One day after the White House expanded temporary protected status for Venezuela, making it easier for tens of thousands of asylum seekers to find work in New York, Manhattan’s Tenement Museum reopened to the public.

The 160-year-old Lower East Side landmark, which tells the story of the immigrant families who lived under its tin ceilings and wood-frame walls, had been closed for a year as it underwent extensive renovations to its HVAC system, windows, and brick facade.

Tenement Museum leadership hadn’t timed their return to the news that the Biden administration made nearly half a million Venezuelan individuals eligible to apply for work permits, including 60,000 people living in New York City, but they embraced it. During a reopening event on Thursday, September 21, co-founder Ruth Abram told a crowd noshing on gravlax bites and other hors d’oeuvres that the city’s immigrants were “urban pioneers” who had the courage to leave their home for a better life in the United States.

“It is at our country’s peril to view today’s immigrants as a problem,” Abram said. “Because we perceive the newcomers’ potential and are eager to benefit from the full value of their offerings, we understand the urgent need to overhaul our immigration system into a system that reflects our values.”

The kitchen of the Gumpertzes, a German-American family that came to New York in the 1870s

New York City has no shortage of institutions exalting its history, but the Tenement Museum is perhaps the only one dedicated to centering the city’s story on the generations of immigrants who make up its identity. “We tell the story of ordinary people who never thought they’d be the subject of a museum,” said Tenement Museum President Annie Polland. “It is our responsibility to teach those coming and remind those who have been here a while of the struggles that their ancestors have faced.”

Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum draws nearly a quarter of a million visitors each year. Those who climb the wrought iron stairs of the museum’s two tenements on 103 or 97 Orchard Street will see its redone period rooms including those once occupied by Ramonita Rivera Saez, a Puerto Rican single mother who migrated to New York City with her two sons in 1955; or Fannie and Abraham Rogarshevsky, Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire who arrived in 1901 with their six children. One of them, 16-year-old Bessie Rogarshevsky, was employed in the garment industry during the 1909 Shirtwaist Strike and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Harris and Jennie Levine ran a garment shop in their tenement apartment at the height of the Jewish Lower East Side.

The Gumpertzes, a German-American family, came to New York in the 1870s. Tour guide Kojo Senoo told guests at the opening that Natalie Gumpertz resorted to making dresses after her husband Julius abandoned their family during a recession. She relied on the generosity of Jewish-American charities to purchase a sewing machine and kept her three daughters in school without missing her $12 per month rent. 

“Husbands suddenly disappearing because they had a sense of guilt and shame that was not uncommon,” he explained. “Some headed west to get a fresh start, but that made Natalie responsible financially for her family.” 

The Levine family’s kitchen

The reopening of the museum included several familiar faces, including some of the 76 workers laid off during the pandemic. Many of them had voted to unionize with United Auto Workers in 2019. When the museum opened its doors again briefly in May 2021, it began rehiring unionized workers, according to a spokesperson. They’ll be on hand in December when the Tenement Museum opens its newest permanent exhibition on the renovated fifth floor, A Union of Hope: 1869, which examines the story of Joseph and Rachel Moore, a Black family who lived in a tenement in Soho. According to Dave Favaloro, senior director for curatorial affairs, it’ll be the first time the museum is “departing from telling the story of people who lived here.”

In the meantime, those interested in seeing the new and improved Tenement Museum can join one of its guided tours (the museum is accessible via tours only). The institution offers visits to its recreated tenement apartments as well as walking tours of the Lower East Side neighborhood.

A view of the 97 Orchard staircase

Aaron Short is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, real estate, the environment, and the arts. His work has appeared in New York Magazine, the New York Post, The Daily Beast,...

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