One of the things I love about New York City is the diversity. New Yorkers come from all over the world, and I think that is one of the things that makes NYC so special. We get to celebrate holidays from different cultures and try cuisines from pretty much any country you can imagine.
I had visited Ellis Island a few years ago, but I wanted to learn more about the role immigrants have played in making the city what it is today, so I decided to visit the Tenement Museum NYC. Let me tell you about my experience on the Tenement Museum’s Shop Life tour.
What is a Tenement?
You may wonder – what is a Tenement? Well, a tenement is a run-down, usually overcrowded apartment house in a poor section of a large city. In 1988, the museum bought an abandoned building at 97 Orchard Street and restored it so it could be turned into the Tenement Museum. Twenty-two families lived in the building, as our guide, Sarah, told us it was pretty much their next stop after Ellis Island. (To help children understand more about immigration, Ellis Island and more, check out this list of books about New York for kids.)
Logistics for Visiting the NYC Tenement Museum
The New York City Tenement Museum is not your typical museum. You can only visit as part of a guided tour. I would recommend choosing your tour(s) and purchasing tickets online in advance as some do sell out. You will need to print your confirmation and bring it to the ticket office at the Visitor Center at 103 Orchard Street, New York. I would suggest arriving at least 15 minutes before the tour begins.
They offer a variety of tours covering the different floors of the building and even areas in the neighborhood. If you want to tour the building, you can choose between Under One Roof, Shop Life, Sweatshop Workers, Irish Outsiders, or the Hard Life tours. They seem to add new tours periodically and also offer some extended tours which include more time for discussion. For foodies, you can even do a tasting at the Tenement Museum.
Another way to get a better understanding of the lives of the people that lived in the tenements would be to do one of the “Meet the residents” tours that are led by costumed interpreters. If the weather is nice, you might enjoy doing one of the Tenement Museum walking tours of the Lower East Side.
If you plan on doing more than one tour, please keep reading for the Tenement Museum coupon code in the Expert Tips section.
Note: The Tenement Museum is not included in any NYC attractions pass so you need to buy the tickets directly from the museum.
What is the best Tenement Museum tour?
I know it may be hard to decide which guided tour to take, but I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them based on the Tenement Museum reviews I read. I decided to take the Shop Life tour, which focuses on the first floor of the building which was mostly commercial space. The tour guides do not go off a script, they know their stuff and are happy to answer any questions. Our tour also included interactive discussions which helped you learn.
The tour guides will pick you up at the Visitor Center. I should mention that the Visitor Center also has a gift shop with lots of interesting items. You will want to allow some time to check it out either before or after your tour.
Our tour started with a brief introduction outside then we entered the part of 97 Orchard St that was a German Beer Saloon from 1864 to 1886. They did a great job recreating what was it would have been like back then. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. We took a few minutes to look around and then took our seats so that Sarah could tell us more.
The Shop Life Tour at the Tenement Museum in NYC
A German couple (the Schneiders) ran the bar together and throughout our tour, Sarah shared information about them so that you felt like you knew them and the struggles they faced. We also got to see artifacts like their marriage announcement. Unfortunately, they have not been able to trace the family lines to current day like they have with many other families that lived in the building.
It was interesting to learn the origins of some of today’s culture. I didn’t realize that German beer saloons were some of the first places where it was acceptable for men and women to drink together. Now, although men typically outnumber the women at bars, everyone is welcome.
I also enjoyed the role-playing activity that we did. We were each given cards with information about a real person that would have frequented the saloon. We had time to go around and meet the other people and learn about them too. I was impressed by how much information they knew about these people that lived over 100 years ago.
As the tour progressed, we learned more about the Schneiders’ lives as we walked from the bar into the semi-private room that they would rent out for private meetings. Decorations on the wall and artifacts in the room show that Mr Schneider belonged to a charitable group called the Oddfellows that looked after poor people in the neighborhood.
After the meeting room, and a quick peek into their small private family space, we moved to an area that had not been restored. Here we learned about how some of the restorations were done. We could see the layers of paint and plaster on the wall. Sarah also showed us some artifacts that had been discovered during the restoration. I was fascinated that they found a broken beer mug that was probably used at the German Beer Saloon.
The German Beer Saloon was not the only business that occupied the space over the years. After it closed in 1886, a kosher butcher opened, then an auction house, and it later became an underwear shop. In the last part of the tour, we learned more about those businesses in a high tech interactive exhibit.
Immigration in America
As our tour wrapped up, Sarah shared with us a short film about two Yemeni brothers who opened a bodega in the neighborhood about thirty years ago. They worked hard keeping the store open 24 hours a day without ever closing. Even, with no power during Hurricane Sandy, they stayed open so that those in the neighborhood had something to eat. These brothers care about New Yorkers and love America.
It was powerful to see that while the names and faces in the area have changed, its fundamental character has not. During our tour of the Tenement Museum in Manhattan, we found out about and connected with, generations of people who had lived in the neighborhood and worked hard to make their way in the world.
These two brothers are the latest in a history of people stretching back over almost a hundred and fifty years that have moved to New York, set up their own businesses and tried to find the American Dream. I felt a real sense of sadness that in the current political climate, the future of this way of life, and an integral part of what makes America the country it is, and gives New York its character, is now under threat.
To me being the land of opportunity and a place where you can practice whatever religion you choose are principles our nation was founded on. These principles are what make America great. I cannot imagine what our country would be without immigrants.
I left the Tenement Museum feeling that the ongoing story of the immigrant community on the Lower East Side is, in some ways, the story of America. If this comes to an end now, I worry that our country and the city I love will have lost something very precious along the way.
Disclosure: No financial compensation was received, but the New York City Tenement Museum did provide complimentary tour tickets. As always, opinions expressed here are my own.