knoxville news
Fly away this season with our Roundtrip Airfare Sale and get up to $15 Off* on flights. Book Now!
knoxville news knoxville daily sun lifestyle business knoxville sports travel knoxville classifieds knoxville jobs knoxville legal notices knoxville yellow pages smoky mountains contact facebook twitter linkedin rss entertainment knoxville advertising

New York’s Tenement Museum: A personal look at our nation’s growth
By Tom Adkinson

  tenement museum
The Tenement Museum itself is an unimpressive structure, but its appeal is in the stories of its immigrant residents; image by Tom Adkinson.

NEW YORK – Your first inclination upon arrival at the Tenement Museum is to see what’s inside the building that housed successive waves of immigrants to America, but that may not be the best tactic to absorb the array of stories the building preserves.

Unless you already understand the neighborhood around 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, taking a multi-block walking tour sets the stage for learning the life stories wrapped up in this undistinguished but history-laden structure.

The museum itself offers several themed walking tours through a vibrant neighborhood shaped by many immigrant groups. Today, you’ll see that many of the businesses have identifying signs in Chinese, but the first business signs were in German, then Yiddish, then Italian, then Spanish. Like America as a whole, this neighborhood has not been a static place.

One walking tour takes you past the Museum at Eldridge Street (built in 1887 by German Catholic builders as a synagogue for Russian Jews), a luxury condo tower adorned with carvings of Marx and Engles that first housed a Yiddish-language newspaper in 1897 that became The Jewish Daily Forward, Seward Park (opened in 1903 as the first public playground in America), a 1920s-vintage movie palace, Vietnamese restaurants, Chinese carry-outs and more.

tenement museum educator
A Tenement Museum educator uses historic photos to explain the Lower East Side to a walking tour group; image by Tom Adkinson.

One specialty tour is the “Foods of the Lower East Side” experience. Come prepared to sample Bavarian-style pretzels in the German tradition of the late 19th century, pickles from Jewish immigrants of the early 1900s, salami from Little Italy, Beijing-style dumplings brought by Chinese immigrants later in the 20th century and Dominican-style fried plantains that bring a Caribbean flavor to the neighborhood.

tenement synagogue
Catholic German builders were commissioned to build this synagogue, which now is the Museum at Eldridge Street; image by Tom Adkinson.


In the 1890s, this was the most densely populated spot in the world. People were practically living on top of each other, and realizing that fact sets the stage for going inside the Tenement Museum’s two buildings.

With immigration such a hot topic today, the museum puts a face on the arrival, survival and assimilation of multiple immigrant groups, most of whose members landed destitute and unable to understand English.

The museum tells the stories of people you don’t read about in history books. They were labor, not capital. They helped build America, not finance it. They wanted simply to create families, not empires.

Educators, not tour guides, tell the stories of immigrants such as Bridget and Joseph Moore, an Irish couple who moved into a three-room apartment (375 square feet) at 97 Orchard Street in 1869. They were minorities twice over because they were one of only two Irish couples in a building filled with German immigrants who preceded them by a few years.

“Tenement” didn’t always have today’s bad connotation. The educator on my tour said a tenement was simply a building with more than three apartments, each with a kitchen. This tenement was built in 1863 and was occupied until 1935.

  tenement synagogue
This Tenement Museum tote bag doubles as your street map of New York’s Lower East Side; image by Tom Adkinson.

It is five stories tall, had four privies and one communal water spigot to serve all 22 apartments. Amazingly, my educator reported, this was a step up for Bridget and Joseph Moore. Where the Moores lived previously at 65 Mott Street was described as “a wart on top of a festering sore.”

Other tours tell stories of different immigrants, how some apartments doubled as housing units and sweatshops for the garment industry and how a German couple once operated a lager beer saloon beneath the apartments.

In one sense, the stories embodied in the Tenement Museum were in a time capsule for half a century. The building was abandoned in 1935 and was shuttered for more than 50 years. Historian Ruth Abram and social activist Anita Jacobsen discovered it and founded the museum in 1988, using 97 Orchard Street and 103 Orchard Street.

tenement museum educator
Mendel Goldberg Fabrics, established in 1890, offers one snapshot of retailing near the Tenement Museum; image by Tom Adkinson.

Deep research into the tenement’s residents led to today’s detailed and personal tours. Artifacts from the families and historic documents bring the stories to life. Taking a tour, or several tours, is an enlightening experience, especially considering today’s events.

As my tour educator observed, “Think about current outsiders. Think about our own identities."

Trip-planning resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published June 7, 2019

Here Comes the Sun! Use promo code SPRING19 and get $30 off hotel bookings!* ends 1 June, 2019

Book Exclusive Hotel Deals on MyFlightSearch. Get up to $30**cash back with Promo Code – HOTEL30. Book Now!

Good Sam Travel Assist

Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd.

knoxville daily sun Knoxville Daily Sun
2019 Image Builders
User Agreement | Privacy Policy