I’ve always said it’s a shame that German is the only foreign language I speak (badly, it needs to be noted) because every single person from Germany will speak better English than I do German. Well, it turns out that I’m just in the wrong part of the city – and in the wrong generation.
Tonight I went to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side to take the Shop Life tour. The museum – which celebrates the history of the LES – owns the building at 97 Orchard Street, which they’ve stripped back so it resembles the interior as it was nearly 150 years ago.
Our lovely tour guide Claudia explained that at the end of the 19th Century, this area was known as Little Germany (I didn’t know that). It had the largest German speaking population after Berlin and Vienna, and there were anywhere between five to ten bier halls per block.
On the ground floor of 97 is a German saloon established in the 1870s by immigrant John Schneider. For 90 minutes, we heard about everyday life for the Schneider family as we toured their home, which was a fascinating and creative history lesson. (And did you know a growler is called a growler because of the noise it makes as you push it across the bar? Unfortunately ‘growler’ also means something a little ruder in the UK.)
We spent most of our time in the four rooms of the ground floor – the saloon (complete with a table crammed with wurst, sauerkraut and pretzels), the study area, a kitchen and the couple’s bedroom. It was funny hearing the out-of-towners gasping at the snug sizes of the rooms, while in my mind I was thinking, “Woah, this is huuuge, imagine the rent on this place!”
Looking at the Schneiders’ lives also allowed us insight into the laws (e.g. that no alcohol could be sold on a Sunday – a law they all broke), business and immigration at the time. We bombarded Claudia with questions… and she knew the answers to them all.
After the insight into the Schneider family, Claudia used a smartboard to show us how the area changed in the following years. All of those saloons were replaced by Jewish butcher shops in the 1900s, auctioneers in the 30s and underwear shops in the 70s. (Today, the same area is crammed with boutiques and cafes.)
What a creative, authentic way to see the city as it was 150 years ago. I had been so tired after last night’s festivities that I had wanted a gentle activity and while this was easygoing, it was so fascinating that there was no chance of me snoozing.