“I didn’t come to America to wash stairs” – the immigrant experience in New York City

“As we go inside the museum, we ask you please not to touch anything – except…..”

Following our guide, we entered the building, and accepted his invitation to touch the banister that gleamed faintly in the gloom of the stairwell. By doing so we felt a sense of communion with the thousands of hands that preceded ours.

The building had been a tenement between the mid nineteenth and twentieth centuries, housing hundreds of families. It was my first visit to New York City, and I wanted to understand something about the experience of the immigrants who were central to the history of the city, and indeed the nation.

Towards the end of our tour, we heard a recording of the voice of a young man of Sicilian heritage who had been a volunteer there. Our guide told us “he was one of ours, a firefighter…. we lost him on 9/11″…

Published in The Sunday Telegraph “Your Say” 27 November 2016

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum


Orchard Street from the museum steps

97 Orchard Street


On my first visit to New York City, I came across the museum in a guidebook. The tenement at 97 Orchard Street had stood empty for over 50 years; works to conform to new safety legislation in the twentieth century proved too costly for the landlords, and the building could no longer be used as dwellings.

Seven apartments have been restored and recreated as they might have been when inhabited by the real families who lived in them at different periods of history.

I chose “Hard Times”, a tour of two of the homes in the tenement. The first is where the Gumpertz family lived; a young couple of German-Jewish immigrants raised their children here until the husband mysteriously disappeared in 1873. His wife continued to work in the garment industry to support her family.

The Baldizzi family lived in the second apartment during the Great Depression, and we heard recordings of family members, including the firefighter who had been a museum volunteer.


Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 & 103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002, 

Booking essential: http://www.tenement.org/



The immigrant experience – ellis island

The visit to the Tenement Museum caught my imagination, and helped me understand how the population of the USA became a melting pot. It brought home how many Americans are descended from immigrants and refugees who were processed through the facility at Ellis Island, which I visited on a later trip to New York.

Ellis Island was the largest and most active immigration station in the US. Between 1892 and 1924 over 12 million people passed through here, in a process lasting between three and seven hours. For the vast majority, Ellis was the “Island of Hope”.


The Baggage Room exhibit, Ellis Island


There are information boards throughout the museum, many of them quoting anecdotes about the immigration process. The would-be Americans were tested for their ability to speak English, and one girl from a Polish village was asked “If you were washing stairs, would you start at the bottom or the top?”

I was impressed by the determination behind her reply:


“I didn’t come to America to wash stairs”. 





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