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EXPLORATIONS - October 17, 2001: Tenement Museum - 2001-10-16


This is Steve Ember.


And this is Bob Doughty with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today, we tell about an unusual museum in New York City. It explores and celebrates the stories of people from different nations who came to the United States to live.



The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is one of the smaller, unusual museums in New York City. It lets visitors see and experience how early immigrants to the United States lived. The museum is a building at Ninety-Seven Orchard Street. It was one of the first tenements in New York City. It was built in Eighteen-Sixty-Three.

The word “tenement”comes from a Latin word meaning “to hold.” A “tenement” building holds many rooms where different families lived.

The word is not used much anymore in the United States. When people use the word today, they mean an old crowded building where poor families live in terrible, unhealthy conditions. But in the Eighteen-Hundreds, the word “tenement” simply meant a building in which many families lived.

Later, many immigrant families were able to improve their living conditions by moving from the lower east side to other areas of New York City. Some lived in the same kinds of buildings, but the living areas were cleaner and larger. They did not want to call them tenements, so they called them “apartment” buildings or “flats” instead.


History experts say that more than half of the people in New York City lived in tenements in Eighteen-Sixty-Three. To get one of these living areas, a family had to pay one month’s rent to the owner, usually about ten dollars. This money gave the family the use of about one-hundred square meters of living space often divided into three rooms.

The tenement building at Ninety-Seven Orchard Street shows the kind of space families had to live in. The front room was the largest. It was the only one with a window to the outside. Behind it were a kitchen for cooking and a small bedroom for sleeping. There was no running water, no toilets, showers or baths. Six areas where people left their body wastes were in the back yard, next to the only place to get drinking water. Such unhealthy conditions led to the spread of many diseases in such buildings.

Over the years, New York City officials passed laws to improve conditions in the tenements. The owners of Ninety-Seven Orchard Street placed gas lighting in the building in the Eighteen-Nineties. They added water and indoor toilets in Nineteen-Oh-Five, and electric power in Nineteen-Twenty-Four. But they refused to make any more required improvements. They closed the building in Nineteen-Thirty-Five.

The rooms remained closed until Nineteen-Eighty-Eight, although the street level of the building continued to be used as stores until Nineteen-Eighty-Seven. In the Nineteen-Nineties, the building was declared a National Historic Place protected by the federal government.


In recent years, museum officials have been researching the history of the building and its twenty apartments. Museum researchers found more than one-thousand objects that belonged to people who lived there during the years. These include kitchen devices, medicine bottles, letters, newspapers, old metal money and pieces of cloth. They have also learned the histories of many of the seven-thousand people from more than twenty countries who lived there. And they have spoken with and recorded the memories of people who lived at Ninety-Seven Orchard Street as children.

The museum officials used this information to re-create some of the apartments as they would have looked during four time periods in the building’s history. These four apartments are what visitors see when they go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Let us join one of the guided visits.



We are entering the apartment of the Gumpertz (GUM-perts) family. They were Jews from Germany who lived here in the Eighteen-Seventies.

On October seventh, Eighteen-Seventy-Four, Julius Gumpertz dressed for work, left the building and never returned. He left behind his wife Nathalie (NA-ta-lee) and their four children, ages eight months to seven years. Nathalie was forced to support her children by making dresses in the apartment. She earned about eight dollars a week, enough to pay for the apartment each month and send her children to school.


The Gumpertz apartment in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a sewing machine and other tools similar to those Nathalie used in her work. She made the largest room into her work space. That was where she saw people who wanted clothes made or repaired. It was also where she did the sewing.


This next apartment we see belonged to the Italian Baldizzi (bal-DEETS-ee) family during the period known as the Great Depression. Adolfo Baldizzi, his wife Rosaria (ro-SAR-ee-ya) and their two children moved to the Orchard Street tenement in Nineteen-Twenty-Eight. They quickly became friends with other families in the building. Their daughter Josephine liked to help other people. For example, every Friday night she would turn on the lights in the nearby apartment of the Rosenthal family. The Rosenthals could not turn on the lights themselves because it was the Jewish holy day.

Josephine Baldizzi remembers those long ago days. Here is a recording of her voice as she tells how she felt each week after seeing Missus Rosenthal in the window motioning to her to turn on the lights:


“ It made me feel very proud to have to do that. I used to feel good that she chose me to do that job for her. I can still see her till today—that vision of her in that window. It has never left my memory.”))


This third apartment belonged to the Rogarshevsky (RO-ga-shef-skee) family of Lithuania. They moved to Ninety-Seven Orchard Street sometime between Nineteen-Seven and Nineteen-Ten. Abraham and Fannie Rogarshevsky had six children. Abraham developed the disease tuberculosis. In this apartment, we can see some of the tools used to fight the disease. But the efforts did not cure him. Abraham Rogarshevsky died in Nineteen-Eighteen.

The table in the apartment is set with models of the kinds of foods that would have been eaten after Abraham’s funeral. The foods include hard boiled eggs and round bread. Both represent the circle of life, from birth to death.

Fannie Rogarshevsky was faced with the same problem that Nathalie Gumpertz had so many years earlier. What could she do to support her family? She got the owner of Ninety-Seven Orchard Street to let her clean and do other work in the building in exchange for rent.


The fourth apartment is an example of living history. It can be visited on a special tour. It belonged to the Confino (Con-FEE-no) family in Nineteen-Sixteen. Abraham and Rachel Confino had come to New York from what was the Ottoman Empire but now is part of Greece. They were Sephardic Jews, Jews who had been born in North African and Middle Eastern countries.

Visitors are welcomed here by a living history actress who plays the thirteen year old daughter Victoria Confino. She will tell about Victoria’s experience living in the building. Here, she explains the language of Sephardic Jews, called Ladino, and sings part of a sad Ladino song:


"Oh, it’s a very mixed up language. It’s like a little bit Spanish ... we call it Judeo Espanol ... and it’s a little bit Turkish, a little bit Hebrew ... a lot of languages mixed up all together. [sings Ladino song]"


Museum officials say one of the purposes of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is to provide its visitors with a usable past. They want visitors to use the stories of the people who lived in the building to start discussions about issues from the past that are important today. Examples of these kinds of problems include those of immigrants and single mothers who must deal with poor living conditions and find ways to build new lives.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has been trying to explore ways to help solve modern problems through understanding history. It is cooperating with other international historic places around the world to do this. The District Six Museum in South Africa, the Gulag Museum labor camp in Siberia, and Project Remember in Argentina are part of the project. Others are the Terazin Memorial in Czech Republic, the Work House in England and the Slave House in Senegal. Officials of these historic places are working together to help explore and solve modern problems in their own societies.



This Special English program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. Our studio engineer is Keith Holmes. This is Bob Doughty.


And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.