The apartment we explored on my tour, called "Hard Times," focused on two families, one a German Jewish family who came to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, and a Italian Roman Catholic family that lived in the same apartment decades later in the early twentieth century. Both families lived through very trying times financially--the Depression of 1873, and the Great Depression of the Thirties. Hence, the tour's name: "Hard Times."
Our tour guide did a fine job bringing their stories to life. She spoke of a husband who abandoned his family when he couldn't find work, another husband who kept the home fires burning after he lost his job, and two wives who stepped up to the challenge of supporting their families. She told us about one family playing games on the kitchen table, and both families using outhouses in the tiny backyard.
The apartment they lived in was 325 square feet. One bedroom, a parlor and the kitchen--shotgun style. When the German family lived there it housed six. It struck a real chord because throughout my high school years, my family of six lived in a very similar apartment--both in terms of square footage, and layout. No outhouse--we did have indoor plumbing. And electricity. But still--it was tight. I can only imagine what it would have been like if it had been as stripped down as the tenement apartment on Orchard Street.
Of course, there are many, many stories of much larger families, extended families, living in such places. Not just in the past, but today. Right here in the United States. It is amazing, isn't it, what difficult conditions people will endure for a chance at freedom, a chance for opportunity. There can be little question (at least in my mind) that immigrants, then and now, provide real strong threads when they are woven into our national fabric. Might we never forget that as we debate the future of so many folks looking for what many of our ancestors longed for--and found--in times past.