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In the mid-19th century, hundreds of thousands of new Americans flooded into New York. They found homes in buildings like this, on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where population densities in some neighborhoods reached nearly a quarter of a million people per square mile in the midst of in 1860.
Architecturally, 97 Orchard St. very simple and indistinguishable from thousands of other utilitarian structures. Today, it is preserved by the Tenement Museum, an innovative public history institution. Inside, visitors can see monuments and reminders of one of the most consequential migrations in human history, a human tide that changed the fabric of America.
For decades, apartment dwellers received only basic protection from fire but virtually no disease. As public understanding of communicable disease improved, housing laws of 1879 and 1901 helped spur the ever-increasing changes. “Tenement activities are not about comfort but about public health,” said Dave Favaloro, senior director of curatorial affairs at the Tenement Museum.
Step into its cramped space to follow this brick structure along the y-axis of time, as homeowners and residents grapple with illnesses like tuberculosis, cholera and influenza, – and fear of Fire and bad air, even the immigrants, still have indelible marks on its design and structure.
In the 1860s, illness was an urgent fear, and pervaded New York principles. Tuberculosis was endemic in the city, but in the years following the deaths of the Schneiders, scientific understanding of how TB was spread would expand. In addition, progressives used changes to legislation, architecture, and urban design to combat disease.
Among the most feared is cholera, which is spread through human waste. To access the restroom, patrons of the Schneiders bar, as well as residents of the apartments above, will have to go to the backyard.
Step into what should have been an outside courtyard, dark and smelly to see the minimal plumbing this building provided when it was new.
The building at 97 Orchard St. attracted the museum’s founders in part because the building behind it was demolished. That allows the street to enter behind the museum and there is room for this modern exterior staircase, providing an exit.
The museum works to balance today’s safety needs while preserving as much of the interior as possible. Some apartments have also been left exactly as they were found, after many years of decay. Others have been recreated to represent a specific time period. The Tenement Museum does not preserve this building to represent a single historical moment but rather a cross-section of different periods.
Step into an apartment that has been preserved as it once looked in 1910, with some basic improvements to living conditions.
In 1924, fear of immigrants peaked, and the United States passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which banned most immigrants from Asia and cut arrivals from the Western Hemisphere by 80 percent. In 1934, New York asked homeowners to replace wooden stairs with brick or masonry. Fewer immigrants, tighter housing rules and increased social mobility have reduced demand for apartments in these places buildings. A year later, the owner of 97 Orchard St. evicted his remaining tenants and closed the apartments upstairs, leaving only a few businesses on the two lower floors. For more than half a century, these apartments fell into disrepair, until the Tenement Museum moved in and began recreating the lives of the building’s former occupants.
Millions of Americans can trace their ancestors back to buildings like these, and collective memory often softens the story. Conditions are often dire, and epidemics are rampant, and renewal laws are fueled by xenophobia and genuine concern for the poor. Fear of outsiders, often associated with real and metaphorical ills, continues to shape Americans’ views of their own identity and security. Today, these buildings are part of a thriving neighborhood, with many apartments put together to create larger, more habitable spaces. And the Tenement Museum continues its mission to preserve and remember the lives, not of the great and famous, but of ordinary Americans who did their best to make this place home.
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https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/interactive/2021/tenement-museum/ Virtual tour of the Tenement Museum using photogrammetry