose families arrived in the country towards the end of the great immigrations, to find out how the immigrants lived. A dozen of us assembled on the sidewalk to wait for our guide. Half were Americans. Half were foreign tourists including a pair of young German backpackers and two retired couples from England. Dutifully, we stared up at no 97, a five-storey redbrick building with a flat roof, two shops on the ground floor, and a “stoop”- a steep flights of steps running up between the shop fronts to the main door on the floor above. Rusting fire escapes covered the tenement like cast-iron versions of a creeping vine or tendril. At the point where the facade met the roof, there was one of those decorated corniches which, to European eyes, look as if someone has broken off a section of moulding from an interior ceiling and stuck it on the outside of the house.

Our guide told us that no 97 is under 100 feet wide, which would have made it illegal to build only a few years after its construction in 1863. 100 feet is not much space. Yet between 1863 and 1935, when the owners closed it down rather than improve it to the standards of a later city code, 10,000 people passed through no 97, lived there, loved, laughed and cried there, and either died there or moved on and out to the outer boroughs- Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx- then newly connected to Manhattan by subway. Later, their children and their children’s children moved out still farther to colonise the lush suburbs of Conneticut and Long Island.

It struck me that the most authentic immigrant museum would be a Spiritualist Museum, staffed by trained mediums who could summon up the ghosts of those 10,000 and the millions like them. Instead, we dozen living souls squeezed into the narrow entrance and up the even narrower stairs of no. 97 while our guide explained what makes a tenement a tenement, as opposed to an ordinary flat. There are no hallways or internal corridors. Tenements flats were also known as “railroad flats” because you step straight from the door of each flat into the first room, then from the first room into the second, and so on (there were never more than three rooms) like walking between the carriages in a train. There’s no toilet. The toilet was outside, in the yard, or later, when conditions improved, on the landing, shared with everyone else. There’s no bath. The bath was the sink with its single, cold-water tap (hence the other nickname for tenements, “cold-water flats”). New York’s climate is notoriously brutal, with bitter cold in winter and suffocating heat and humidity in summer, but the only heat in the flats came from the all-purpose stove and, needless to say, there was no air conditioning. Nor was there much light at any time of year until the city forced the slumlords to install windows inside the flats for increased light and ventilation.

It was a strange experience, standing in rooms that had a window instead of a wall between them, trying to imagine what it had been like to live there. Families of five or six, sometimes with another two people as lodgers, slept, ate, washed and often worked as well- the mother as a seamstress or the whole extended family as a sweatshop for the garment industry- in these caves with staircases. People got sick and needed to be nursed; meals had to be made and eaten; sex had to be managed; bodies had to be washed (although the adults relied on public baths); and homemade entertainment had to be carried on in the same space and yet, by miracles of will and effort, the immigrants rarely lapsed into squalor. They were houseproud- if you can be houseproud without having a house. They cherished the battered, second-hand furniture they bought, often off the dead. They spent the few, pathetic cents they could spare from susbsistence on doillies, antimacassars and floral wallpaper.

Since we tend to see history in black and white, it was the colours (that wallpaper!) at 97 Orchard Street that surprised me. Otherwise, there wasn’t a lot to see since, as I said, the immigrants had little or nothing to leave. Perhaps because of the uneven floors and the tilting geometry of the flats, where cheaply built walls and ceilings are out of square, the tenements seemed like extensions of the ships that brought the “poor and huddled masses” from Europe in the first place, more like forms of transport than of shelter. The tenements weren’t a destination, just a stop along the line, the horizontal, geographical line which the immigrants turned into a vertical, economic escalator, turning America itself into an escalator in the process- the rollercoaster ride we know as the American Dream.

Between 1890 and 1910, the immigrants came from Russia, Germany, Austria and Poland. World War Two brought a new wave from eastern Europe, primarily Russian and Polish Jews. By 1960, they were all gone and the Lower East was changing towards its current configuration of 50% Chinese and 25% Hispanics. It all happened that fast. Start to finish, the whole thing took place almost within living memory. In the late 1990s, my wife’s two friends are among the immigrants’ heirs, gone from peasants to millionaires in four- at the most five-generations.

The three most important events in American history were the American Revolution, the Civil War and the mass immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While numerous historical sites commemorate the first two, until recently there were few physical memorials to the immigrants. Then Ellis Island re-opened to the public and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum took over 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan and restored it as an example of an original tenement (according to its creators, one of only two in the world. The other is in Scotland).

There’s something odd about the Orchard Street project, for all its worthiness. We’re used to viewing restored palaces and cathedrals, but a restored hovel? A museum is only as good as the artefacts it displays but the immigrnats were too poor to own anything except a few bits of early industrial dross- a biscuit tin; a hairbrush; a swatch of mass-produced lace. What made the Immigrant Experience (as somebody will surely dub it, if they haven’t done so already) a major historical event was their sheer numbers- and nothing can recreate the crush, the noise and the smells of even a fraction of that indigent army.

17 million people passed through Ellis Island. At any one time, 100 people crammed into the 20 tiny flats at no 97 Orchard Street. Nowadays, Orchard Street itself is empty on a weekday, while the Lower East Side as a whole has become one of those semi-detached, anonymous areas you find in big cities, quarters that have fallen into an urban trance in which they await the arrival of a gentrifying prince or the kiss of the developer’s wrecking ball. Even the ever-inventive New York tourist authorities haven’t been able to find a way to market it. Stencilled on labels attached to the lamposts along Orchard and the surrounding streets, like collars around the necks of dogs, is the only identity the city has managed to come up with, the dreary tag of “Historic Bargain District”.

One spring afternoon, I went down to Orchard Street together with my wife and two, older American friends, both of whose families arrived in the country towards the end of the great immigrations, to find out how the immigrants lived. A dozen of us assembled on the sidewalk to wait for our guide. Half were Americans. Half were foreign tourists including a pair of young German backpackers and two retired couples from England. Dutifully, we stared up at no 97, a five-storey redbrick building with a flat roof, two shops on the ground floor, and a “stoop”- a steep flights of steps running up between the shop fronts to the main door on the floor above. Rusting fire escapes covered the tenement like cast-iron versions of a creeping vine or tendril. At the point where the facade met the roof, there was one of those decorated corniches which, to European eyes, look as if someone has broken off a section of moulding from an interior ceiling and stuck it on the outside of the house.

Our guide told us that no 97 is under 100 feet wide, which would have made it illegal to build only a few years after its construction in 1863. 100 feet is not much space. Yet between 1863 and 1935, when the owners closed it down rather than improve it to the standards of a later city code, 10,000 people passed through no 97, lived there, loved, laughed and cried there, and either died there or moved on and out to the outer boroughs- Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx- then newly connected to Manhattan by subway. Later, their children and their children’s children moved out still farther to colonise the lush suburbs of Conneticut and Long Island.

It struck me that the most authentic immigrant museum would be a Spiritualist Museum, staffed by trained mediums who could summon up the ghosts of those 10,000 and the millions like them. Instead, we dozen living souls squeezed into the narrow entrance and up the even narrower stairs of no. 97 while our guide explained what makes a tenement a tenement, as opposed to an ordinary flat. There are no hallways or internal corridors. Tenements flats were also known as “railroad flats” because you step straight from the door of each flat into the first room, then from the first room into the second, and so on (there were never more than three rooms) like walking between the carriages in a train. There’s no toilet. The toilet was outside, in the yard, or later, when conditions improved, on the landing, shared with everyone else. There’s no bath. The bath was the sink with its single, cold-water tap (hence the other nickname for tenements, “cold-water flats”). New York’s climate is notoriously brutal, with bitter cold in winter and suffocating heat and humidity in summer, but the only heat in the flats came from the all-purpose stove and, needless to say, there was no air conditioning. Nor was there much light at any time of year until the city forced the slumlords to install windows inside the flats for increased light and ventilation.

It was a strange experience, standing in rooms that had a window instead of a wall between them, trying to imagine what it had been like to live there. Families of five or six, sometimes with another two people as lodgers, slept, ate, washed and often worked as well- the mother as a seamstress or the whole extended family as a sweatshop for the garment industry- in these caves with staircases. People got sick and needed to be nursed; meals had to be made and eaten; sex had to be managed; bodies had to be washed (although the adults relied on public baths); and homemade entertainment had to be carried on in the same space and yet, by miracles of will and effort, the immigrants rarely lapsed into squalor. They were houseproud- if you can be houseproud without having a house. They cherished the battered, second-hand furniture they bought, often off the dead. They spent the few, pathetic cents they could spare from susbsistence on doillies, antimacassars and floral wallpaper.

Since we tend to see history in black and white, it was the colours (that wallpaper!) at 97 Orchard Street that surprised me. Otherwise, there wasn’t a lot to see since, as I said, the immigrants had little or nothing to leave. Perhaps because of the uneven floors and the tilting geometry of the flats, where cheaply built walls and ceilings are out of square, the tenements seemed like extensions of the ships that brought the “poor and huddled masses” from Europe in the first place, more like forms of transport than of shelter. The tenements weren’t a destination, just a stop along the line, the horizontal, geographical line which the immigrants turned into a vertical, economic escalator, turning America itself into an escalator in the process- the rollercoaster ride we know as the American Dream.

Between 1890 and 1910, the immigrants came from Russia, Germany, Austria and Poland. World War Two brought a new wave from eastern Europe, primarily Russian and Polish Jews. By 1960, they were all gone and the Lower East was changing towards its current configuration of 50% Chinese and 25% Hispanics. It all happened that fast. Start to finish, the whole thing took place almost within living memory. In the late 1990s, my wife’s two friends are among the immigrants’ heirs, gone from peasants to millionaires in four- at the most five-generations.

As I stood in the last of the restored apartments- there are three so far and the Museum hopes to restore them all in time- I listened to my fellow visitors talking to our guide and asking questions. The Europeans all wanted to know things like, how did the immigrants feel about being ruthlessly exploited in their adopted country? Did they ever revolt? Were the slumlords ever brought to book? To the Europeans, the tenements were examples of poverty and social injustice. On the other hand, the Americans were full of nostalgia for the way their ancestors lived and what they achieved. To them, the tenements were the first act in a drama of individual enterprise and freedom which ended happily in their own wealth and success. “That’s America!” they repeated to one another over and over again, shaking their heads with wonder and patriotic pride.

The three most important events in American history were the American Revolution, the Civil War and the mass immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While numerous historical sites commemorate the first two, until recently there were few physical memorials to the immigrants. Then Ellis Island re-opened to the public and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum took over 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan and restored it as an example of an original tenement (according to its creators, one of only two in the world. The other is in Scotland).

There’s something odd about the Orchard Street project, for all its worthiness. We’re used to viewing restored palaces and cathedrals, but a restored hovel? A museum is only as good as the artefacts it displays but the immigrnats were too poor to own anything except a few bits of early industrial dross- a biscuit tin; a hairbrush; a swatch of mass-produced lace. What made the Immigrant Experience (as somebody will surely dub it, if they haven’t done so already) a major historical event was their sheer numbers- and nothing can recreate the crush, the noise and the smells of even a fraction of that indigent army.

17 million people passed through Ellis Island. At any one time, 100 people crammed into the 20 tiny flats at no 97 Orchard Street. Nowadays, Orchard Street itself is empty on a weekday, while the Lower East Side as a whole has become one of those semi-detached, anonymous areas you find in big cities, quarters that have fallen into an urban trance in which they await the arrival of a gentrifying prince or the kiss of the developer’s wrecking ball. Even the ever-inventive New York tourist authorities haven’t been able to find a way to market it. Stencilled on labels attached to the lamposts along Orchard and the surrounding streets, like collars around the necks of dogs, is the only identity the city has managed to come up with, the dreary tag of “Historic Bargain District”.

One spring afternoon, I went down to Orchard Street together with my wife and two, older American friends, both of whose families arrived in the country towards the end of the great immigrations, to find out how the immigrants lived. A dozen of us assembled on the sidewalk to wait for our guide. Half were Americans. Half were foreign tourists including a pair of young German backpackers and two retired couples from England. Dutifully, we stared up at no 97, a five-storey redbrick building with a flat roof, two shops on the ground floor, and a “stoop”- a steep flights of steps running up between the shop fronts to the main door on the floor above. Rusting fire escapes covered the tenement like cast-iron versions of a creeping vine or tendril. At the point where the facade met the roof, there was one of those decorated corniches which, to European eyes, look as if someone has broken off a section of moulding from an interior ceiling and stuck it on the outside of the house.

Our guide told us that no 97 is under 100 feet wide, which would have made it illegal to build only a few years after its construction in 1863. 100 feet is not much space. Yet between 1863 and 1935, when the owners closed it down rather than improve it to the standards of a later city code, 10,000 people passed through no 97, lived there, loved, laughed and cried there, and either died there or moved on and out to the outer boroughs- Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx- then newly connected to Manhattan by subway. Later, their children and their children’s children moved out still farther to colonise the lush suburbs of Conneticut and Long Island.

It struck me that the most authentic immigrant museum would be a Spiritualist Museum, staffed by trained mediums who could summon up the ghosts of those 10,000 and the millions like them. Instead, we dozen living souls squeezed into the narrow entrance and up the even narrower stairs of no. 97 while our guide explained what makes a tenement a tenement, as opposed to an ordinary flat. There are no hallways or internal corridors. Tenements flats were also known as “railroad flats” because you step straight from the door of each flat into the first room, then from the first room into the second, and so on (there were never more than three rooms) like walking between the carriages in a train. There’s no toilet. The toilet was outside, in the yard, or later, when conditions improved, on the landing, shared with everyone else. There’s no bath. The bath was the sink with its single, cold-water tap (hence the other nickname for tenements, “cold-water flats”). New York’s climate is notoriously brutal, with bitter cold in winter and suffocating heat and humidity in summer, but the only heat in the flats came from the all-purpose stove and, needless to say, there was no air conditioning. Nor was there much light at any time of year until the city forced the slumlords to install windows inside the flats for increased light and ventilation.

It was a strange experience, standing in rooms that had a window instead of a wall between them, trying to imagine what it had been like to live there. Families of five or six, sometimes with another two people as lodgers, slept, ate, washed and often worked as well- the mother as a seamstress or the whole extended family as a sweatshop for the garment industry- in these caves with staircases. People got sick and needed to be nursed; meals had to be made and eaten; sex had to be managed; bodies had to be washed (although the adults relied on public baths); and homemade entertainment had to be carried on in the same space and yet, by miracles of will and effort, the immigrants rarely lapsed into squalor. They were houseproud- if you can be houseproud without having a house. They cherished the battered, second-hand furniture they bought, often off the dead. They spent the few, pathetic cents they could spare from susbsistence on doillies, antimacassars and floral wallpaper.

Since we tend to see history in black and white, it was the colours (that wallpaper!) at 97 Orchard Street that surprised me. Otherwise, there wasn’t a lot to see since, as I said, the immigrants had little or nothing to leave. Perhaps because of the uneven floors and the tilting geometry of the flats, where cheaply built walls and ceilings are out of square, the tenements seemed like extensions of the ships that brought the “poor and huddled masses” from Europe in the first place, more like forms of transport than of shelter. The tenements weren’t a destination, just a stop along the line, the horizontal, geographical line which the immigrants turned into a vertical, economic escalator, turning America itself into an escalator in the process- the rollercoaster ride we know as the American Dream.

Between 1890 and 1910, the immigrants came from Russia, Germany, Austria and Poland. World War Two brought a new wave from eastern Europe, primarily Russian and Polish Jews. By 1960, they were all gone and the Lower East was changing towards its current configuration of 50% Chinese and 25% Hispanics. It all happened that fast. Start to finish, the whole thing took place almost within living memory. In the late 1990s, my wife’s two friends are among the immigrants’ heirs, gone from peasants to millionaires in four- at the most five-generations.

As I stood in the last of the restored apartments- there are three so far and the Museum hopes to restore them all in time- I listened to my fellow visitors talking to our guide and asking questions. The Europeans all wanted to know things like, how did the immigrants feel about being ruthlessly exploited in their adopted country? Did they ever revolt? Were the slumlords ever brought to book? To the Europeans, the tenements were examples of poverty and social injustice. On the other hand, the Americans were full of nostalgia for the way their ancestors lived and what they achieved. To them, the tenements were the first act in a drama of individual enterprise and freedom which ended happily in their own wealth and success. “That’s America!” they repeated to one another over and over again, shaking their heads with wonder and patriotic pride.

As I stood in the last of the restored apartments- there are three so far and the Museum hopes to restore them all in time- I listened to my fellow visitors talking to our guide and asking questions. The Europeans all wanted to know things like, how did the immigrants feel about being ruthlessly exploited in their adopted country? Did they ever revolt? Were the slumlords ever brought to book? To the Europeans, the tenements were examples of poverty and social injustice. On the other hand, the Americans were full of nostalgia for the way their ancestors lived and what they achieved. To them, the tenements were the first act in a drama of individual enterprise and freedom which ended happily in their own wealth and success. “That’s America!” they repeated to one another over and over again, shaking their heads with wonder and patriotic pride.

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014