A blazing kiln perches on a sidewalk in the middle of the day, a mysterious extension of the Chinese laundry nearby. Lost to the world around them, three men are studiously casting packet after packet of gilded tissue paper into the hungry flames. They are, it turns out, observing a Chinese ritual of sending money to the dead. It’s just another day in New York, celebrated city of immigrants.
Just around the corner from this scene, ancestor spirits are being pulled back to the present. At the Tenement Museum, their true stories testify to just how far Americans have traveled. The museum “summons the ghosts of the past,” as president Morris Vogel puts it, to show those of us living today where we started.
Millions of people passed through this Lower East Side neighborhood on their way from old country to new world. They came with nothing, lived one on top of the other, created opportunities where none existed before, and helped forge the identity of a nation. Between 1863 and 1935, 7,000 individuals lived in 97 Orchard Street—now the site of the Tenement Museum.
”The building was condemned in 1935 but never got torn down. The ground floor was used for many years as a family saloon, a discount underwear shop, and for other commercial activities. In the late 1980s, historian Ruth Abram raised funds to buy the building and sent “an army of graduate students” to sleuth out anything that could be learned about its former residents. The troops pieced together records to reveal the stories of several families who lived in 97 Orchard Street at different points in time. Their apartments were then re-created with period artifacts to give an intimate glimpse of actual lives.
One apartment introduces the Rogarshevskys, Lithuanian immigrants at the turn of the century struggling to decide which of their traditions are essential even in their new land, and which they must leave behind. Another showcases the Baldizzis, Depression-era Italians who like many others found work in a garment factory. Another dramatizes the Irish Moore family struggling to keep body and soul together. One little home brings to life the Gumpertz family, Germans who sought a better lot here in the 1870s but at first found conditions as dire as they were back home. Not long after they arrived the father abandoned them, never to return, but the gift of a sewing machine from a neighborhood Jewish charity allowed the mother to keep her family from becoming destitute.
Eventually they prospered. As in the other apartments, a side table contains a file that brings us up to date on the family’s story. Nathalie Gumpertz’s great-grandson served in World War II. He went on to become a professor at Yale, where he taught future President George H. W. Bush. His son died in the 9/11 attacks.
New York donors Shelby White and Leon Levy got involved with the museum early on, when it came to light that their family owned one of the buildings on the block. They helped convert the building into an education center, naming it for Levy’s mother. “The way they have captured a part of the history of the city, it just can’t be replicated,” says White. “It shows how people came, lived under difficult conditions, and triumphed over them. That’s the American dream.”
Philanthropist Merryl Zegar, co-chair of the museum board, is leading a $20 million capital campaign to expand the facility. A tenement further down the block that continued to house people after 1935 will be used to tell more recent stories: Holocaust refugees, mid-century Chinese immigrants, more recent arrivals from the Caribbean.
Like White, Levy, and many other Americans, Zegar can trace her own lineage to this area. Her grandfather grew up in this neighborhood and later started his own business—a candy store. “There’s so many of us who have these strings interwoven,” she says. “America is a great tapestry.”