Blog Archive

Tenement Reflections: The Tales of a Tortured Tenant


Woman crossing Astor Place with home-work. Photo Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

While many new immigrant families arrived in America seeking different opportunities than what their native land could offer, many were struck by the hardships of living in 19th century New York. Krysta O’Pharrow provides a fictional perspective of a German tenant residing in 97 Orchard Street.

August, 1880

It’s not what it’s all cracked up to be. I find myself slumped over, knees to chest, quietly sobbing as the children rest. Hands blackened with splinters caused from scavenging all afternoon for wood and coal for our stove. I close my eyes tightly for a few moments to escape our harsh realities. Counting the days until we can save enough to remove ourselves from these rackety pits. Maintaining my sanity, reminding myself today’s hardships would become memories of a tortured past. I recount and replay my fantasies as a child, longing to escape to the greatest city in the world. Tales of starting a new life in the land of the free consumed me. I look at my children sweating profusely as they all gather under our parlor windows gasping for air as they sleep. The wind blows a horrendous smell of manure. Endless chatter fills the walls with voices of patrons, tenants, and workers, waiting in our communal rear yard for water and toilets. Constant sobbing lingers through our bedroom of a neighbor’s child suffering from swill milk poisoning. Our connecting fire door somehow reflects an ongoing nightmare. I stare daily at our wallpaper, it often fills me with joy as it is vibrant with color and designs and somehow eases the burdens of life. It allows my family to escape the ugliness lying outside our doors. Fighting back watering eyes caused from the soot accumulated throughout our quarters. A useless broom full of twigs lies near our stove full of dirt and dust, in need of a harsh beating. The thought of chores means another treacherous adventure outside these walls. Each step becomes another reminder, another trip down four flights of stairs, which seem to lead to perdition.  My body cries in agony, the daily torture of battling my way through a hallway full of chaos. Each floor is a purgatory of dreams, each dreamer ultimately waiting for their imminent resting place. Struggling to handle items half of my body weight results in endless blisters on my chapped hands. Sleepless nights occur daily when I lay my head to rest. The aches and pains condemn my body to constant tossing and turning. Comfort is a luxury my family just can’t afford as my husband works tersely. Before Sunrise with the children already awake, I can see in his weary eyes, he’s on the brink of defeat. Freedom results in frequent visits to Schneider’s Saloon, a time capsule to our native homeland. We work relentlessly to keep our family values and children sheltered as this life is all they know. Cornered, isolated, and confined to Kleindeutschland, where culture and our native tongue lives. The loud voices of neighbors, crying babies, and the gaudy commotion in our halls wake me from my wretched daydream. Prompting, I cease these thoughts and disregard the aches piercing every limb in my body. The sun is almost set, within moments darkness will present itself. I must gather the lanterns and prepare for night. The children are waking from their naps and the chores await me. My realities are one of choice as I escaped to this country for a better life.  I trekked across the retched blue seas to live the dream for those I’ve left behind. America is now our home and so is 97 Orchard Street.

– Posted by Krysta O’Pharrow, Evening Events Assistant