Portal to the Past
By Elias Rodriguez
New York City is the nexus of a million stories or 8,391,881 stories, if you go by the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Some tales are told by the old buildings that haunt the landscape like subtle seers lingering among the City’s trendy eateries and slick new condos. One place in the City that has endeavored to preserve the timeless stories of immigrants is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Apartments and living spaces within 97 Orchard Street, a tenement building built in 1863, make up the actual museum. By taking guided tours visitors can experience the poignant struggles and rich cultures of people from all over the world as they strived in the cosmopolitan cacophony. For over two centuries generations of Americans have made the Lower East Side (or Loisaida as the Latino section of the neighborhood is formally named) their gateway to The U.S.A. and urban assimilation.
The building that houses and actually is the Tenement Museum was occupied by approximately 7,000 individuals from over 20 countries circa 1863 to 1935. My father, may he rest in peace, once told me how he got lost trying to find his way back to the tenement where he was staying shortly after arriving from Puerto Rico.
Knowing precious little English, and woefully underdressed for wintry weather, a policeman pointed Dad in the right direction lest he veer off into the West Side and never be heard of again! The museum personifies the unique histories of a diverse population which sought to balance their yearning to pursue happiness in the land of prosperity without losing the distinctive traditions and heritage of their native lands. Although my seven siblings and I did not live in a tenement, as a child I recall Orchard Street as our favorite place for sales and sneakers, a noisy, hectic street where one learned street smarts and how to haggle.
The Museum proves that we all share a passion to prevail over adversity no matter our language or lineage. The site is an indispensable stop on the itinerary of any serious student of Americana. It only takes a few steps to transcend books and pictures and walk right through a portal to our past. Do you think Orchard Street will be sustainable for the next generation?
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