Immigrant Lives Written on Walls

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum offers a sobering glimpse into improvised housing of the early 1900s

ONE of the main exhibits at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a dollhouse with a difference. A carp swims in a scale-model sink, while a mother doll wields a mallet menacingly. This particular doll, a model of Rachel Confino, a Sephardic Jew from Greece, is about to whack the fish on the head to transform it into peshi al forno for Passover dinner. In other miniature rooms, tiny residents gather around the kitchen table, sleep on orange crates, or squat on chamber pots, while a boarder lies dying.

The 6-foot-tall replica presents a diorama of actual stories of more than 10,000 immigrants from two dozen countries. Newly arrived from the Old World, these Germans, Irish, Eastern European Jews, and Italians called 97 Orchard Street, now the Tenement Museum, home. For roughly 70 years, from 1863 when the building was constructed until 1935 when it was condemned and sealed, these urban pioneers lived and worked on the teeming Lower East Side.

In six decades, 32 million newcomers poured into the United States, nearly doubling the country's population of 40 million in 1870. In that year alone, New York City hosted 387,000 immigrants. For these urban pioneers, westward-ho meant steerage rather than Conestoga wagons.

A quarter of a million people occupied one square mile on the Lower East Side, an area below Houston Street from the Bowery to the East River. It was so crowded Charles Dickens said it made Calcutta look like paradise.

The Tenement Museum preserves the history of these huddled masses, the ``other half'' of New York City residents who lived in tenements - the original multifamily dwellings. Because the tenement that now serves as a museum was boarded up to avoid complying with required improvements, it has remained intact. It's a time capsule of immigrant life in the Depression, when Adolph Baldizzi, a cabinetmaker from Palermo, lugged his heavy toolbox down Orchard Street searching for work.

There are four shotgun-style flats on each of six floors in the narrow building. Visitors can experience the three tiny rooms inhabited by each family. Often, more than a dozen residents crammed into each apartment, an airless 325-square-foot space with no water, toilet, or bath, and only one window.

Through census data, city archives, archaeological digs, and interviews with descendants of residents, curators have discovered much of the building's history. Homes were sweatshops, with families sewing piecework, making soap, or taking in laundry.

To pay the rent, families provided mattresses to boarders for 8-hour shifts costing a quarter. Boarders took their chances with live-in vermin. In the more hygienic flats, legs of beds were placed in kerosene - a fire hazard, but effective at warding off bedbugs.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1937, ``I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.'' Certainly the immigrants who lived in this slum were all of the above. Yet the 15 layers of wallpaper, the muddy linoleum filigreed to imitate Chinese carpeting, and the cheese boxes stamped ``Home Relief'' that were converted into window planters attest to their desire for a better life.

Today the neighborhood is still a cauldron where newly arrived immigrants, mostly Hispanic and Asian, add cultural distinction to the national stew. Within a few blocks, vendors sell a world of cuisine: green-tea ice cream, cannoli, sour pickles, and falafel. Caribbean steel-drum music blares from one storefront, while elderly Chinese men practice tai chi in a nearby park.

A Zen koan asks: ``When the many are reduced to the one, to what is the one reduced?'' There is no danger of reductio ad unum here. The ethnic population shifts every decade or two, while the area's bustling street life continues. The pushcarts are gone, but the indoor-outdoor bazaars still hawk discount clothing and fabric.

Hopping with life, part seedy and part up-and-coming, the neighborhood and the Tenement Museum, as President Clinton said of his Cabinet, look like America.

* The Tenement Museum reopens for tours in September after restoration of the apartments. The museum's gallery at 90 Orchard Street is open Tuesday through Friday, and Sunday, offering a slide show, video, and exhibits. Walking tours are offered Sundays. For information, call (212) 431-0233.

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