Today the Manhattan skyline consists mostly of luxury apartments and condominiums. It’s nigh impossible to find cheap housing, especially if it is not subsidized by the city; but 150 years ago Manhattan was home to some of the world’s worst slums. Poor workers and immigrants were packed like sardines into unsanitary mid-rise buildings, which became known as tenements.
In 1865, as many as 500,000 New Yorkers lived in these conditions. Families shared tiny one and two room apartments. Only a couple rooms on each floor (out of as many as twenty) had windows. The Lower East Side was ground zero for tenements. At the turn of the last century, the population density there was 800 people per acre. It was among the most densely populated places in the world. In 1901, the Tenement House Act created better standards and made the city more livable.
One such Lower East Side Tenement was located at 97 Orchard Avenue. Built in 1863, it initially housed 22 apartments over five stories and a basement. Overtime the lower levels were converted for commercial use, and upgrades were made based on new laws. In 1935, rather than make more renovations, the residents were evicted and the apartments boarded up. They were left untouched until the museum opened in the 1980s and acted as a time capsule. Today, each of the apartments has been authentically restored, with furnishings dating back to the period.
It may be a little expensive, but this is an informative museum. There’s no better way to learn about the past than to witness how people lived first hand. Tour times vary; Getting By is probably the best.
Address: 97 Orchard Street (Tours begin at 108 Orchard Street)
Telephone: (212) 982 8420
Subway: Delancey St.
$15.00 Students and Seniors (65+)