The Lower East Side is associated with American Immigration almost as much as Ellis Island itself. At one time it was among the most densely populated areas on earth as successive waves of recent immigrants crammed into tiny tenement buildings. The arrival of mass transit in the 1930s and a reduction in immigrants during wartime relieved pressure on this historic neighborhood and many of the tenement buildings were left unoccupied except for the storefront. In 1988 the founders of this museum discovered that the owners 97 Orchard Street had left the upper floors of the tenement untouched for 50 years--an unintended time-capsule of tenement life. The museum has lovingly restored much of the building allowing visitors to experience an accurate re-creation of the lives of former inhabitants.
Everybody ought to have a lower East Side in their life.
What You Will See
The tenement at 97 Orchard can only be visited on a small guided tour. A variety of tours are available at the museum, each focusing on a different phase of American immigration. Starting with Germans in the 1840s, the character of the Lower East Side changed with each successive generation, shifting to the Irish, Eastern European Jews, Italians, Latin Americans, and Asians. Currently, the museum offers ten different tours of the building itself, four different walking tours and four special tours led by costumed performers (though these are presented with less regularity than the daily building and walking tours). Unless you have a specific interest in a particular ethnic group, you cannot go wrong in picking a tour with the most convenient time. Better yet, become a member and do them all.
Why You Should Go
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is one of the greatest museum experiences in the city. It is a uniquely New York and uniquely American story. Its history is more relevant to contemporary issues than the forts and monuments scattered around the town. This is true 'history from below.' The museum presents the massive, multifaceted story of the largest migration in human history through the lives of individuals. Experience their challenges and sacrifices, contrast them with your own, and leave the museum with much more to think about.