Immigrant History Comes Alive at the Tenement Museum


by Debbie Stone       
Photos Courtesy of the Tenement Museum,
Main image above by Debbie Stone



I had always wanted to tour the Tenement Museum in New York City, having had a number of my relatives immigrate to the U.S. from Europe; a number who came through Ellis Island and spent time in New York before heading elsewhere. On a recent trip to the Big Apple, I finally got my wish.


Founded in 1988 by historian Ruth Abram and social activist Anita Jacobson, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum delves into the American story of migration and its effects on the fabric of our society. Immigrants played and continue to play an important role in shaping our country’s evolving national identity.

It all began when Abram and Jacobson came upon 97 Orchard Street, a rundown tenement building that had been closed for over fifty years. Though the building was dilapidated, the women discovered personal belongings and other evidence of the families that called these apartments home between the 1860s and 1930s. Over 7,000 residents lived here during this period. The items and the families who owned them became the basis for the museum and its belief that we as a society are “best understood and appreciated through the stories of real families whose lives have shaped our shared history.”

Today, visitors can hear these stories through guided tours of two historic buildings at 97 and 103 Orchard Street and the surrounding Lower East Side neighborhood. Such tours are essentially a time capsule that sheds light on aspects of identity, urban development, public policy, architecture, and other themes. They’re also a reminder of the challenges and hurdles faced by new migrants and refugees to America, not only then, but now. And finally, they are the strong threads that connect us to one another, with the realization that as human beings, we share many commonalities.

The museum offers several different tours, including “Hard Times: 1880s,” where you’ll step into the community of Little Germany and visit the tenement apartment of Natalie Gumpertz and her daughters, and the saloon run downstairs by John and Caroline Schneider; “Tenement Women: 1902,” an examination of two sides of the Kosher Meat Boycott that thousands of Jewish women participated in when the price of kosher meat rose in price; “At Home in 1869,” a look at the life of an Irish immigrant couple, Joseph and Bridget Moore, and how they maintained their Irish identity in the face of discrimination within a mostly German neighborhood; and “At Home in 1933,” which takes visitors into the recreated 1930s apartment of Adolpho and Rosaria Baldizzi, Italian immigrants raising their two children (Josephine and John) during the Great Depression. The family lived in the 97 Orchard Street dwelling for five years.

I chose the latter tour because I was most interested in the time period. Prior to entering the Baldizzi’s apartment, our guide gave the group a brief history of the building, which had eighteen units, and was built in 1863 by a German immigrant. There was a need in the area for housing for working-class and middle-class families. The neighborhood was called “Little German Land,” due to the number of German immigrants who settled there. By 1910, the neighborhood was transformed by Jewish immigrants and then later, by Italians.

The building was occupied until 1935 when the landlord closed it. A city code regarding fire safety necessitated the replacement of staircases from wood to metal. Rather than making the legally mandated improvements, the landlord refused and shut it down, evicting everyone living there at the time.

As for the Baldizzis, both Adolpho and Rosario hailed from Palermo, Sicily. It was an arranged marriage for the couple. She was sixteen, he was twenty-six. Adolpho came to the U.S. in 1923, following in the footsteps of his brother, who told him he could make more money as a carpenter in America than in Palermo. Due to new immigration laws, Rosario wasn’t able to join Adolpho until two years later and used “doctored papers” to enter.

  •  Orchard Staircase - Photo: Ryan Lahiff
    Orchard Staircase - Photo: Ryan Lahiff

Walking inside, our guide pointed out the building’s original tin-plated ceilings and staircase. In the Baldizzi’s three-room apartment (bedroom, kitchen, and parlor), you could see different layers of wallpaper – twenty in total – that were covered with paint, now chipping away. The linoleum flooring in the kitchen had a design that made it look like a rug. On the shelves was a container of Bon Ami, a common household cleanser, and a box of Linit, laundry starch. Underneath was the kitchen sink, which served a multitude of purposes. It was not only where dishes and clothes were washed, but where the kids took cold-water sponge baths each morning and had their weekly tepid baths. A coin-operated gas meter was mounted on the wall. An apartment such as this one typically rented for $20-25 a month.

During our tour, we saw a video that was made when the Baldizzi daughter, Josephine, visited the apartment for the first time since she had lived there as a child. She remembered the place as being dimly lit, barely furnished, and cold. But she noted that her mother decorated it with curtains, coverlets for the beds, and skirts across the shelving that her father built into the walls. They also grew flowers at the window.

Italian music and soap operas played on the radio day and night, and she and her brother would play cards with their father at the kitchen table. She and her best friend down the hall would pretend to be movie stars – Claudette Colbert being one of their favorites. They would also go roller skating and take walks in the neighborhood. On Sundays, the family would have a special meal consisting of a fried egg and roll with butter and catsup. And once in a while, they would go to Coney Island for the day.

The family experienced serious economic hardships due to the Great Depression. The unemployment rate in New York City was a steep sixty percent. Adolpho, who had resorted to being a handyman, was often jobless and depressed. Rosario worked in a garment factory and took over the head of household duties. She was at constant risk of being let go from her job, though, because she was essentially an “illegal.”

The Baldizzis needed to rely on social programs and their church to help them get through these rough times. President Roosevelt’s Home Relief Program for immigrants and noncitizens provided some assistance and in the Baldizzi household the President was regarded as “Saint Roosevelt.” Our guide also emphasized that the community was close-knit and looked out for one other.

After they were evicted, the family moved a few blocks west and then eventually to Brooklyn, where Adolpho began working at a shipyard. Both parents earned their citizenship and life improved for the couple and their children.

Josephine, the last of the Baldizzis, passed away in 1998.

If you go: Timed, ticketed reservations required for all tours

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and to all seven continents.


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About the Author:

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners

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