October 8, 2010
“There are many New Yorks” a New Yorker friend recently told me. It’s obvious when you think about it. How could there not be? Ellis Island, in the city’s harbour, was once the gateway to America for immigrants from almost every corner of Europe, and NYC continues to be the first (and often final) stop for many who dream the American Dream.
With so many millions of people with so many stories there are naturally almost as many opinions on what New York is. So, for the curious visitor, who wants to go beyond the skyscrapers, Broadway and the usual Big Apple must-sees, finding the ‘real’ New York is not easy.
It was certainly reassuring then, when taking a tour of the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, that half of the group I happened to join were city residents or ex-residents, loaded with local knowledge but eager to fill in some gaps. This is the New York (or at least a New York) that New Yorkers want to know about.
The museum itself is an unassuming building at 97 Orchard Street, which had lain derelict for 50 years when co-founders Ruth Abrams and Anita Jacobson discovered it in the late 80s. With numerous features from the turn of the twentieth century still in place, it was a ‘time capsule’, the perfect locale for telling the story of one-time LES inhabitants. And its ordinariness is what makes it so interesting.
Each floor now tells the vivid story of a different family who once dwelled there. The Piecing It Together tour, for example, looks at the third floor home of the Levines, whose cramped quarters were both home and workshop during a period when 70% of all American clothing was produced within this one small district. Restored with authentic props the painstaking attention to period detail brings to life tough, competitive times when the area below Manhattan’s 14th Street was the most densely populated on Earth.
The tours run for an hour but pack in as much as you’d probably learn in twice that time wandering the rooms of a “˜regular’ museum, where you read everything and forget it all the instant you step outside. And the museum’s informed and enthusiastic guide team really enliven your visit, giving it a sense of tribute, overdue homage to the ordinary, to the under-acknowledged immigrant architects of the urban American experience.
For great deals on getting to New York, visit Virgin Atlantic for daily flights from London to NYC. Photos courtesy of The Tenement Museum and Shelley Panzarella on Flickr. Orchard St sign by Spodeworld.