By Rachel Perlman
Situated in the Lower East Side of Manhattan behind the dusty brick exterior of 97 Orchard Street, is the Tenement Museum. In 1863 it became a tenement apartment that housed nearly 7000 European immigrants until the early 20th century. The surrounding buildings fluxed with new immigrants until 1835 when fire and health codes changed and the landlords could no longer keep up. The building, and many others like it, fell to shambles leaving only the peeling layers of wallpaper as evidence of its immense history.
Since 1988, the Tenement Museum has preserved and restored many apartments and stories. “They wanted to create a museum dedicated to what they felt was telling America’s most important story; how we constitute ourselves as a nation of immigrants,” says David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs, of the founders of the museum. These multi-family buildings allow visitors to see the connections between Eastern European, Irish, and Italian immigrants, and how they, and many others, established themselves in America. The House Committee on Natural Resources approved an expansion of the Tenement Museum in October. The expansion will be used to tell the stories of Puerto Rican and Chinese immigrants that continue to shape the Lower East Side neighborhood.
One exemplar story of an immigrant that lived in the space that is now the Tenement Museum is that of Nathalie Gumpertz. She was a German-Jewish immigrant from Prussia that lived in the tenement from the 1860s through the 1880s. After living through the Panic of 1873, Nathalie’s husband, Julius, abandoned Nathalie and her four children. The economy was unstable and it was not uncommon for men to neglect their families. Nathalie took up shop in her apartment as a dressmaker for local ladies. She was able to make a living for herself and stay at home to raise the children. In 1886, Nathalie took Julius’ father’s inheritance and moved to the Upper East Side, following the path of many other German immigrants.
Up until recently, Julius’ motives for leaving were unknown, but with the help of genealogical research and historical papers, it was discovered that he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and spent his final years alone in an old age home. With extensive research like this, the Tenement Museum has been able to recover about 1500 names of residents. The museum offers daily tours specializing in different immigrant stories they have investigated, like Nathalie Gumpertz’.