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Tenement Museum President Talks Expansion, Lower East Side Controversies

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morris vogel
Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel; Sept. 15, 2016 during expansion kickoff event.

Anyone walking past the Tenement Museum’s building at 103 Orchard St. can see that big changes are in the works. A few weeks ago, a long-awaited $12.5 million expansion project got underway. On July Fourth of next year, a new exhibition focused on the years after World War II will open to the public and the museum will have taken its biggest leap since the institution was founded back in 1988. So we thought it would be a good time to check in with Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel, who’s overseeing the high-profile project.

In an interview that took place in his office earlier this month, Vogel talked about the future of the Lower East Side’s second most popular tourist attraction (only the New Museum draws more annual visitors). We also discussed key issues of importance to the local community, including ongoing efforts to establish a historic district in the blocks around the museum.

On Sept. 15, local elected officials, museum board members and staff gathered on Orchard Street to officially mark the beginning of construction. The heart of the museum is the restored tenement at 97 Orchard St., where staff members have always told the stories of European immigrants who called that building home. But those stories ended in 1935, when the building closed.  The new exhibit, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” will allow the museum to represent the experiences of Puerto Rican and Chinese immigrants, as well as Holocaust survivors. It’s being created on the third floor of 103 Orchard St., the same building where the museum store is located.

In our conversation, Vogel said the new exhibition is really all about building on the Tenement Museum’s vision of bridging the past and the present. “This is a chance,” he said, “to overwhelm our visitors with the fact that (the museum tells) today’s story… It’s happening on your streets. This is why your city or community looks the way it does. This is why the country faces the issues it does and this is a strength to draw on in negotiating those issues.”

Vogel, himself a first generation immigrant from Kazakhstan, remembers having lunch with a board member across the street from the museum in 2008, shortly after he became president. They were both the children of Holocaust survivors. It was during this lunch, Vogel said, that he said to Ethel Klein, the board member, “We will tell the story that you and I recognize because it is our story.” In the years that followed, staff members set out to find the stories of immigrants who lived in 103 Orchard after 1945. They succeeded, enabling the museum to build narratives around three families: the Epsteins (1950s), the Saezes (1960s) and the Wongs (1970s). [The New York Times recently profiled all three families.]

tenement museum
Tenement Museum supporters posed for photos outside 103 Orchard St. Sept, 15, 2016.

During the Sept. 15th event, Board Co-Chair Scott Metzner spoke glowingly of the expansion, which he called a celebration of “our individual histories and common culture.” He also noted that the project is a risky one.  Vogel talked about those risks during our interview, which took place later that same day.

“We are a very small museum,” he explained, “where everything we do, we have to do right because there’s no endowment, because we bought buildings, often at market cost — we built them out at market cost, without any guaranteed income.”

The new stories will challenge the staff to step outside their collective comfort zone. “We grew strong by concentrating on what we do best,” said Vogel. “We’re not associated with telling the story of Puerto Rican migrants or Chinese families. We’re not even associated with telling the stories of Holocaust survivors. We’re going to be shifting what we do.”  But he said the risks are “carefully calculated risks,” adding that, “it’s what you have to do if you want to try something — not just new  — but something that is so necessary.”

tenement museum exterior

In the case of 103 Orchard, the museum paid $7 million for the property. The 1888 structure was actually three separate tenements. Parts of the property were demolished at various times in the past 127 years. The restoration project has posed many challenges. Vogel said, “the exterior walls on the upper floors — the walls around the air shaft — crumbled as we did asbestos abatement. The brick walls, which are load-bearing, in many cases weren’t connected to structural elements of the building. The building stood up, as many of these buildings do, because it was too tired to fall down. That’s not a joke. It was gravity itself that kept it from going down.”

First, contractors are rebuilding those walls, making sure they’re safe. Then the roof will be rebuilt and crews will move to the building interior. An 800 square foot apartment will be taken apart and put back together again, with a new staircase, wider corridors and other improvements. “It is a massive piece of construction,” said Vogel. The heavy work should be done by January, 2017, at which time the period-specific rooms will begin to take shape.

The project now taking shape is part of a larger vision by the museum to focus not just on the Lower East Side’s immigrant past, but on its present and future, as well. “One of my goals when I came here,” said Vogel, “was to make sure that people understood that we respected this neighborhood’s history, that we saw that history as an ongoing process, that the history hadn’t ended in 1940.”

97 Orchard St. File photo from 2012.
97 Orchard St. File photo from 2012.

The Tenement Museum has always had a complicated relationship with the Lower East Side community. Many people, no doubt, appreciate its longtime commitment to documenting the neighborhood’s rich history. A lot of small businesses value the museum’s role in drawing pedestrian traffic to the struggling retail district on and around Orchard Street. But as Vogel concedes, there’s also a long history of conflict with some local residents. He referenced an ill-fated push in 2002 to seize a neighboring building through eminent domain. “That really worked out badly,” said Vogel. “It made enemies up and down, not just the street, but the neighborhood. The museum was seen as imperial, as having its own vision and was going to do things its own way.”

There have been more recent issues, too, impacting the way some locals view the museum. During the past few years, there have been vague rumors and references to the fate of several families living in the upper floors of 103 Orchard St. The suggestion was made that the Tenement Museum sought to displace residents as it plotted its expansion.

Vogel spoke with us in detail about the situation.  It’s true that a handful of people living in market rate apartments were required to move out. The residents of six rent controlled and rent stabilized apartments, he said, were relocated within the community. The Wong family, whose story is being told in the new exhibition, is among them. The living conditions in the original units were less than ideal. They were in bad shape and, in some cases, lacked  bathrooms within the apartments.

In a neighboring building, “we rebuilt apartments,” said Vogel, “complete with level floors, new walls, countertops, new appliances and guaranteed anyone with any sort of a rent stabilized arrangement a better apartment… for the same rent and a guarantee that the rent would never go up over the course of their lives.” In one case, the museum worked with Asian Americans for Equality, a local organization, to relocate a resident with a disability to a modern elevator building. The museum is paying his full rent.

Orchard Street tenements.
Orchard Street tenements.

Another hot topic in the neighborhood is a campaign launched by local preservationists to establish a Lower East Side historic district. The Tenement Museum led a push for an expansive historic district in 2006, but abandoned the effort in the face of strong opposition from local property owners. This time around, the museum has chosen not to play a leading role. This past November, a spokesperson told The Lo-Down, “the Museum is sensitive to the full range of community interests and is currently letting the LES Business Improvement District (now known as the LES Partnership) take the lead on this initiative.” The Partnership has expressed serious concerns about the impact of a historic district on small property owners, but called for a “continued dialogue about the best ways that we can preserve the unique architectural character of our community.”

In our interview, Vogel explained why the museum is keeping a low profile on the issue.  Although he arrived on the scene shortly after the first landmarking effort failed, conversations continued with the leadership of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). In a meeting, then LPC Chair Robert Tierney spelled out a vision for a historic district. Vogel said he was “extraordinarily supportive of it,” and agreed to take the idea back to the Lower East Side BID.

Even before he could explain the commission’s thinking, said Vogel, a local elected official (who he declined to name) launched into, “a scathing denunciation of landmarking.”  He then, regrettably, went back to Tierney, apologizing “for not being able to feel out the group.” At around the same time, present day landlords were accusing preservation advocates, including Vogel, of employing a double standard. The argument, said Vogel went something like this: ‘Your people (meaning European Jews) came to this neighborhood to make their money and now you want to stop me from making my money in my neighborhood.”

So today, Vogel has a new perspective on the landmarking issue. “Do we have to be the ones carrying a red flag on a rusty bayonet down Orchard Street?,” he asked. “Probably not. We live here. These are our neighbors. We’re very conscious of their aspirations. We’re sensitive to them because we tell the story of aspirations of generations.” He added, “The museum’s vision statement calls for the (institution) to work as hard as it can so that the political system, whether it be through zoning or landmarking, preserves the scale and the feel of a tenement district in the immediate area of the museum. That’s something we really want to see. But I don’t want to be the one to go out there, especially to a new immigrant and say, ‘We did ours, you can’t do yours.’”

The ongoing dialogue with the neighborhood, said Vogel, has helped shape the new exhibition, as well as the museum’s overarching mission. “We want to be understood as telling the story of how this neighborhood continues to evolve,” he said. “This has long been a beacon, New York and the Lower East Side especially so…  It’s our responsibility to make sure people know where they’ve come from and what their deepest values are — (and that the museum) reflects their deepest values and their hopes for the future.”

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