Inside NYC’s Tenement Museum

On a few special nights in the lower east side, NYC’s coolest time capsule lights up its six floors and invites visitors to get up close and personal with the past. It’s a major night I’ve been counting down to and I’ve been so excited to share my fave museum in the city!

The Tenement Museum is in one of Manhattan’s oldest neighborhoods and is a standing tribute to the waves of immigrants who came to the United States looking for a new beginning, people whose multicultural influences are still seen in the city today. Their Snapshot event lifts a photo ban and lets you peek into every corner to your heart’s delight, but also learn a bit about the residents.

It’s a real look at their challenging lives inside the very apartments they rented, startlingly small spaces in which entire families worked towards a better future. Built in 1863, the building in total housed close to 7,000 working class immigrants from over 20 countries until closing in 1935. It was then boarded up and sat untouched for over 5 decades.

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Today, apartments are interpreted to reflect one of several periods of the building’s history with tours like “Irish Outsiders” and “Sweatshop Workers”, and you can also take a walking tour of the streets and learn of life outside the home. Their food tours are also not to be missed.

Snapshot was an amazing perspective of a place that’s unique because it sheds light on a people that are often overlooked and under appreciated. I realized that many of the people who moved into tenements like this did so after arriving at Ellis Island, a connection I never gave thought to…but also, the same people could have lived in buildings like the ones preserved at Skansen in Sweden or in towns like Perugia, Italy, both of which I have been lucky enough to see. It was cool to make those connections and flesh out a story.

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 A visit to the Tenement is more than a recreated room, a list of dates, or a black and white picture of someone long gone. Tour guides prompt discussion and make you really think about those sacrifices, but also invite the realization that these were real people whose lives had challenges that we can understand and empathize with. The desire to make things better for you and your family? Figuring out what it means to be an American? It’s not hard to feel the emotion behind it or reflect upon your own family’s background.

Immigrants past and present have much in common. In a time where hostility towards people that are different is scattered all over our screens, the Tenement Museum is also experiencing an increase in comments about the current tension since the election. They’re using these moments as opportunities to look to the past in order to understand the future and to continue their mission to “enhance appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.”

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Planning Your Visit to the Tenement Museum

Location: 103 Orchard Street

Tickets are best obtained in advanced through the Tenement Museum’s website, although you can also reserve over the phone.  All entries are guided tours, and you select a specific “story” for your visit. If you think you might be into seeing them all (like me!), then I highly suggest becoming a member.

Photos aren’t allowed inside, and the place isn’t wheel chair accessible. It’s heated in the winter but not cooled in the summer, so plan accordingly.

Want a Jewish Deli experience? Check out Katz’s nearby.

Also? I think they have the BEST museum gift shop in all of New York City. Don’t miss out!

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