You know you’re getting old when historical museum exhibits include time periods that you lived through.
That was my experience when I visited Manhattan’s newest “tour” at the fabulous Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. The Tenement Museum started as a way to display the immigrant story from the late 19th century and early 20th century when its founder acquired the building at 97 Orchid St., an old tenement apartment building, and turned it into a living history exhibit.
The most current addition to the Tenement Museum’s offerings includes a building nearby, 103 Orchid St., which opened to visitors at the end of 2017. The tour “Under One Roof” combines the story of three immigrant families who lived in this apartment building in successive periods, all of which were during my lifetime. How old does that make one feel?
The exhibit is important in light of this country’s current struggle to deal with the immigrant question from a policy point of view. It brings to light the important issues in the current debate.
The original exhibit space at 97 Orchid St. housed immigrant families until 1935 when the building ceased to be used for residential purposes due to new building code regulations that mandated expensive modifications and were uneconomical for landlords to make. Until that time, immigrants lived in spaces that were around 300 square feet, sometimes with multiple families or strangers living together, but certainly with large families fitting into these tight quarters.
The apartments in the 103 Orchid St. exhibit are around 900 square feet and feel spacious. All of them have a flush toilet in the apartment, whereas shared toilets were the rule earlier in the century.
The Under One Roof tour ($25 for 90 minutes) starts with the Epstein family that lived in this space from 1955. The Epsteins were among the first Holocaust survivors to be admitted to the United States. You visit their daughter, Bella’s, room, decorated with items she owned, based on interviews with her. Bella is retired in Florida.
After the Epsteins, a Puerto Rican family, headed by single parent Ramonita Saez, moved into the apartment at the age of 25 and lived there beginning in 1962 with two sons. Ramonita worked in a garment sweatshop, paid by the piece, for her entire life until she returned to live in Puerto Rico about four years ago to retire. A model sweatshop is part of the tour.
Around the same time, in 1965, a Chinese immigrant family moved into a similar apartment on another floor of the building, and the family still lives in the neighborhood today. The Wong family was part of the wave of Chinese immigrants that came after laws restricting their entry that stemmed from World War I were eased as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
As I listened to the explanations of the lives of these immigrant families, I learned the reasons behind many things from my childhood. I recognized many of the period pieces that decorated the apartments, from record players to toasters, that were in my childhood home. I realized that these things are probably strange and new to others on the tour who were younger than me.
In many ways, today’s senior citizens are relics to be revered and cherished like a period piece. After all, these Americans have been through periods of enormous change during their lives. In a large sense, it’s the way these folks relate to change that colors the current immigration debate.
Don’t miss the Tenement Museum when in New York. Advance reservations are required and bookable online. No photos are allowed in the museum; but its excellent bookstore has one of the best collections of books and photography about early life in New York.