Shop Life on the Lower East Side

Earlier this week, most of the Foods of New York Tours staff took the Tenement Museum‘s newest tour: Shop Life. Tenements are an important facet of downtown Manhattan history — as those of you who have taken our Greenwich Village tour know — and the Tenement Museum has a handful of tours that feature different aspects of tenement life.
As a part of the on-going training of our tour guides, we took the Shop Life tour to learn more about the history and culture that shapes the city. The Lower East Side sits adjacent or very close to virtually every neighborhood in which we offer tours, so its history is particularly relevant for our guides.
Foods of New York tour guides listen to our Shop Life guide, Annie.
A tenement, for the uninitiated, is a multiple-occupancy building, usually pejorative and referring to particularly run-down sets of apartments or those with otherwise squalid conditions. In New York City, these buildings were occupied by the working poor and featured communal toilets and water taps squeezed between them. (It was not a particularly sanitary time in our history.)

Shop Life Tour at the Tenement Museum
Photos via the Tenement Museum

Many of the tenements featured storefronts on the first floors. The tour featured 97 Orchard Street, which was most notably home to a German lager saloon, a kosher butcher shop, a Depression-era auction house, and a hosiery store in its 100+ year history, among many other uses. We explored whether a shop shapes a community or vice versa (our conclusion: it’s both) while learning about the many tenants of the space.

One of the coolest things we learned on the tour was about rats. Most New Yorkers, understandably, despise rats and their presence. But historians have a different perspective: rats building nests pull little bits of history into the walls and, in the process, preserve them. The photo above features a piece of a German-language newspaper — from the 19th Century when the Lower East Side was Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) — and a doll’s head recovered from creases in the fireplace and the walls. These little tidbits sometimes give historians far more than they would have gleaned otherwise. Thanks, rats!

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