iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Kalia N. Baker

GET UPDATES FROM Kalia N. Baker
 

Lower East Side Tenement Museum Tells a Story

Posted: 05/29/2012 11:24 am

No one has lived in this tenement since 1935. During the 1820s and beyond, the Great Migration brought about a host of immigrants whose only housing option was a tenement apartment. The 21 layers of worn wallpaper, with bits still plastered onto the decaying wall, is an assortment of pressed flowers and paisley patterns. Walking from one small room to another, the discolored wood creaks.

For one hour, the "Irish Outsider" tour, one of the tours offered at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side (at Orchard and Delancey Streets) documents the lifestyle of Irish immigrants. The tour engages the living conditions, social struggles and personal stories of the Irish beginning as early as the 1820s.

Embedded in this authentic tenement experience lies an inevitable wealth of history and personal journeys.

Whether it was the famine or political and religious persecution that brought these Irish families to America, as described on the tour, they were met with much discrimination -- one of which is reflected in their housing and economic opportunity.

"Imagine 10 or 12 people living here, people, or more," said Darryl Hamilton. Hamilton, a tour guide at the museum, leads visitors through the various apartments, tiny in size. It is barely 10 steps from the living room, through the kitchen and into the bedroom. "For us, this would certainly be a less than ideal living space," he said.

Throughout the tour, Hamilton, an African-American in his forties, infuses his own Irish heritage into the tour.

"I remember my grandfather singing "Minstrel Boy", he said. "At the time I didn't know what it meant, or why he was singing it, but I do remember other Irish joining him in song."

Hamilton shares how his relationship with his grandfather August Flynt, or "Papa" as he calls him, was the man, or rather the motivation, to deepen his connection to his Irish roots.

As the tour continues, music within the Irish culture is introduced. While visitors are seated in the bedroom of one of the apartments, Irish music begins to fill the room. Music is a large part of the Irish culture and part of the traditions that many of the families brought from their journey to remind them of home. "Minstrel Boy" is one of the most popular Irish songs. For the Irish, the lyrics were very representative of their struggle to fit into American culture. Other native songs like "No Irish Need Apply" standout, demonstrating the disdain and discrimination against the Irish from American and other immigrants, as they were considered the lowest within the social order.

"Songs like 'Minstrel Boy' were quintessentially Irish and became quintessentially American," Hamilton shared. Another Irish songs like "McNalley's Row of Flats" was a song about the deplorable living conditions, while "Fretful Baby" discussed the diseases plaguing children, specifically due to spoiled milk. At the time, the infant mortality rate was around 40 percent.

As the tour continues, so do the stories that lie within the tenement walls -- the stories of the families and their quality of life.

Hamilton further discussed the occupants of the tenements such as the Moore and Katz families. The Moore family shared a three-bedroom tenement, and unfortunately lost their youngest of three children, Agnes, due to the impurity of the milk sold by the pushcart peddler. Hamilton describes the spoiled milk as lack of refrigeration and the use of ammonia and chalk to "clean" the milk. At the time, the pushcart peddlers were unaware of the harmful effects.

Hamilton details the three-room tenement with the story of Joseph and Bridget Moore who met and married in 1865. In fact, their immigration to New York City is what united the couple, as Joseph was from Dublin, Ireland, while Bridget was from Sligo. Although unlikely for a Irish immigrant, Joseph maintained a job in the service industry as a waiter and bartender while his wife worked as a seamstress but eventually "took-in" the laundry of others to supplement her husbands' income. Rent for the Moore family would have averaged $5.00 per week, while the rent was $2.50. This was not an uncommon gesture for women to assist in the survival of their families.

Sarah Solomon, a student at NYU, has familial roots that are Russian-Jewish, felt the tour and its history was an encouraging opportunity to understand the familial roots of others. "An experience like this -- getting to see how immigrants lived and their space in this country makes you think further about where you come from and what it all really means," she said. Talia Mindich, another visitor on the tour agreed with Solomon. "A historic experience like this one just makes you more knowledgeable, it truly opens your eyes", she said.

The peeling patterns on the walls told a story to these young women. It shared the intimate lives of those who were forced to leave their homes and start anew.

 

Follow Kalia N. Baker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@kaliaabaliaa

FOLLOW CULTURE