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Museum Shows Slice of 19th Century Immigrant Life in US - 2002-04-24


Starting at the turn of the century, huge waves of immigrants flowed into the United States through New York. A great many of these immigrants ended up settling in Lower Manhattan.

The history of the United States and the story of its immigrants are indivisible. This sometimes troubled, but enduring and fruitful marriage is celebrated at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

In turn-of-the-century New York real estate terms, tenements were low-income housing for multiple families.

Families and extended families five, 10, sometimes 12 in number crammed into small, three-room apartments in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many of those homes doubled as small workplaces during the day, where many families made clothing.

This is how millions of U.S. immigrants initially experienced the New World. According to Robin Marcato, the museum's marketing director, the Tenement Museum is unique in its commemoration of these humble beginnings.

"It talks about the Depression, and the daily lives of people who were just trying to make it through. That's my history, that's most people's history. There are tons of museums across the country, and historic homes and mansions, log cabins, and they all glorify people who are famous or rich or that sort of thing, and this is really about people you know," Ms. Marcato said.

The museum was founded in 1994 as a place where longtime Americans, whose families had come here generations ago, could meet their symbolic ancestors, and gain an understanding of what their lives were like when they first arrived in the United States.

The museum has recently taken over a building just across the street from its main visitor's center. The building at 97 Orchard Street was home for some 7,000 immigrants from 1863 until it was abandoned in 1935. The museum researched occupant records of the building and then recreated in immaculate detail the homes of four of 97 Orchard Street's original families: Polish immigrants Harris and Jenny Levine; the Gumpertz family, who came from Germany in the 1870s; the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family; and the Rogarshevsky family, Orthodox Jews who occupied the building for over 35 years.

Single mother Nathalie Gumpertz was a seamstress. In the Gumpertz apartment, you can see her sewing machine set up just near the window, where the light was best. The walls are papered with a bright floral print - a demonstration, perhaps, of Nathalie's effort to bring some cheer to her cramped quarters.

In the Rogarshevsky's apartment, the mood is darker. Family patriarch Abraham Rogarshevsky has passed away, and a meal of oranges, buns, and eggs for those in mourning is out on the small table in the parlor. In keeping with Jewish custom, the mirrors in the apartment are covered.

Museum curator Steven Long said the apartments are much more than a nostalgic look into the past. "The more that I learned about the Tenement Museum and the immigrant stories 97 Orchard Street held, I learned that - talk about how the past can be a reservoir for the present - the same problems and difficulties that 97 Orchard Street's residents faced, in many cases, are the same problems that we face today. So, rather than re-inventing the wheel, let's take a look at what succeeded and failed in the past. How did they overcome difficulties? Maybe that can help inform how we fact these same problems today," Mr. Long said.

He gives tours of 97 Orchard Street. A recent tour participant from Florida, Deli Weinberg, felt that the museum has particular relevance in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks.

"I feel that there's a tremendous backlash, I feel there are people who want us to have a closed United States. I feel it's very important for people to understand that most of us came from someplace else. We were lucky. And so many people are not lucky. And when you see what's happening in so many poor countries, you want to just say, 'Let's open our arms.' Somebody helped out my ancestors. We're buying our grandchildren books and I want them to know that other people struggled so that they could have a happy life here in the United States," Ms. Weinberg said.

About 90,000 people come to the Tenement Museum each year. The latest is exhibit attempts to recapture the physical and mental isolation of working in a garment factory in the turn of the century.

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