Tenement Museum Tells Stories of Manhattan’s Historic Immigrants

By Claire Voon

The pasts of families of immigrants from the late 19th century and early 20th centuries fill the corners of the Tenement Museum of the Lower East Side, a museum that honors America’s immigrants. Since its founding in 1988, the Tenement Museum has explored and told the stories of working class immigrants who resided in the historic building and of its surrounding neighborhood.

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The museum’s founders, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, created the museum out of their desire to tell what they thought was America’s most important story: how Americans constitute themselves as a nation of immigrants.

“We have a lot of heritage museums in New York City,” David Favaloro, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs said. “But there are very few places where you can go and understand the kinds of common ground, the universality of the immigrant experience. My ancestors were Italian immigrants, and I could come and see what connected that experience with an East European Jewish immigrant who came at the same time. And that would be a way for us as a nation to begin thinking about and talking about what it means to be a nation of immigrants today.”

Around 7000 individuals have lived in the old structure that dates to 1863, many of whom were European immigrants. Families lived in rooms that held five to six individuals on average — a number that at times reached ten or eleven — sharing hallway bathrooms with neighbors and building relationships with them. Old walls covered with layers upon layers of wallpaper speak of the structure’s history and the stories it holds.

One of the recreated rooms tells the story of Nathalie Gumpertz, a mother of three whose husband, Julius Gumpertz, had abandoned her. A German Jewish immigrant who had lived in the house from the 1860s to the 1880s, she had lived through the severe economic depression of 1873, working to support her family as a single mother.  As ready-to-wear pieces were not available until the 1890s, Nathalie Gumpertz worked as a dressmaker, making custom dresses for people around the neighborhood who came to her with their desired materials.

Nathalie died in 1894 in Yorkville, but her story is preserved within the Tenement Museum, whose employees worked in contact with her great-grandson to rake up her past.

The Museum will likely expand its site to further tell such stories, with the House Committee on Natural Resources approving legislation in late October.  The bill must now go to the full House for consideration. With the additional space, the Museum will be able to open a new visitor center and develop additional educational exhibitions and tours.

“Our City has been made stronger, more diverse and better by those who came here from every corner of the globe in search of a better life,” Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, author of the bill, said. “The LES Tenement Museum honors this legacy and I’m proud to support its expansion.”

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