Tenement Museum Tour Turns Visitors into Housing Inspectors

By Lisha Arino on August 4, 2014 6:29pm 

 The Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St.
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DNAinfo/Lisha Arino

LOWER EAST SIDE — A new tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum turns visitors into early 1900s housing inspectors.

The "Tenement Inspectors" tour, launching on Aug. 17, will allow visitors to investigate a real couple's complaints against their landlord more than 100 years ago, including no running water in their apartment.

“You’re actually being invited into the shoes of that person,” said Jessica Underwood Varma, who is in charge of interpretation programs at the museum.

Visitors begin the tour by learning about Wolf and Beckie Goldstein, who lived at 97 Orchard St. and wrote a letter to the city in 1906 complaining about the conditions. They shared their 325-square-foot apartment with five other people and said they had grown fed up with their landlord when the toilet stopped working.

“The landlady says ‘If you don’t like it, you can move,’” the Goldsteins wrote, according to the Tenement Museum.

That same year, the city began enforcing the Tenement Act of 1901, which included requirements to install indoor pluming, hallway lights and windows with access to outside light and air in all apartments.

Participants in the tour will learn about the law and then will visit the museum's recreated version of the Goldstein's Orchard Street home, where they can turn on the taps, walk into the bathrooms and measure the building's steps, to see if they would have met the law's requirements.

Visitors will also interview costumed interpreters playing one of the tenants and their landlord.

“They’re going to be hearing stories from both the landlord and the tenant about what the problems in the building are [and] whose fault it is,” Underwood Varma said.

The “Tenement Inspectors” tour grew out of similar programs the museum designed for schoolchildren and adults who are learning English.

With adults, the programs have sparked conversations about ongoing issues in the city's crunched housing market, Underwood Varma said.

“What we’ve found is visitors will start to make present-day connections on their own, especially if you think about New York, where so many people rent their apartments or they own property here and they have tenants,” she said.

After the first public "Tenement Inspectors" tour from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Aug. 17, additional tours will take place in January, April and May. The tour costs $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. Tickets are available online, by phone at 1-877-97LESTM and at the visitors center on 103 Orchard St. The tour is appropriate for adults and children as young as 8 years old.

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