This season of the Tenement Museum’s podcast explores stories of people who shaped American identity by doing everything from creating street games to traveling to outer space.
A Cultural Epicenter
The Lower East Side has been home to an incredibly diverse set of immigrants and migrants dating back to the 1800s. Each group of newcomers left their mark on the neighborhood, which helped shape the cultural heritage of New York City and America. Historically, it has been known as “Little Germany” in the mid-1800s and as “the world’s largest Jewish city” in the early 1900s. The Lower East Side was also home to the largest Puerto Rican community in the mainland United States, and is currently one of the country’s largest Chinatowns.
A boom in New York’s population in the mid-to-late 1800s led to the rise of tenement housing on the Lower East Side. Tenements were low-rise buildings with multiple apartments, which were narrow and typically made up of three rooms. Because rents were low, tenement housing was the common choice for new immigrants in New York City. It was common for a family of 10 to live in a 325-square-foot apartment.
Jobs and the Garment Trade
In addition to affordable housing, many immigrants and migrants gravitated toward the Lower East Side for job opportunities in the garment industry. Almost every generation of immigrants to the Lower East Side has been touched by the industry. Many of the stories of 97 and 103 Orchard Street have ties to the garment trade. Prior to 1850, German immigrants worked in small garment shops followed by Irish immigrants from 1850-1880. By the turn of the 20th Century, the Lower East Side emerged as both the center of the nation’s garment production, powered by the Jewish and Italian immigrants who now held the jobs in the shops and factories. Successive groups of newcomers would continue to transform the garment industry in the 20th century, including Puerto Rican migrants and Chinese immigrants.
Neighborhood Walking Tours
Visitors to the Tenement Museum can explore the Lower East Side and learn about the neighborhood’s past and present on any of our neighborhood walking tours!