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Exhibition Uncovers Forgotten Italian Community in “Lung Block”

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Lung Block poster

Here’s an interesting exhibition for history buffs and Lower East Siders alike: The Lung Block, a New York City Slum and Its Forgotten Italian-American Community,” is digging into the parallel stories of a displaced Italian community on The Lower East Side in the 1930’s and our present day sagas of gentrification and immigration challenges.

The exhibition, co-curated by Kerri Culhane and Stephano Morello, is opening at the Department of Records Building (31 Chambers Street) on Thursday, April 25, at 6pm. 

 They write:

In 1933, a lively Italian immigrant enclave on the Lower East Side was wiped from the map. For over three decades, Italian immigrants from northern and southern regions, speaking divers dialects, settled between the Brooklyn & Manhattan bridges, on the block bounded by Cherry, Monroe, Market and Catherine Street. A range of civic, cultural, social, and religious institutions grew up in and around the largely residential block, supporting the daily lives of thousands of families and individuals who called this place home.

Though this area was in many ways indistinguishable from the rest of the Lower East Side – a bustling, immigrant stronghold characterized by 5- and 6- story brick tenements and the occasional old house – since 1899, this particular block existed under the shadow of a sinister narrative: that death was embedded in the very walls of those buildings, and that this Lung Block—the generic term for a place where tuberculosis proliferated—represented a threat not just to the residents, but to the city at large.

It is unlikely that the residents of this Italian community knew much about this story, since their plight was only told in the publications of various social charities and philanthropic organizations, or in the newspapers circulating among the anglophone working class. Few would have recognized the block—or their lives—from the dire descriptions by the white, middle-class social reformers who crafted this narrative, having descended upon the immigrant Lower East Side to save it from itself.

The exhibition promises to bring to light historical documents, maps, journals, photographs and other artifacts, supplemented by infographics based on historical statistics that disprove the commonly accepted narrative of the Lung Block as the worst slum in New York. A 3D model of the block illustrates the physical conditions that helped mark this block at the City’s most congested.

A series of events, including talks and scholarly panels, will accompany the exhibition. You can find more info and RSVP here.

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