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Welcome to America
If you're in for a serious summer trip, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum takes you to turn-of-the-century New York and the story of an immigrant family.
By REVA LUTH-POWELL
Published July 14, 2003
NEW YORK - At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, visitors don't just take a look at history. They become part of it.
Museum guests are told to pretend that they're in a time machine that takes them to the early 1900s and to imagine that they have just arrived in America from another country.
As the time machine whirs to 1913, visitors meet Victoria Confino, a 16-year-old Turkish girl who came to America when she was 10 along with eight family members. After six years, she knows how to get along in America, and she will be able to help you figure out what to do as a new immigrant.
As visitors climb the steps to Victoria's apartment, she greets them at the door and invites them to find a seat in the small, three-room apartment.
Pretending to be new immigrants, visitors have many questions for Victoria, who tells them how to fit in as an "American": They must find a place to live, work, buy food and clothes, and practice their religion.
For most immigrants, money was a big thing: They didn't have much of it, and they needed a place to live. Without much money or a job, Victoria tells the newcomers, they need to get in touch with someone they know to help them get settled and show them around the city.
Victoria says that for many families, the choice is a three-room "apartment" called a tenement, like where she and her family live. They fit nine people into two small rooms and the kitchen. Victoria's parents share a room with her baby brother. Victoria and two of her brothers sleep on the kitchen floor on a "mantas," a mat woven with goat's hair. The other four sleep in the third room on crates or chairs with blankets or a manta for cushioning.
"That's all the room we had," Victoria says with a thick Turkish accent, "so we had to make it work, and we did. You will, too."
Bathrooms were a huge problem for immigrants. When the tenements were built, outhouses were behind the buildings. As the years went on, the owner had to keep up with the New York City building codes by adding indoor plumbing. Two families had to share an indoor bathroom, but it was the size of a stall in a modern bathroom.
The bathroom didn't have a sink or a tub. Some immigrants boiled water in their homes, poured it into a bowl and used a washcloth to bathe, like Victoria and her family. Others paid 2 cents for soap, a towel and five minutes in the shower at a public bathhouse. Bathers who were still soapy after the five minutes had to pay another 2 cents to rinse off.
For many people, what they received for a day's wages went for a shower. The immigrants also needed the money to buy food and pay their rent. Popular jobs were working as a peddler, working in factories and sewing clothes. Victoria's father is a peddler who sells fruit and vegetables. Many families in the tenements turned their homes into a shop by day. For some immigrants today, that is still a reality.
Some visitors giggle as Victoria tells them that they should have left their life preservers on the boat (she was talking about their jackets). But the comment is important. The immigrants needed to blend in because they wanted as much respect as they could from people born in the United States.
Victoria and her family were Jewish, and they needed to find a place to worship. A small synagogue was around the corner from her tenement building at 280 Broome St. It was small but perfect for their prayers. The synagogue is still functioning, and it is the only Romaniote congregation in the Western Hemisphere.
It was challenging to be an immigrant in the early 1900s. It remains a challenge today. People immigrating to this country have many of the same questions as those who came to America back then.
- Reva Luth-Powell, 13, recently completed eighth grade at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg. She and her mother visited the New York museum while on a family trip to New Jersey.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
90 Orchard St., New York, N.Y.
Hours: Vary based on the tour
Tickets: Ticket prices vary by tour and can be purchased through TicketWeb at toll-free 1-800-965-4827 open 1 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the East Coast or at www.ticketweb.com Service fees for TicketWeb's Web-based sales are lower than those for its phone service.