Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, immigrants from Asia and all over Europe flocked to the United States in search of new lives. For many of them the LES’s tenements were their first homes in this country, and eventually came to house future generations as well.Founded in 1988, the LES Tenement Museum has retold the stories of the 7,000 blue-collar families who called the tenements home. The museum occupies three tenement buildings: 103, 105, and 107 Orchard Street. Throughout the tour, the residents’ stories come alive—relics from the time remain and the building itself remains intact, only receiving safety renovations to support the staircase. Within the building it’s as if you are in a time capsule, transported back to the 1890s.
One such story is of the Prussian immigrant Nathalie Gumpertz, a single mother in her late 30s who was abandoned by her husband Julius, and left to raise four young children on her own. Despite this immense task, Natalie was able to support her family through the Great Depression by working as a dressmaker.
It was not uncommon at the time for men to leave their wives once they reached America, according to David Favaloro, director of the Tenement Museum’s curatorial affairs. “These people had married in Europe and they had gotten married under a different cultural context than the one in America, and so tradition bound them together in ways that are different from here,” said Favaloro. In the 1890s there was a widely circulated Yiddish newspaper that even had a column devoted to finding missing husbands, said Favaloro. Women would even post pictures of their husbands in the newspaper as a way of generating community shame in order to force these men back home to their families, according to Favaloro.
However in Nathalie’s case, Julius never returned home. Instead she set to work taking care of her young children by working as a dressmaker from home. Unlike the seamstresses of the day who worked day in and day out in factories, as a dressmaker Natalie’s clients brought her the raw materials and she could sew the whole dress from home. “In the 1870s and 1880s you as a woman could not buy a dress that was ready to wear,” Favaloro said. “Women were making custom dresses for those who could afford a dress, like the landlord’s wife or anyone who could afford to have a dress made for them,” he said.
However Nathalie and her children did not escape the Great Depression. With only a single coal burning fireplace in the apartment to keep them warm, Natalie and her children would sleep around it to keep themselves warm in the bitter winters. Despite her sacrifices and attention, Natalie’s son died. Although there was food on the table and clothes on their backs, as Favaloro illustrated on the tour, the Gumpertz’ lives were far from perfect.
A major tool in retelling the story of Nathalie and her family was the artifacts that Favaloro and his team collect. “ For the immersive historical spaces we try to recreate we do intense research on little things like the paint and the big things like the decorative artifacts that these people would have in their homes, in order to recreate these spaces, said Favaloro. The team will recreate what they deem is authentic through historical research, also remaining watchful for items that can add to the storytelling experience, according to Favaloro.
Just as Nathalie’s story is important to the immigrant experience here on Orchard Street, so are the stories of the Puerto Rican and Chinese families who brought immigrated to the Lower East Side. In 1994, the Tenement Museum became a historic landmark, and in 1998 Congress recognized the Museum’s location at 97 Orchard as part of the National Parks System. As the popularity of the museum has increased, the Tenement Museum has expanded to include a gift shop as well as the acquisition of several other tenement buildings.
“This new National Park Service-affiliated site will allow the Tenement Museum to tell the stories of Puerto Rican and Chinese families who brought their energies and their dreams to the Lower East Side,” said Morris Vogel, President of the Tenement Museum.
In a city as diverse as New York City, it is important to understand its history and how it became so cosmopolitan. The Tenement Museum is an integral part of understanding this legacy.