Every now and then, I come across something that truly blows me away. That was the Tenement Museum in New York City for me.
I had been visiting Manhattan once or twice a year for decades, and never made it to the museum until a few years ago. In this case, it was perfect timing as I had recently become interested in genealogy, and was actively researching the ancestors in my family tree.
I found a very personal connection with one of the tours, and for years, try to visit the museum whenever I can. Why? Because there’s no more important time to learn more about immigration than now.
This museum offers visitors the ability to step into the past to learn about immigration and migration and its impact on our lives. It’s really as simple as that.
Through the stories, you can learn about a slice of our country’s history. You get to know a family and what their lives were like. And you have the opportunity to walk through their home as it may have once been to really immerse yourself in the story—the story of someone’s life.
It’s fascinating, compelling, and truly important.
This post will share information about the Tenement Museum including its mission and what you can expect from the tours. Their tours include in-person apartment, walking tours, and virtual tours. It will also address why it’s a great idea to support their incredible work.
Note: I did work with a representative from the museum to secure photos (pictures are not allowed inside the building). I was not compensated in any way for this post, and it 100% reflects my thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences.
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information.
What Is the Tenement Museum?
“The Tenement Museum celebrates the enduring stories that define and strengthen what it means to be American.” During the tours, the educators share stories about the immigrant families that once lived in the tenement buildings.
They also share the stories about the Lower East Side of Manhattan surrounding their two buildings. You get not only information about the family covered in the tour but the context surrounding their life.
These aren’t the stories you’ve heard in schoolbooks of people doing great things. But everyday, ordinary people whose hard work built the nation.
Tours immerse visitors in tenement life. You’ll walk through the hallways where the family once walked and stand in their kitchens and parlors where their lives were shaped.
The information shared includes both primary research and talking with the family’s ancestors themselves. They also do extensive secondary research.
The Tenement Museum’s goal is “to build an inclusive and expansive American identity.” Though this, they believe the exploration of the US’s complex history “helps prepare us to recognize and discuss today’s complex issues with empathy and nuance.”
They do an incredible job of offering historical perspectives and relating them to current discussions about immigration. And they do it in a very poignant and personal way.
These are not just stories of people who accomplished great things but of people and families who overcame the odds, struggled, loved, and lived.
They could be your ancestors or mine. And through learning about them, we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us that shapes our lives.
Tenement Museum in New York City Tours
During the tours, you hear stories of working-class tenement residents that came from other countries. It was these people that built New York City and the US, and by learning their stories, we can learn more about our country and ourselves.
The Tenement Museum offers three types of tours:
- Apartment tours—Walk through one of the two tenement buildings owned by the museum and a historically recreated apartment similar to the one the family once lived in.
- Neighborhood tours—These tours walk around the neighborhood in the Lower East Side around the tenement buildings to share what life was like outside their apartment. They also share changes in the neighborhood since the time of the tenements.
- Virtual tours—An online tour of one of the apartments, similar to an apartment tour but not in-person. These tours are great for those who don’t live near New York City.
The Tenement Museum apartment tours walk through historically recreated tenement apartments. Not only do you learn about a family (or families) that once lived there, but you have the opportunity to walk through that space.
You can see and experience how immigrants once lived during the 19th and 20th centuries on the Lower East Side of New York. It’s an incredible journey through the past and so different from reading about it in a book.
If you have family that immigrated to the US during this time period, or even before, you can get a good feel for what their life was like. It makes their stories incredibly personal.
There are a number of apartment tours offered at the Tenement Museum. They do change periodically, so my aim with this section is not to profile all of the tours but to share just a few. This will give you a good understanding of what you can expect from the tours.
Some of the tours profile a family during a certain time period. Others compare the similarities and differences between families from different countries, ethnicities, and pasts. Both are incredibly interesting and worth seeing.
100 Years Apart
Through the experiences of Nathalie Gumpertz and Mrs. Wong, this unique tour allows you to explore how immigrant women coped with economic hardship.
The recreated Gumpertz tenement apartment is from the 1880s. The Gumpertz family primary breadwinner disappeared during the Panic of 1873, leaving Nathalie to care for her large family on her own.
You can only imagine her fear amid the heartache that her husband and father of her children left them to fend for their own. During the tour, you’ll learn the history of the time through the life of this family, desperate for survival.
Photo Credit: Gemma Solomons
Next, you’ll visit an interactive, recreated 1980s Chinatown garment shop. It’s designed to connect you directly to Mrs. Wong’s memories, as well as her children and coworkers.
During this tour, you’ll learn what life was like for the families. And you’ll hear how these two women who lived a century apart shared similar struggles. Their shared stories, hopes, and survival strategies helped them to create new lives to support their families while working in New York City’s garment industry.
How did these two very different families—a 19th-century German-Jewish immigrant and a 20th-century Chinese immigrant rely on their communities during hard times? Take this tour to find out more.
Day in the Life: 1902
This tour is a combined apartment and neighborhood walking tour. It takes you into the world of tenement families to explore the challenges and changes that were faced by Jewish immigrant mothers in 1902 through the Levine family.
Visit their tenement apartment, where Jennie Levine managed the household and oversaw their family finances. Meanwhile, her husband ran a garment factory in their front room.
Photo credit: Gemma Solomons
Then, learn a bit about the neighborhood activities at that time. Walk in the Lower East Side neighborhood and learn more about the kosher meat boycott of 1902.
Find out how the women organized it and learn about the boycott, led by women just like Jennie, which both united and divided the Jewish Lower East Side neighborhood.
Through this informative and interactive tour, you’ll see how women asserted their rights before they even had rights as citizens. And you’ll learn how they came to inspire future generations and movements.
Photo credit: Tenement Museum Collection
Day in the Life: 1933
The last highlighted tour delves into the life of the Baldizzi family in 1933.
The historical framing includes the Great Depression as well as sweeping barriers to immigration that impacted families like theirs in the Lower East Side.
Their New York-born daughter, Josephine, shared her memories of this tour. During it, you’ll explore how her Italian immigrant parents lived during this time. They were in the museum’s 103 Orchard Street tenement building.
Next, you’ll step out into the neighborhood to learn about the community perspective. During this time, you’ll talk about how they and families like them were getting by during this horrible national crisis.
This is an interactive tour where you’ll discuss who the family could have turned to for support. Also, the discussion will center around how the neighborhood was changing because of the Depression.
Last, you’ll talk about how the Baldizzi family stories have a strong connection with our stories today.
Photo credit: Gemma Solomons
Neighborhood Walking Tours
The Tenement Museum offers neighborhood walking tours in the lower east side around the tenement buildings.
These have been offered for a few years before the global pandemic. They are a great opportunity to participate in their interesting and educational tours if you don’t wish to be indoors right now.
They also provide an incredible perspective of life right outside the tenement building. Though much of the neighborhood has changed since the 1800s and 1900s, some have not. And they have photos that they share of what certain areas once looked like.
Since I live across the country from the Tenement Museum of New York City and only get to visit periodically, I especially appreciate the virtual tours. They may have increased during the pandemic, though if they were offered before, I wasn’t aware.
During that time, they increased the numbers as they closed down for a period of time for safety reasons (and requirements). The museum does a fantastic job of interactive engagement on Zoom calls, not an easy thing to do.
I joined a call where they shared the importance of pickles in the Lower East Side. In the last part of the talk, they shared a recipe and encouraged people to follow along to make pickles.
They hold a lot of other calls on specific topics, enabling people to ask lots of questions. The discussions include speakers as well as visual aids to support the conversation.
I also watched an incredible one on Puerto Rican music that included the music as well as a discussion of the cultural importance of music on immigrants and others.
All virtual tours and conversations include a link to watch it later in case you missed it or want to re-watch it. Though some have charges, most are in the “pay what you can” style. I encourage you to make a donation to support the Tenement Museum, particularly if you partake.
Other Tenement Museum Services and Education
Though the museum is known for its tours, the work that they do goes well beyond that. They also offer:
- Virtual talks—These discussions range in topics from the historical perspective of birth control to book reviews to music and more. They may be about historical topics like the Garment Worker’s Strike or they may relate current topics in the news to their historical perspective. Get on their mailing list to get notified of these talks, and they are available for anyone (ideally, with a donation to the museum as they are a nonprofit organization).
- Digital exhibits—These also are historical stories or current topics and how they relate to today from a historical perspective. You can read through these online, and images are provided to ground the reader and share further insight.
- Reclaiming Black spaces—Part digital exhibit and part walking tour, there are multiple offerings for this important topic of Black immigration to the Lower East Side.
They also offer virtual school programs and lesson plans to offer education to younger generations. And they have “Your Story, Our Story,” which lets people share a picture of an item that has personal family significance and share the story.
This could be a food, picture, physical item, or more. It’s a great way to share and build community and to see how similar and different people are.
Tenement Museum Visit Details
The Tenement Museum can be found online here. It’s an amazing place with information about the museum as well as access to their past talks, virtual tours, and digital exhibits.
The museum is located at 103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002. The museum visitor center and the shop is open daily from 10 to 6.
Tours cost $30, and they are free for museum members. If you’re interested, you can find the tours online:
You can check availability and tour times as well as book online.
Virtual tours can be found on their website on the events page. This includes their virtual tours, talks, book reviews, and more.
Tenement Museum Gift Shop
The museum gift shop is a treasure trove of fun gifts. They have so many things, from books to toys to trinkets, scarves, mugs, and more.
They even have an online gift guide with a lot of great holiday ideas for your loved ones.
Tenement Museum Gift Shop, Photo credit: Tenement Museum
Why You Should Visit the Tenement Museum of New York City
Visit because these are our stories—our history. Almost everyone living in the US today came from a family that immigrated from somewhere. Visiting puts their lives, and our lives, into perspective.
This incredible museum tells the stories of real-life people based on recollections and artifacts from living family members, filling in for details based on the historical perspective.
People like Mrs. Wong, Nathalie Gumpertz, and others were real people with real stories. They had celebrations and heartaches, stress, and happiness. They were a function of their location and their time.
We can learn a lot about today from these people. They weren’t special, really, they were just like you and me. People with hopes and dreams.
They were also first-generation immigrants dealing with a harsh world. What would life be like for them were they alive today? Do you think it would be easier or harder?
It’s something to think about, isn’t it?
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