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Crowded House

Every floor has a story at the Tenement Museum

Author Jon Marcus Illustration Peter Oumanski

globetrotting4NEW YORK CITY – John Schneider ran one of America’s pioneering small businesses. Very, very small.

Schneider’s Beer Saloon on the Lower East Side, one of New York’s first immigrant enclaves, was not much wider than a city bus and barely as long. It’s no surprise, then, that the people here today are experiencing rather cramped conditions, or that their accents range from reedy Canadian to lilting Taiwanese. Less expected is the fact that they are here roughly 127 years after closing time.

This poky tavern, it turns out, is a re-creation of a business that operated in this spot in the 1860s. It is the latest addition to one of Manhattan’s lesser-known tourist attractions, the Tenement Museum, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Located in a low-rent 19th-century brownstone, the Tenement Museum was established in the late 1980s as an experiment in urban archaeology. It reflects a growing movement in the social sciences in that it aims to explore big-picture issues via mundane details—in this instance, the history of immigration into New York.

So it is that groups of visitors traipse through the building’s warren of small, shabby apartments (along with a kosher butcher shop, an underwear wholesaler and other businesses that once occupied the premises), peering at the exposed brickwork and cracked floorboards as if exploring the ruins of an ancient Roman bath.
 “It is one of the most historic things you can do in New York,” says Annie Polland, the museum’s VP of education and programs. “But at the same time, people will say, ‘This reminds me of what’s going on in my town right now.’”

Right now in the area around the museum, things are gentrifying, with hip new businesses opening alongside those long run by Asians who know Yiddish and Dominicans who speak Cantonese. In the days when the beer still flowed here, immigrants couldn’t wait to get out of the neighborhood; today, Polland says, “everyone wants to come down to the Lower East Side.”

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