Image: Exteriors of Lower East Side Tenements ca. 1975-1978, photographic print by Edmund V. Gillon. Images courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

“Don’t J-walk.” It’s the only rule. Filing down the sidewalks of Orchard Street with Educator/Guide Anna Duensing, away from the Tenement Museum, and into the public domain of Lower East Side streets, the “Outside the Home” tour provides a breath of fresh air for an audience accustomed to the stale, discursive habits of old school museum docents. It seems no coincidence that Anna’s introduction accounted for the human necessity of light and fresh air—elements not so prevalent in tenement design and development until the advent of city code requirements.

“With no regulations or laws standardizing the quality of life, oxygen deprivation was no joke with ten to twelve people living in 325 square feet,” she points out. A city apartment choked with coal dust and wood smoke in the winter and summer conditions were often unbearable. Generations of immigrants sought relief outside of the tenements, and the Dutch-American inhabitants of lower Manhattan experienced an

influx of the new “German”—essentially Bavarian, Prussian, and Austrian—cultures in the public spaces of a burgeoning city.

Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) grew out of the development of multiple-family dwellings, and the tenements of the Lower East Side mark the early/mid-1800s immigration wave. “With Germans,” the guide laughs, “came the free flow of beer. Ultimately, over 500 saloons opened. They were a living, breathing network like Craigslist today, where newcomers could speak their language and find work.” In a new setting with familiar accouterments, they could also marry across cultures in ways prohibited by the social constructs maintained in German speaking countries. Prussians and Bavarians shared lifeways, cooking styles, and ideas, and saloons provided a space for social experimentation and expansion.

The tour highlights Lucas Glockner: a German tailor, who immigrated to New York, took up residence on St. Marks Place and saved up to purchase an old Dutch church, which he demolished to develop the 97 Orchard Street Tenement. Orchard Street, we learn on our walk, was (you guessed it) an apple orchard. Belonging to James DeLancey, a British Loyalist, the city government eventually admonished the Anglophile and appropriated his land.

We encounter Orchard’s longest standing building, number 68: an 1820 single-family house that was altered in the 1850s to accommodate an upstairs saloon. For as many passes as I have made, I have never noticed this particular structure, dwarfed by later multi-story architecture and the white-noise of fire escapes, awnings, neon signs, LEDs, restaurant seating, and window displays that pepper the neighborhood. The streets and alleys are populated with cars and motorbikes today, fulfilling Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s vision to “clean up” old world New York, but over 1,000 daily pushcart vendors and their customers densely populated the area previously, as evidenced by turn-of-the-twentieth century photographs. Perhaps, we are instructed to imagine, it was equivalent to a Times Square filled with fresh fruit, vegetables, baked goods, meats hanging and freshly butchered, new scents and old, familiar faces and strangers, and a German dialect—Yiddish—that foresaw the evolutionary influx of newcomers.

Image: Photograph of Eldridge Street Synagogue located at 12 Eldridge Street. ca. 1975-1978, photographic print by Edmund V. Gillon. Images courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

My favorite building on the tour revealed itself as we meandered south to 12 Eldridge Street. Pausing before a grand little temple that could easily be mistaken for a mini-cathedral, Anna explains, “By the 1870s, Kleindeutschland was in decline and the quarter was bustling with Eastern European Jews.” We stand in a primarily Fujian deviation of Chinatown fringe, forklifts clacking and teetering off corner curbs at Division Street while trains rasp and clatter across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. This remarkably decadent building speaks volumes about the religious freedom afforded to the nearly two million Eastern European Jews escaping the pogroms to initially settle in the Lower East Side. Twelve circles surrounding the central rose window allude to the twelve tribes of Israel. Entirely funded and built by Jewish immigrants, the architects were German-Catholics, which explains the church-like demeanor of this otherwise garishly expressive temple. Stained glass and fifty-foot ceilings ignite the Moorish-style interior with air and light—elements in high demand for tenement dwellers. The interior is not a part of the Outside the Home tour, but two birds in one day trip are worth casting a stone. The Tenement Museum and the temple at 12 Eldridge Street are mere blocks from one another.

But why do I have such a bond with this particular landmark? These doors, the light inside, the collective echo of voices absorbed by the walls—all of the elements of the Eldridge Street Synagogue welcomed my own great-grandfather,a Jewish tailor from Odessa, Ukrain in 1903. His brothers, their wives, my family: we started here. They peddled fish and made clothing, attended services, and celebrations. Their survival and success resulted in my physical being standing before this beautifully successful architectural restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now The Museum at Eldridge Street. That space and community stabilized my immigrant family. It was not until taking this didactic tour that I recognized the street names and addresses associated with my past genealogical research.

Unexpectedly, the Tenement Museum tour filled in so many of the gaps that occur with the loss of oral tradition. I imagine my great-grandfather, Louis Fishgold, sleeping on the painted iron of a fire escape with the sounds and smells of a foreign city below on a hot summer night. Who wore the clothes he made, and where did they live? What did they do? The Chinese tailors on Broome Street, where he lived and worked for some time just a couple blocks from the synagogue, are a continuation of his story as I am today. Perhaps the coming generations will discover forgotten elements of their familial past, as the immigrant history of Fuzhou and Cantonese influx expands along side the Museum. Even more fascinating, I am new to New York City now as great-grandpa Fishgold was then. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s “Outside the Home” tour, suddenly, just revealed a little bit of home that I never knew existed here. And all in just under two hours.

A big thanks to tour guide Anna Duensing, for a phenomenally informative experience. Other buildings on the tour not mentioned in the above include: the Jarmulowsky Bank building, the Daily Forward building, Public School 42, and several other sites for listening, seeing, and feeling.