Saturday 5 September 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Tenement Museum, New York City

It’s Labor Day weekend here in the US, so I decided to honour the occasion by visiting the Tenement Museum in New York – a museum dedicated to preserving the stories of the immigrant workers who made the city what it is today.

Founded in 1988, by Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, the museum tells the stories of the 7,000 or so people who lived at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in the setting of the small apartments which were their homes between the 1860s and the 1930s.

You can only visit the museum on one of the guided tours. These are themed, and deal with different aspects of the building and area’s history. The tour I joined (naturally, as an Irishwoman and a Victorianist) was focused on an Irish immigrant family who lived in the tenement in the 1860s – the Moores.

Entitled ‘Irish Outsiders’, the tour told the sad story of the short period the Moores lived at 97 Orchard Street – their difference from their largely German neighbours, the discrimination they, and their countrymen and women, would have faced when seeking employment, and the death of their baby, Agnes, from malnutrition.

The living conditions were cramped. They were a family of five, living in three rooms, with no plumbing – a set up that helps you put into perspective the complaints of many New Yorkers about the size of their apartments today. Interior windows help some light penetrate the inner rooms (although they still feel dark and claustrophobic), yet these were installed not for aesthetic reasons, but to combat tuberculosis – a very real threat in this period.

The mother Bridget’s life is a particularly bleak one to think about. She had eight children prior to her death aged 36, four of whom survived. Her days would have been a constant fight against coal dust and a never-ending relay of bringing pail upon pail of water up four flights of stairs, filled with the pain of suffering her own ill health, and seeing her baby dying.

Yet the story isn’t without hope. For a start, 97 Orchard Street seems to have been far from the worst of these tenement buildings. The privies in the backyard flushed, redecoration was relatively frequent (as the museum found when the historians investigated the layers of wallpaper), and the landlord lived in the building and made renovations beyond those required by him legally.

What’s more, the Moores may not have been removed from their neighbours, despite their differences in origin and religion. The guide played us some recordings of Irish ditties dating from the period, including ‘McNally’s Row of Flats’ – a raucous song about the sense of community that could come from different peoples being thrown into close quarters with each other.

The story the tour tells is ultimately one of upward mobility. One moment we are asked to take a leap of imagination, piecing together what it might have been like to be an illiterate Irish immigrant in the mid-nineteenth century from the building, a baptismal certificate, and some census records. In the next, we are actually holding a photograph of one of the Moore children, taken in the 1930s, by which time she and her husband are well off enough to have their own backyard (in Queens).

A restored apartment in the tenement 
As Europeans, we can find it amusing – ridiculous even – when Americans identify strongly with the heritage of a country they’ve never seen. It’s something of a running joke how absolutely some Americans can assert their Irishness.  Yet, visiting the Tenement Museum, made the connection between New York today and the Ireland these men and women left behind feel much closer. And remembering the conditions your ancestors lived in when seeking out a new life must be very special.

Some aspects of life in 97 Orchard Street have all but faded from our modern world – but immigration is a real and living issue. Maybe investigating the histories of these families in the Tenement Museum won’t get us any closer to determining how the stories of today’s immigrants might end, but I firmly believe that learning about the lives of those who worked to make this city what it is can help us grow in tolerance, understanding and compassion.

Where else in New York City would you like to see the Secret Victorianist visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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