New York City - New York's Lower East Side has just begun to feel the grip of gentrification. Boutiques jostle with dynastic pickle-sellers for storefront space. It reminds me of the old Spadina and College. The Lower East Side is a crossroads where waves of immigrant families - Italian, Irish, Jewish and now Russian and Chinese - first put down roots. From Houston Street we walk down Orchard, past tightly packed rows of brick buildings traced by fire escapes like musical notation.
The Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard (www.tenement.org) is accessible only by hourly tours, tickets for which are sold at the affiliated bookstore across the street. Over 7,000 of the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free made their first American home here since it opened in 1863. The place literally hadn't changed since the landlord evicted all the tenants in 1935, when he would otherwide have had to bring the building up to code.
We're standing outside the five-storey building with Georgina Acevedo, our tour guide. She's a Puerto Rican immigrant with a hearty laugh who has lived in the neighbourhood for the last 40 years. Before the tour starts, she invites us to share our own background. Thinking about origins puts us in the right frame of mind.
Our first stop is just inside the front door by the original staircase. It smells like old books. Everything's musty. Georgina reminds us that, yes, there were five flights of stairs, no elevators. And with no running water, that meant all water for bathing, washing, drinking and cooking (done by the women, of course) had to be pumped outside and then hauled up. Same goes for the toilets: no water meant a trip to an outhouse, or keeping your chamber-pot handy.
The wooden staircase was one of the building's many fire hazards that led to the mass eviction. Before gas was installed in 1900, the tenants did all of their climbing in the dark. Rooms were lit by candles; electricity for light-bulbs didn't arrive until 1924.
We come to the first of two recreated apartments, the home of Julius and Nathalie Grumpertz, a family of Prussian immigrants who lived here until Julius mysteriously vanished one day in 1874. Supporting four children, Nathalie carried on as a dressmaker, as we see from the sewing equipment in the front room. Its windows overlooking Orchard Street were the sole source of light, leaving three other rooms in darkness.
A second apartment was the home of the Baldizzis, an Italian family who moved in in 1928. Josephine Baldizzi, who lived there as a little girl, returned to find her home a museum nearly 60 years later. Her father, Adolfo, was a carpenter, and it was moving to learn that she discovered the cabinets he'd made still intact.
Josephine helped the museum staff recreate her old home, recording her recollections of childhood, which our guide plays back for us from a concealed stereo.
It's weird. Can you imagine someone kicking around your apartment in 70 years, treating your CD collection or laundry detergent like artifacts? I think about the ghosts who lived in these rooms, the kids who must have pounded down these hallways, finding every nook and hiding place. The tenants lived without many of the basic amenities we take for granted, but they got by. As Georgina tells us "You can't miss something you've never had."
Our last stop is at some of the unrestored rooms at the back of the building. Here's where we get the best sense of the march of time. The walls are fascinating, a palimpsest of compressed wallpapers, so thick the layers look like geological strata. The linoleum floors are worn, the wood under them thin, making me wonder if our small group is going to crash through.
When we step out of the time machine at tour's end, we walk back up to Houston to another successful immigrant institution, Katz's Deli, and tear into some fat pastrami on rye.