An immersive educational event at Manhattan's Tenement Museum brings attendees up close and personal with housing reform history.
I hadn't been inside the apartment at 97 Orchard Street for more than 10 minutes when a woman with a Yiddish accent showed me a chamber pot full of poop.
Well, fake poop. And that was just the beginning of Tenement Inspectors, a night of costumed interpreters, curated filth, and interactive education at New York City’s Tenement Museum.
The Tenement Inspector event is part of the museum's First Fridays series. The gist is that guests become (you guessed it) tenement inspectors from the year 1906. An inspector's job for the evening is to ascertain whether or not 97 Orchard Street, a real former tenement building and the focal point of the museum'shistorical mission, is in violation of the New York State Tenement House Act. The Act, a piece of Progressive Era housing reform, became law in 1901 and landlords had five years to improve their properties accordingly.
When I arrived, two museum guides led my fellow novice inspectors and me to a classroom. After a quick briefing, we took our oaths, affixed our inspector badges (read: stickers) to our chest, and walked next door to 97 Orchard.
Inside the building we were greeted by Dora Goldfein ("Shalom aleichem!") and Rebecca Goldstein ("You’ve been schlepping all over the city! Take it easy—sit, sit!"). Well, we met the costumed interpreters playing Dora, one half of the couple who actually owned the property in 1906, and Rebecca, one of her tenants. We spent about twenty minutes with each woman, asking questions and taking notes on the condition of the building.
There was little to approve of in 97 Orchard that night. We noted multiple code violations. Wallpaper peeled off the back wall of Rebecca's unit, exposing additional layers beneath—a feast for glue-eating rats. The aforementioned chamber pot was stashed under Rebecca's children's bed, mere inches from the pillow. A cockroach rested in a jar of dried chickpeas. In the hallway, rags were strewn about the floor. The stairway was up to code—"All stairs must be no more than 8 inches tall and at least 10 inches wide"—but the bathrooms were broken and filthy. Another fake poop conspicuously sat on the rim of one toilet seat.
It sounds bleak, which was certainly the intention, but as a museum guest, the meticulous level of detail was also impressive.
"It's really about creating as immersive an experience as possible," Miriam Bader, the museum's education director, told me. "All of those details end up making for a program where you can almost actually let yourself time travel and believe it, as opposed to just feeling like you're in a play world."
And it's not just the physical details of the space that get so thoughtfully prepared. Dora and Rebecca are also far more fully developed as characters than I had anticipated. They have stories, personalities, and motivations all their own. Bader says a lot of research was done on the historical Dora and Rebecca to create more authentic characters. The costumed interpreters spend anywhere from six weeks to three months training to bring their early 20th-century counterparts back to life. On top of memorizing their respective backstories, the actors also must become comfortable with the Yiddish language and accent.
It's a lot of work, but it's all in service of the museum's mission to educate the public about the history of immigration in the Lower East Side, urban housing, and New York City more generally.
"I think there's something so powerful about being engaged in this kind of experience and really being immersed in a different time period," Bader says. "It's very different to listen to somebody talk as opposed to being part of the experience and having to think about something from somebody else's perspective. Plus, it’s a lot of fun!"
Ultimately, 97 Orchard Street did not pass our inspection. Had this really been 1906, Dora would've been fined and possibly sent to jail for the violations. But it wasn't. As we stepped outside into the crisp winter air, Dora tried to bribe us, but we had already returned to the present day. It was a Friday night in 2015 and the work day was officially over.