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A testament to hope

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan gives visitors a glimpse of the harsh, cramped conditions many immigrants found themselves in when they came to America seeking a better life.

By TERESA BURNEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 1999


But not long after passing through Ellis Island's gates during the late 1800s and early 1900s, many found that America had its own place for the huddled masses -- New York's Lower East Side.

At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, visitors can catch a glimpse of how many immigrants lived when they first got to America. It also provides a glimpse of the frustrated aspirations -- for space, for light, for privacy -- that sent their descendents scattering to the suburbs in the second half of the 20th century.

Around 1900, as many as 230,000 people squeezed into a square mile near Manhattan's southern tip. It was a spot where immigrants from 20 or more countries settled. And for many, their first home in America was a tenement.

There, many found themselves just as tired and poor as they had been in the old country. And, while they were free, it was sometimes difficult to breathe in dark apartments where windows were few and where eight or 10 people squeezed into spaces half the size of a modern one-bedroom apartment.

The crowded, unsanitary, conditions bred tuberculosis, typhoid and cholera. Four of 10 children, weakened by poverty and bombarded with germs, didn't make it to adulthood.

A group concerned that people would forget how many ordinary people lived when they first arrived in America acquired a five-story building at 97 Orchard St. in 1988 and slowly has been restoring its apartments to show how they would have looked during different times in the building's history.

The red brick building was constructed in 1863 as a tenement and remained so until 1935, when new housing codes made it too expensive to renovate. Museum organizers estimate as many as 10,000 people lived in the 22 apartments over the course of 72 years.

Renting a 325-square-foot apartment at 97 Orchard St. cost between $8 and $15 a month, depending on the time period. No matter what the year, the rent amounted to about 70 percent of an average worker's income, according to tour guide Rachel Cirincione.

Nicer places could be had in better sections of Manhattan, but new immigrants were often tied to the area because their work was nearby and they lacked transportation, according to Jacob A. Riis' book, How the Other Half Lives.

Today, 97 Orchard St. looks fine from the outside, with its Italianate design. And the building's lobby makes you wonder what everybody was complaining about.

The restored walls of the narrow lobby have been papered with canvas treated to look like leather. There are small paintings on the canvas, attractive mosaic tile on the floor and a decorative tin ceiling.

But the ornamentation was a trick to get people to rent the apartments, said Cirincione. The decoration was added sometime near the turn of the century, after the first housing codes required halls to be lit. The new gas lights exposed the lobby's filth, and people refused to rent there.

"Tenants never got to see the apartments" before they rented, she said. The landlord would stand on the stairs and show off the hallway, then insist on cash upfront from those duped by the handsome entry hall.

Upstairs they found a shotgun apartment with three rooms. The largest was 11 by 12 feet; the smallest, an interior bedroom with no windows, was 8 by 6. The apartments have only two windows open to natural light, both in the front room. In the early years there was no running water or inside toilets. Heat, if there was any, came from coal stoves. Tenants had to provide their own coal.

The museum has renovated three apartments in the old tenement to show how the rooms would have looked during three periods in the building's history. Researchers studied the layers of wallpaper, paint and linoleum to determine what might have been there in each era. And they have researched the lives of three families who lived in the building.

The Gumpertz family, German-Jewish immigrants, lived at 97 Orchard St. in the 1870s through the 1880s, during a deep depression. Nathalie Gumpertz became a single parent to three daughters and an infant son around 1874, when her husband failed to come home from his job as a heelmaker.

Times were hard and many men committed suicide or left when they couldn't face watching their families starve, Cirincione said.

Nathalie Gumpertz became a seamstress to support her family. The re-created Gumpertz apartment has a treadle sewing machine against one of the two windows. By all accounts, Gumpertz had plenty of business. There were no off-the-rack clothes at the time, and women wore elaborate clothes that fit tightly. Customers had to come for five to seven fittings on a dress.

Nine people lived in the Rogarshevsky apartment during 1918. The four boys slept in the "front room" with their heads on the couch and their legs on chairs. The two girls made do with a twin-sized bed in the cooking area. And Dad, who was dying of tuberculosis, inhabited the interior "bedroom," with his wife. The museum's curators aren't sure where their boarder, Clara, slept, probably on top of the unit's one sink.

The Rogarshevsky apartment is set up as it would have appeared when the Lithuanian-Jewish family sat shiva, in mourning, on uncomfortable wooden stools at father Abraham's death.

Life may have been crowded, but it wasn't always cheerless in the tenement.

Josephine Baldizzi Esposito, who lived across from the Rogarshevsky family in the 1930s, remembers the tenement as cold and dimly lit, but she has fond memories of her childhood there during the Depression. She told museum researchers of playing dress-up in the tiny inside room she shared with her brother. She also remembers looking through the interior window across the air shaft to the Rogarshevsky apartment. (By then they had changed their name to Rosenthal.) On Friday evenings Mrs. Rosenthal would motion for the Sicilian-Catholic child to come and turn on their light so the Jewish family wouldn't violate their Sabbath.

The Baldizzis grew morning glories in their apartment's two exterior windows, and Esposito's mother covered every flat surface with cloth or lace to brighten it up.

Her father, who was a carpenter, had trouble finding work and the family resorted to accepting donated food, which came in a wooden box marked "RELIEF." Her father spray-painted over the embarrassing word before bringing the boxes home to Orchard Street. The Baldizzis shared an indoor toilet in the hall with another family. Hot water was available, too, but at the price of a quarter deposited in a slot by the sink.

Tour guides say that 97 Orchard St. wasn't the worst of the Lower East Side tenements. The building's owner, Lucas Glockner, lived there when the tenement was first built, assuring at least a minimum level of cleanliness.

And, like many landlords today, the caretakers of 97 Orchard St. added improvements only when they were required to by city law.

In 1901, New York City passed its first major housing law. Landlords fought the measure, but the Supreme Court upheld it in 1905. The new law required that stairways be illuminated and windows be cut in the walls of some interior rooms.

Air shafts were added for ventilation and indoor toilets, one for every two families, were required.

The building was renovated to meet that code, but when the code became more stringent in the 1930s, the landlord of that era decided he couldn't afford the upgrades. He closed the building to apartment tenants.


The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan gives visitors a glimpse of the harsh, cramped conditions many immigrants found themselves in when they came to America seeking a better life.

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

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