There is a nondescript, brick building at 97 Orchard Street. Without signs telling you what it is, you would most certainly walk by without giving it any notice, yet it possesses something so unique to New York and indicative of the city's individual essence that it could be argued that it represents the soil from which so much that is New York has sprouted. This is The Tenement Museum.
In the 1980s, 97 Orchard Street was a building long-since without residents that had survived since the 1930s solely by a line of merchants and storefronts that had inhabited its ground floor for the past fifty some-odd years. Sealed off from the outside world, the five residential floors above became a time capsule containing clues and remnants of the stories of some of the nearly 7,000 immigrants who passed through this tenement building, calling it home as they struggled to make America their country. When Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson re-opened those floors in 1988, those voices from the past began to speak.
One of the truly exciting qualities of this museum is that you are not visiting a model meant to re-create, but rather entering the true location. Much of the building is still original. When you walk up the wooden staircase, the banister you're touching is the same one that its former residents touched. When you look at walls with their many layers of pealing wallpaper, you are looking back in time at the various tastes and fashions of the people who actually lived there. Fans of Jacob Riis will be immediately thrilled and with any imagination could easily place themselves in passages from How the Other Half Lives as words on the page revert to the physical locations they were penned to capture.
For history-lovers, particularly those enthralled by the intensely compact and diverse tale of NYC, this museum is an absolute must. Its dedicated tour guides are another of its glowing strengths. Varying in their personal interests and areas of expertise, all the guides of the five tours this reviewer took were extremely knowledgeable, engaging and, of greatest importance, united by a clear joy in sharing these stories. Guest/guide interaction is fairly fluid, questions are encouraged, and while the guides do have a basic script that they follow, the boundaries of discussion are dictated more by the interests of guests, so feel free to speak up.
The tours are well thought out, each focusing on specific chapters of the overall building's story; some wander the streets surrounding 97 Orchard, while most take place in the building itself, some of which are enhanced by very well-integrated multi-media accents. A distinctly magical moment takes place during the "Hard Times" tour. While in an apartment on the second floor, guests are treated to the voice of Josephine Baldizzi, a woman who actually grew up in the building and relates her experiences, recreating the way the apartment looked from memories of her childhood, which the museum's curators match in stunning detail. To be in that room, hearing Josephine's voice and words, is about the closest form of time travel presently available. Where other museums preserve the past, this one successfully resurrects it in a way that is beautifully human, modest and delightfully unvarnished.
If you had to pick one museum to visit in New York City, and you could only pick one, that would be a legitimately difficult decision, fraught with stiff competition and ultimately subject to personal preference. Like any great, international city, NYC harbors many treasures in its numerous collections, many more than worthy of your time and attention, but this reviewer would pick The Tenement Museum. - C. Jefferson Thom
The Broadway Theatre is at 1681 Broadway, New York NY 10019.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.