[Last 19 December, I published “Lower East Side Tenement Museum” on ROT, a report on the unusual museum of the immigrant experience here in New York City and across the country from the middle of the 19th century through the pre-World War II years of the 20th. On 8 February, the New York Times ran an exhibition review by Edward Rothstein of LESTM in the “Weekend Arts II” section. I’m republishing the article below as a follow-up and supplement to my original report because Rothstein not only adds some additional information about the museum and the era it covers, but he reports on a new installation (which I noted was in the planning at the time I posted “Lower East Side Tenement Museum”). As Rothstein intimates, LESTM is an extraordinary experience, and I still strongly recommend making a visit to 97 Orchard Street. (My original article includes information about arranging a visit, buying tickets, and getting there, including phone numbers and websites.)]
Something exciting happens in a museum when its objects and displays take on a life of their own, when they seem almost too large, too various or too unruly for scripted roles or predicted places. Sometimes this happens because they are seen with new eyes or because they are understood in new contexts; sometimes it is because they possess an aesthetic grandeur that resists any interpretive grid.
But at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which has begun a major new venture in its remarkable excavations of New York’s past, it happens because the themes explored are actually too ordinary. They are mundane and usually go unnoticed, yet as uncovered here they cannot be easily contained, nor will they fit into some ready form, which may be part of the point.
It is daily life we are asked to imagine here, in all its plainness and struggle, its dirt, noise and passions. It is also a daily life of the past—really of a series of pasts. And the main theme is as vital now as at earlier moments: immigration.
And how is this accomplished? What is the focus of this excavation? In a word: shops. Half of this new installation, “Shop Life,” is a lovingly detailed re-creation of the kind of German saloon that the immigrants John and Caroline Schneider opened in 1864 in the same spot we see it: the basement of the tenement at 97 Orchard Street. The neighborhood was then called Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), and New York had the third-largest German-speaking populace in the world (after Vienna and Berlin). There are brass musical instruments on shelves (John played in a Union Army regiment), beer steins ready for the opening of a keg, plates heaped with ersatz sausages and cheeses. (Food came with the purchase of lager.)
The method of recreating a historical space based on city records, the Census and found artifacts has already been used upstairs in the living quarters of 97 Orchard, where some 7,000 people from more than 20 countries lived, at one time or another, from 1863 until 1935. The Tenement Museum, founded in 1988 by Ruth J. Abram, purchased the building in 1996 and was prepared to create model apartments based on different periods of immigration
But records about residents were so extensive, and the details so suggestive, that there was no need to invent anything. The actual history could be excavated. Now about 200,000 visitors a year take guided tours of many of these 350-square-foot apartments, restored to reflect the lives of tenants at different times.
In one, in 1897, Harris Levine ran a small dressmaking factory, where he and his wife, Jennie, reared their family. Other tours visit the 1869 rooms of an Irish family, the Moores, whose infant daughter died of malnutrition, and an Italian family, the Baldizzis, whose daughter helped the museum recreate the apartment of her 1930s childhood. Some apartments were kept as “ruins,” showing how their peeling layers of paint and wallpaper were interpreted. And there are plans to tell the stories of the neighborhood’s more recent Chinese and Hispanic immigrants, perhaps in an adjacent building.
But now the museum has done something more elaborate, overseen by its vice president for programs and education, Annie Polland. A sequence of about 30 shops had been in the basement between 1863 and 1988. One of these was restored—the saloon—including a room where, in the 1870s, German patrons might have gathered for meetings of immigrant fraternal associations, a small kitchen where Caroline prepared the saloon’s food, and the couple’s bedroom with windows looking out on the privies serving the 83 residents of the five-story tenement.
The saloon was more than just a business (and there were at least three others on the block). It was a meeting place, even a living space outside of the cramped three-room apartments. Politics was debated. Families were welcomed. And in 1870 some of the 29 or so children living upstairs must have been expert carriers of metal growlers filled with lager.
The re-creation also conveys a sense of the Schneiders themselves, teased out of newspapers (in The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung in 1864 John announced the saloon’s opening “to his fine friends and acquaintances as well as the honorable musicians”), city records (John had been living in New York for 22 of his 34 years) and other documents. (Caroline died of tuberculosis in 1885; John died in 1892 in a public hospital.) Through the narrative we sense the ambitions, the community ties and the precarious positions behind the saloon’s public face.
In the other half of the basement space the museum does something quite different. First it shows a room in its half-ruined state. A cabinet contains the few items that digging had uncovered: a shattered beer stein from the saloon era and cosmetics from a 1920s store. There is also a large red leather-bound book: “Solution for Retail Merchandising Problems.” Its credited author, Max Marcus, was a proprietor of an auction house here during the Depression. Inside, the book is hollow, hiding a bottle of Ambassador Scotch.
Max turns out to be one of the characters introduced in the final gallery, which uses high-tech video-display tables to survey the lives of three storekeepers who used the space. Max (shown in that very room in the 1930s) was the kind of spirited entrepreneur who might have found a solution for merchandising problems by buying someone a drink. And these well-executed light tables also tell the story of the butcher and his family from the turn of the last century, and the underwear salesman from the 1960s, whose family gave the museum photos and samples. Additional videos of current store owners in the area, including one from the Dominican Republic, echo a hundred years of immigrant narratives.
In all, such care is taken with the setting, the artifacts, the interpretation and the guides’ interaction with visitors that we begin to feel, as in fine novels, plays and histories, some understanding of these individuals and their relationships to the larger theme.
This connection is also worth examining more closely. The museum declares that its purpose is to “promote tolerance and historical perspective” by presenting a “variety of immigrant and migrant experiences.” But initially Ms. Abram seemed to have a more polemical perspective, drawing on 20th-century working-class histories and their theories of exploitation. In 1999 the museum organized the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, which included the Tenement Museum; the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa; the Gulag Museum at Perm 36 in Perm, Russia; the Terezin Memorial in the Czech Republic; and others. The coalition’s mission is “to help sites the world over inspire visitors to become actively engaged in issues from slavery to poverty.”
This suggests that the Tenement Museum was partly conceived to demonstrate a series of injustices that should trouble contemporary consciences. But even by looking at the most horrific of tenements (which 97 Orchard clearly was not) the implied comparison to some of these institutions is grossly disproportionate.
Much of that polemical spirit has been shed. But even now there is sometimes an edge, as if we were being offered a lesson that we should be more welcoming and tolerant of contemporary immigrants.
But is that really an issue? There may always be some resentments of newcomers. But the passionate contemporary debates are not about immigration but about how to deal with large-scale violations of immigration law that dwarf earlier examples. As for legal immigration, since 2000 both the number of immigrants admitted to the United States and the number naturalized are stunningly greater than during any other period. The country is not wary of immigrants; it is welcoming them at an astonishing rate.
As far as the museum experience is concerned, though, this doesn’t really matter. Its imposing achievement in these new shop installations, and in at least two tenement tours I have taken, is that the daily lives become far more important than any arguments. Historical understanding is found in the details. And amid the travails, sweat and sorrows, we find the continuing pulse of aspiration.