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Tenement Museum: Step into the past

Nina Spitzer is a SheKnows.com columnist and a freelance writer living in sunny Cave Creek, Arizona.

Traveling to the Tenement

Visit restored New York City tenements for a glimpse into the past at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Welcome to the Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a window into the past, walking us through life as it was for more than 7,000 immigrants in the years between 1863 and 1935. They came from more than 20 nations to find new hope in America. Restored apartments of past residents from different time periods give us a feel for the struggles and challenges immigrants of the past have faced. It also helps us relate their struggles to those faced by immigrants of today.

The Tenement Museum, now a national landmark, sees over 140,000 visitors annually from all 50 states and over 30 countries. Started in 1988 by Ruth Abram, the museum strives to "promote tolerance and historical perspective" by preserving and sharing a critical piece of American history.

Who once lived there

You enter 97 Orchard Street into a dark, narrow hallway with worn, peeling paint untouched since the 1930s. You walk up the stone steps into the urban lives of immigrant families of different nationalities and different eras. Whose lives would you like to step into?

• The Moores (1869) Irish-Catholic family coping with the death of their child
• The Gumperts (1870s) German-Jewish family who lived through the Great Panic of 1873
• The Levines (1897) Polish-Jewish family who ran a garment business in their apartment
• The Rogarshevskys (1918) Lithuanian Jews mourning the loss of their father from TB
• The Confinos (1916) Victoria Confino, a teen-age, Sephardic-Jewish immigrant played by a costumed interpreter tells her family's story
• The Baldizzis (1930) Italian-Catholics from Sicily who were among the building's last residents

Each of the six apartments, now a time capsule, measures approximately 325 square feet and is restored with period furnishings and artifacts reflecting how it might have looked for each immigrant family. We learn how tenants had to put a quarter in a meter for an hour of gas for lights and how all shared a hallway bathroom. We see a small coffin in a cramped room recreating a sad day in a family's life with the death of an infant daughter.

You listen to Josephine Baldizzi's recollections of her past on audiotape while standing in the kitchen where she once stood. Dishes sit on the small table across from the sink. With a little imagination, you can smell the spaghetti sauce bubbling on the stove.

According to Helene Silver, vice president, director of the Visitors Center & Museum Shop, the Tenement Museum uses the stories of people who actually lived there to explain, "How people lived, worked, struggled and survived."

The Tenement Museum doesn't leave us gazing into glass cases at artifacts but, instead, has us gazing out at what immigrant eyes of the past might have seen as they lived their lives. It's really an amazing feeling.

About the Tenement Museum

The Tenement Museum is open seven days a week (except for major holidays) and provides many opportunities for stepping into the past.

• Guided Tenement Tours of the six tenement apartments
• Kitchen Conversations -- a facilitated conversation with other visitors worldwide sharing perspectives on immigration related issues
• Lower East Side Walking Tour -- Visit and learn about a dozen sites important to immigrants past and present
• Tenement Talks -- evening series of lectures, readings, panel discussions, films and other programs
• Programs for school children
• Tenement Museum shop -- more than 1,500 titles, fiction and non-fiction, written by and about immigrants. The store also includes the types of toys tenement children might have played with.

If you're vacationing in New York City, find time in your schedule to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It's a wonderful hands-on experience and a taste of urban history, as well as a reminder of the struggles immigrants past and present have faced to build this nation.

Resource: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, http://www.tenement.org
Photos courtesy: Tenement Museum

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