A few weeks ago I visited the tenement museum on the lower East Side. I took a tour of two apartments that were used in the early 1900′s. In one of the apartments, there was a micro-sweat shop running, where they would make dresses for women. They would sit in the master bedroom that fit no more than 6 cramped, and would saw, press, and cut the fabrics. Between the fumes and the lack of air circulation, the health department wasn’t so happy with these kind of operations and forced them to shut down. The other apartment we visited was occupied by a family of 8. In that apartment, I saw a copy of the Jewish newspaper from that time, with news of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, something I knew about, and something we discussed in class. After the fire, there was a big strike from all the girls who were working in the garment district and being treated unlawfully and unfairly. The two girls from this second apartment, the Rogarshevsky’s had to decide if they were going to strike and stand up for what they believe in, or if they were going to go to work, and be able to help support the family and pay rent. That was a common problem back in that time, do we say “No! This is the land of life, libery and pursuit of happiness, and I will achieve that!” or do you say “I will do whatever it takes to be able to supply for my family.” Our tour guide of the museum had asked all of us to put ourselves in these girls shoes and asked us what we would do.
Being confronted with that scenario, seeing the apartments, and learning in our class all about the big wave of immigration coming to America, it really made me think about what kind of living conditions were existing in their native countries. If living in a tiny apartment, sleeping head to toe with your brothers and sisters in the living room, working for thieving bosses who overworked you and underpaid you, if all this was an improvement from their home life, its unimaginable how bad they had it. I learned a lot from this class, and one of the things I learned from this class was a greater appreciation for this country that is my home. These people were living in hard times, but they were able to live without religious persecution, and were able to live freely, capable of anything. I have a new appreciation for the country that has their entire pacific fleet wiped out, yet still prevails and triumphs over the enemy. I have a new appreciation for a man named FDR who was able to pull our nation from the trenches of economic turmoil. I have a new appreciation for a man named Johnson, who worked endlessly to help African-American’s gain civil rights and equality. I have a new appreciation for a man named Reagan, who through the hard work of his predecessors and his own hard work, was able to convince a communist country to end its ways and become a democracy.
The tenement museum enables you to see first hand the way people lived less than a hundred years ago. People who would do anything to live in those one bedroom apartments, and if you go and see them, I think you will have a new found appreciation and even more understanding of what it means to be a free American. The life of unions and fair work standards were born in the lower east side and if you see these apartments and hear the stories, you will know why. You should really try to go, you will remember it for the rest of your life.