First Look: New “Shop Life” Exhibit at Tenement Museum

Posted on: November 21st, 2012 at 11:21 am by

Attending myriad Community Board 3 meetings and canvassing the neighborhood, we hear the age-old argument ad-nauseum. Would-be and established bar owners tend to bank on this catch-all notion of being a “true neighborhood bar.” Some are sincere, but most aren’t. Needless to say, it’s the gold standard to which so many strive – a coveted place where locals gather to shoot the shit over beers without the worry of the wrong crowd. The local.

This idea of the community social hub, a threatened species these days, is behind the newest long-term tour at the Tenement Museum. Transforming an under-utilized space, Shop Life strives to explain the story behind the commercial tenants which once operated in the ground level of 97 Orchard Street.

Shop Life tells the story of a Civil War veteran shoemaker and his unlikely push to open a saloon in a neighborhood then known as Kleindeutchland (“Little Germany”). After returning from the front lines, John and Caroline Schneider would eventually open their watering hole on November 12, 1864. It eventually became a place people frequented to get out of their living squalor and socialize with the neighborhood. Beer was served alongside an enticing spread of free lunch (extra salty to spur drinking).

We learn about the clientele that frequented the joint, the social clubs, and drinks of choice. And of John Schneider’s lonely death as pauper on Randall’s Island (then a poor house).

Also part of the tour story arc is the history of other later commercial occupants, including Israel and Goldie Lustgarten’s 1890s kosher butcher store, Max Marcus’ 1930s auction house, and Sidney and Frances Meda’s 1970s undergarment store.

In the southern storefront of 97 Orchard is a high-tech display sure to excite historians and computer nerds alike. Modified X-Box Kinect system that enables educators to elaborate on the ghosts of the building. Patrons place objects on the magic table designed by the wizards at Potion Design, which activates an audio explanation via old-school telephone earpiece.

Shop Life remains in previews until the end of the month to work out the proverbial kinks. We are told that tours officially begin December 3.

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