NEW YORK — European Jewish immigrants pouring into New York City in the late 19th or early 20th centuries usually ended up in the crowded tenements of the teeming Lower East Side.
There they adapted to America, the goldenne medine, and dreamed of forging a better future for themselves and their children and grandchildren.
One of the tenements that accommodated these huddled masses is located at 97 Orchard St., near the corner of Delancey Street, in the heart of a bustling, colourful district that now encompasses Chinatown and Little Italy.
By all accounts, this five-storey red brick tenement was home to about 7,000 immigrants from more than 20 countries between 1863 and 1935.
Since the late 1980s, this non-descript building has housed the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a renovated time capsule that imparts a flavour of that era’s living conditions.
One of the first high-rise residential buildings in the city, and the first tenement to be added to the National Register of Historic Places in the United States, it was built by German-born entrepreneur Lukas Glockner when this area was known as Kleine Deutschland, or Little Germany.
With the passage of time, Germans moved out and eastern European Jews, Italians, Chinese and Poles moved in, giving it a polyglot hue.
Originally, the tenement contained 22 apartments and a basement level saloon, but modifications converted two flats into commercial space. By the dawn of the 20th century, 97 Orchard St. had some 70 tenants, many from Prussia, residing in 20 units.
The museum is open seven days a week and can be seen only by guided tour from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It offers five tours of the tenement, which is officially defined as a building housing three or more unrelated families. Four of the tours last 60 minutes each, and the grand tour is two hours long.
The 60 minute tours are “Getting By,” which focuses on a German-Jewish and an Italian Catholic family; “Piecing It Together,” which is about two Jewish families; “The Moores: An Irish Family in America,” which showcases the Irish experience in the United States, and “Confino Family Program,” which concentrates on a newly arrived Sephardi family from Greece.
“Past and Present” is an amalgamation of the first two tours. In addition, the museum offers 90-minute and 120-minute walking tours of the Lower East Side.
I opted for the “Getting By” tour, which zeroes in on the Gumpertz and Baldizzi families.
Julius and Nathalie Gumpertz were Prussian Jews, he a shoemaker and she a seamstress. They arrived in America after the financial panic of 1873.
The couple and their four children – Rosa, Nannie, Olga and Isaac, who died in infancy – lived on the second floor, which was accessible via a creaky flight of stairs.
Their dark, gloomy, virtually windowless flat was small, a mere 325 square feet, and their furniture was utilitarian and drab.
They had no central heating and were dependent on a coal-burning stove in the kitchen. Initially, they had no indoor plumbing and were reliant on outhouses in the backyard. After 1900, they had cold running water, gas and electricity.
Their story, as told by a guide, is infinitely sad. Julius, perhaps in desperation over his failure to make ends meet, abandoned his family one fine day and never returned.
Forced to fend for herself and her children, Nathalie rustled up piecework from nearby garment factories, toiling over a sewing machine in her living room, which has a view of a street.
Adolpho and Rosario Baldizzi arrived in the United States from Italy in 1928, when conditions in the tenement had improved.
Their flat, no larger than that of the Gumpertz family, was lit by an electric bulb and had a toilet and spigots dispensing cold water. This was progress, but the Baldizzis were nevertheless poor and had to struggle.
Adolpho was a freelance carpenter who eked out a precarious livelihood. He could never be sure he would earn a penny on a given day. He could only hope that someone would hire him as he waited on the curb for a job. His toolbox sits on the floor, a testament to his trade.
His daughter, in a tape recording, reminisces about life in this apartment, speaking in a thick New York accent.
The tour ends in a third flat, which is completely empty. In 1935, the landlord sealed the upper floors and evicted the tenants, leaving only the stoop-level and basement storefronts occupied.
He permitted merchants to keep goods in this apartment, which has been deliberately left in its grungy original condition. The wooden floors are dirty. The walls are grubby. The ceiling is peeling.
If nothing else, this shabby apartment portrays life as it might have been in a Lower East Side tenement once upon a time.
For more information, visit the museum’s website, www.tenement.org, or call 212-982-8420.