It is often said that many New Yorkers seldom avail themselves of New York’s famous sites and attractions – except when t hey have visitors to the city. I suspect that is so often said because it is so true! Well, this week a good friend and fellow Paulist from California is visiting, and he wanted to go to the Tenement Museum – something I have often thought I ought to do but have never done. So this morning we schlepped (a good New York city immigrant word) on the "B" train to orchard Street to the museum, and what a treat it turned out to be!
The heart of the Tenement Museum is a real lower east side tenement at 97 Orchard Street. Built in 1863, this tenement apartment building would over the years be home for nearly 7000 working-class immigrants. The museum operates different tours of different ethnic apartments. On-line, one can register in advance for the tour of one’s choice. Or, like us, one can just show up at the museum’s store at 108 Orchard Street, and reserve a spot on the next available tour. I had hoped we’d be able to get on a tour of the Italian immigrant apartment. (After all, my mother spent part of her childhood in a tenement apartment in “Little Italy” just a few blocks away). As it turned out, the next available tour was the Irish one – the experience of Joseph and Brigid Moore and their children, who lived briefly at 97 Orchard Street in the late 1860s (a step-up into what was then a predominantly German neighborhood, from their first apartment in the principal Irish immigrant neighborhood at that time - the infamous "5 Points"). The one-hour tour of the restored 3-room Moore apartment effectively recreates the Irish immigrant experience, including the Wake of one of the Moore children who died in that apartment a few months after her birth. The Moores were parishioners at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street, the same church where Isaac Hecker was received into the Church on August 1, 1844.
The Tenement Museum is a great way for the grandchildren of immigrants, such as myself, to augment our appreciation of our heritage. It’s also a good way for all visitors to reconnect with the immigrant experience which has been so foundations for American history and without which this would never have become the great country it now is - something we as a nation regularly seem to need to be reminded of.
Since we had almost an hour wait before the tour began, I took my friend on a short walk around the neighborhood, stopping at Most Holy Redeemer Church on East 3rd Street, the great German Redemptorist Church which was Isaac Hecker’s New York home from 1851 to 1857, while he was assigned to the Redemptorist mission-band. The juxtaposition of the two seemed to me a good reminder of the close interconnection both between Isaac Hecker and New York, and between Hecker’s religious experience and the American experience.