In a new exhibition, the Tenement Museum teaches immigration policy through the stories of three families on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Since its opening in 1988, the Tenement Museum has explored the lives of immigrants who lived in the 97 Orchard St tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But the original building was condemned in 1935, which constrained the stories that this site-specific museum could tell. In 2007, the museum purchased and renovated 103 Orchard Street, and this fall the museum will unveil its first exhibit in this space. “We’re finally able to tell the full scope of the immigration story of the Lower East Side,” says museum president Kevin Jennings, “which in many ways is the immigration story of America.”
The new exhibit, “Under One Roof,” will tell the stories of three different immigrant families: the Epsteins, Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who lived in the Orchard Street building from 1956-1961, the Saez-Velez family, who immigrated from Puerto Rico in the ‘40s, and the Wongs, a Chinese family who moved into the building in 1968. As previous museum exhibits have covered the lives of immigrants from the 1860s to 1930s, “we’re very excited to be bringing our museum and history into the 20th and 21st century,” Jennings says. He feels strongly about telling stories of more recent immigration—especially in a political climate where refugees have been compared to poisoned Skittles and a bill cutting immigration by half has been introduced on the Senate floor. “For us to be frozen in time back in the ‘30s when this is an ongoing and vital topic is frustrating,” Jennings says.
“Under One Roof” departs from the museum’s norm of having an exhibit tell the story of a single
Perhaps the exhibit’s driving point is that immigration is not static. Communities neither move to nor exist in America inside a vacuum, but instead jostle alongside each other constantly. “They never lived in isolation when they lived in the tenement,” says Annie Polland, vice president of programs and education at the Tenement Museum. “[The exhibit is] putting them in motion together: the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. We want to capture the energy of a city, the energy of a neighborhood becoming the most diverse neighborhood of a city.” The Saez-Velez boys would sell Jewish pastries to their teachers, and earned money turning on synagogue lights every Saturday. The Wongs remember Jose Saez-Velez working as their building’s superintendent. Garment workers’ unions tied together different ethnic communities who worked in the same industry.
Naturally, these cross-cultural ties were not made in a frictionless utopia. Bella Epstein recalls her Italian friend Rosita, who lived in the same apartment, saying her parents had not invited the Epsteins to a party because they were Jewish. While children of immigrants were quick to form bonds with other children in the neighborhood, those connections did not mean that old prejudices dissolved completely.
“I don’t mean to say that everyone got to New York and it was like, ‘kumbaya, let’s sit in a circle and do icebreakers and drink kombucha and all love each other,’” admits Polland. “But living in tenements where you all are sharing the same class boundaries, you all know what it’s like to work in a garment shop. You all know what it’s like to navigate these streets, [and] that starts to bring people closer together. The shared living environments and figuring out ways to work with one another.”
Another key facet of the exhibit is its emphasis on how immigration policies shaped the Lower East Side and the lives of immigrants who were able to enter America. Jennings makes no bones about the exhibit’s stance. “I think museums have a responsibility to tell the truth about history,” he says. “And this neighborhood, its story, is massively impacted by federal policy.” Guides educate visitors about specific policies: how the Chinese Exclusion Act blocked Chinese immigration for 60 years; how the restrictive quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924 later made it difficult for Eastern European Holocaust survivors to enter the country; how the Epsteins were able to come to America largely because of an Executive Order signed by President Truman that prioritized the immigration of refugees from displacement camps.
“What we do really well is tell those stories, and people understand the human element of government policy,” says Jennings. “I think when a lot of people hear the word ‘policy,’ their eyes kind of glaze over. When they then make a human connection—[that] the Epsteins, the Wongs, were able to come because of a policy—they have a context to understand that the decisions our leaders make have massive implications for ordinary people.”
“Under One Roof” openly advocates for immigration: for the ways immigrants have literally woven America’s fabrics and the ways they have changed the nation’s neighborhoods. Immigrants have their lives upended in America—they must learn a new language, a new currency, a new way of living. And the way we think of America and what it means to be American evolves alongside them.
“The title of the exhibit is ‘Under One Roof,’ and that’s a very deliberately chosen title,” says Jennings. “Because here are people from Italian backgrounds, Jewish backgrounds, Chinese backgrounds, Latino backgrounds. That’s the beauty of America at its best: that we can be a place where people from such different backgrounds can live together. In this very dark moment in our history we’re proud to show that it’s possible for diversity to work.”
The Tenement Museum’s new long-term exhibit opens November 1, 2017.