The Tenement Museum recently broadened its focus, opening a new exhibition devoted to the stories of Chinese immigrants, Puerto Rican migrants and refugees from the Holocaust. “Under One Roof,” the exhibit at 103 Orchard St., doesn’t just represent the most significant expansion in the museum’s 29 year history. It also reflects the local institution’s desire to connect more fully with different facets of the Lower East Side community.
In the Tenement Museum’s original building, at 97 Orchard St., visitors learn about the experiences of Eastern European Jewish, German, Italian and Irish immigrants. But because the building was condemned in 1935, the stories stop there. “Under One Roof” completes the museum’s presentation of immigration on the Lower East Side with a focus on some of the families who lived in 103 Orchard St. during the post-World War II era.
On the tour, visitors walk from room to room, learning about the Epstein family, Polish refugees who survived the Holocaust; the Saez/Velez family, who came to New York from Puerto Rico in 1961; and the Wong family, Chinese immigrants who lived in the building from 1968-2014. The apartment has been divided into subsections, in part, to drive home the idea that the lives of Lower East Side immigrants were, and continue to be, intertwined. The last room on the tour is a replica of a Chinatown/LES garment factory, complete with interactive video stations. Members of all three families worked in the garment trade.
In an interview, Tenement Museum President Kevin Jennings said, “Under One Roof” is “part of a larger commitment we are making to being more connected to the neighborhood we’re part of… (The museum) wasn’t reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood in which we lived.”
In 2016, the museum hosted more than 238,000 visitors. It’s the second largest tourist attraction on the Lower East Side, after the New Museum. But not many locals frequent the Tenement Museum. The institution would like to change that.
“In being able to renovate 103 Orchard,” said Jennings,” and to bring more contemporary stories online — Puerto Rican stories and Chinese stories and stories that we couldn’t tell in 97 Orchard because they hadn’t happened — I think, hopefully, it will help the neighborhood feel a little more like, ‘that’s my place, too.’”
The museum’s leadership is very much aware that the price point for its tours, $25, is a barrier for a lot of people who live on the Lower East Side. So coming up on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 2, there’s a free open house to celebrate “Under One Roof.” (See more details at the end of this article). The museum hopes these types of free happenings can be scheduled on a regular basis.
Annie Polland, the museum’s senior vice president of education and programs, explained, “Part of what we’re doing is experimenting with a free Saturday night… (in which we) invite people from the community to come, hear the stories, but also to deposit their own stories through our, ‘Your Story, Our Story,’ website and we’re going to have an actual physical room (for those stories).”
In creating the new exhibit, 12 family members and hundreds of Lower East Side residents (Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese) were interviewed. According to Polland, the museum has always been dedicated to documenting the, “stories not just of one immigrant group but as many as possible.” But because they were able to talk to people first-hand who actually lived in the building, “Under One Roof” feels different. “Being in the present,” said Polland, “makes things far more dynamic and more alive.”
During a media day a few weeks ago, some of the family members were made available for interviews. Bella Epstein, who moved into 103 Orchard St. when she was seven years old, talked to us via Skype from her home in Florida. Recalling her childhood on the LES and referring to the exhibit, Epstein said, “It was the warmest, it was the nicest part of my life. It’s how we grew up, what we saw. I’m looking at the exhibit through the eyes of the child that I was, not through an adult’s eyes. I see the magic, I see all the wonder.”
At the same time, Epstein acknowledged that life was hard for her parents, who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and then struggled to rebuild their lives in America. All of the immigrant families in the building wanted the same thing,” said Epstein. We wanted a better life for ourselves. My parents wanted a better life for their children. My parents contributed everything that they possibly could to the United States of America.”
Given the current political climate, the Tenement Museum finds itself at the center of the national immigration debate. Jennings said there’s no trepidation about that, and that the museum’s mission is not going to change, no matter who is president.
“The point of view of this museum is very clear,” said Jennings. “We believe that immigration is a positive good for America. If it were not for immigration, this neighborhood would not have existed. This museum would not exist.”
“It’s important to recognize,” Jennings added, “the reasons families were able to be here (in this country)… The Epsteins were able to come here through a special executive order of the president. The Wongs were able to reunite as a family because of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Government policy has real impact on real people’s lives. There is no way you can walk through this exhibit and not make that connection.”
If you would like to learn more about the exhibition and the families featured in it, the museum has a great virtual tour on its website. “Under One Roof” costs $25, but until Dec. 1 you can go on a tour for free. Just send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Dec. 2 open house takes place from 6-9 p.m. There will be free tours, a “Fresh Off the Boat” story slam, food demos and samples from neighborhood restaurants, opportunities to interact with the museum’s digital storytelling exhibit and several pop-up performances. Click here for more information.