Tenement Museum’s “Under One Roof” Exhibit Aims to Connect With Local Community

Tenement Museum; "Under One Roof." Living room of the Saez family.

Tenement Museum; “Under One Roof.” Living room of the Saez family.

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.

Epstein family bedroom.

Epstein family bedroom.

Saez family kitchen.

Saez family kitchen.

Wong family bedroom.

Wong family bedroom.

Garment factory exhibit.

Garment factory exhibit.

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.”

Epstein bedroom 2 - tour photo

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.” 

103 Orchard St.

103 Orchard St.

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: underoneroof@tenement.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.

Tenement Museum Appoints New President

tenement museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum announced the appointment of a new leader today.

He’s Kevin Jennings, a former assistant deputy secretary of education in the Obama administration (2009-2011). Jennings founded GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) in 1990. More recently he was executive director of the Arcus Foundation, which advocates for LGBT rights. After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Jennings was a history teacher for 10 years. 

“Right now,” Jennings told the New York Times, “immigrants are being dehumanized and demonized… We (meaning the museum) put the issue in historical and human dimensions. You learn the stories of actual families. You walk away at the end seeing these people as human beings.”

These sentiments were echoed in a press release by Merryl Snow Zegar, co-chair of the Tenement Museum board: “In the face of today’s political turmoil, Kevin will help us ensure that the museum reaches a wider audience than ever with its timely and crucial message that immigration allows us to become stronger and more dynamic than we already are as a people.” 

Jennings replaces Morris Vogel, who has led the museum since 2008. He announced his retirement in January.

Saturday Night Live Has Some Fun With the LES Tenement Museum

There’s was a starring role for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in this past weekend’s Saturday Night Live. Guest host Louis C.K. and Kate McKinnon play racist re-enactors during a fictitious museum tour. C.K.’s terrible immigrant accent and flubbed lines gave both actors a case of the giggles. Have a look.

(Video) 15 Immigrants Become U.S. Citizens at Tenement Museum

tenement museum

Every year, the Department of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services holds a naturalization ceremony at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  This year’s ceremony took place earlier this week, just days after the most tumultuous presidential election in generations. As you can imagine, it was filled with emotion.

Today we’re posting video of a large portion of the event, including remarks from Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She was honored this week with the Ooutstanding American of Choice Award.” Power came to this country from Ireland when she was 9.

She told the 15 new citizens, “Don’t listen to those who say you have to choose between being a proud American and a proud immigrant: You can be both, you must be both… You are what America looks like and as much as any other quality, this is what makes this country so exceptional.”

The video begins with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Immigration Services Director León Rodríguez then called out the home countries of those becoming U.S. citizens. There were also remarks from Judge Robert Katzmann and from Morris Vogel, president of the Tenement Museum (to hear those sections of the ceremony, check out the complete video here).

Tenement Museum President Talks Expansion, Lower East Side Controversies

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.”

Tenement Museum Officially Kicks Off Expansion Project This Morning

tenement museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is in the midst of a major expansion. Several weeks ago, work began on the upper floors of 103 Orchard St., which are being transformed into a new exhibition space. Upon opening on July 4, 2017, the museum will be telling the stories of three immigrant groups: Holocaust survivors, Puerto Ricans and Chinese. This morning in front of the building, local dignitaries gathered for a brief “groundbreaking”/photo op. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Sen. Daniel Squadron, City Council member Margaret Chin and Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the NYC Dept. of Cultural Affairs, were all on hand. We’ll have a full report on the museum’s expansion in the next several days.

Tenement Museum’s 97 Orchard St. in “Desperate Need of Care,” Fundraising Campaign Launched (Updated)

Tenement Museum’s Building at 103 Orchard St. Now Affiliated with National Park Service

Essex Crossing Update: Architectural Plans, Community Liaison, Tenement Museum Video

Tenement Museum Announces $8 Million Expansion

Reverend Jen Writes About Firing From Tenement Museum

Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St.

Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St.

Longtime Lower East Side performance artist and author, Jen Miller, is going public after being fired by the Tenement MuseumOn her blog, Rev. Jen recounts the events of the past week:

On Tuesday I was fired from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. I had worked there since 2001, was there on the morning of 9-11 and was an incredibly dedicated employee. During my employment there, I worked part-time (approximately 30 hours a week) and never received health insurance or even a sick day.

At the Tenement Museum, 15 People Become New U.S. Citizens

tenement museum 4

15 new Americans took the Oath of Allegiance at the Tenement Museum.

At the Tenement Museum yesterday afternoon, a naturalization ceremony was held for 15 new American citizens. The U.S. Department of Citizenship & Immigration Services chose the Lower East Side setting.  Judge Robert Katzmann administered the Oath of Allegiance to immigrants from 13 countries: China, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines, Spain and Uruguay.  Last year, about 84,000 people became new American citizens in New York.

Tenement Museum’s New Shop Life Tour Connects Past and Present

The facade at 97 Orchard Street, home of the Tenement Museum’s new “Shop Life” tour. Photo by Keiko Niwa, courtesy of the Tenement Museum.

If you’re looking for a fun holiday activity to do with friends or family visiting from out of town, “Shop Life,” the Tenement Museum‘s new interactive tour is an interesting way to spend a few hours. It examines the stories of business owners who lived and worked at 97 Orchard Street from 1863 to 1988.

The tour begins in a re-creation of John and Caroline Schneider’s 19th century beer saloon and community gathering spot, the Schneider Saloon. Visitors explore the dining room, kitchen and private quarters of the Schneider family, who lived behind the saloon. A vivid recreation of what life was like in “Little Germany” is presented with news clippings, photos, furniture, food and other items from the time period.

Rebecca Lepkoff, 96, Opens Tenement Museum Show

Rebecca Lepkoff at her apartment in Washington Heights. Photo by Tobi Elkin

Editor’s note: Tomorrow night, the Tenement Museum will be hosting an opening reception for Rebecca Lepkoff’s “Life on the Lower East Side,” photographs from 1937-1950.  Last October, we interviewed Lepkoff in advance of a remarkable group show at the Jewish Museum.  Today we’re re-posting that story.

Photographer Rebecca Lepkoff recalls a time when the streets of the Lower East Side were like a theater. “There was always something happening… life took place on the street,” she says.

Lepkoff, 96, grew up in a tenement at 60 Hester St. that no longer exists, and was always fascinated with the streets of her youth. Her black and white photographs depict scenes from a neighborhood that has all but vanished—girls skipping rope in the street; people gathered in front of the Loew’s Canal theater before a show; stoop-sitting and sharing gossip; women hanging laundry on clotheslines strung between buildings.

Lepkoff’s photographs have appeared in numerous galleries and museum shows as well as in A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum; Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck; Street Gangs by Sandra Gardiner and Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950 by Peter Dans and Suzanne Wasserman. Watch a slideshow we prepared, highlighting some of some of her work by clicking on this link (the photos are courtesy of the Howard Greenberg Gallery).

Delancey Underground Plans Kickstarter Campaign; Tenement Museum Event Scheduled February 16

Architectural rendering courtesy: RAAD Studio/James Ramsey.

The Delancey Underground, that intriguing proposal to build a park in an abandoned trolley station, hasn’t exactly kept a low profile since its unveiling last fall. But in the coming weeks you’re going to be hearing a lot more from co-founders Dan Barasch and James Ramsey about their drive to build public support and to raise money for the ambitious project.

As Curbed reported yesterday, they’ll soon launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund a large-scale demonstration of the “sunlight irrigation system” Ramsey is designing to transmit natural light into the subterranean space.

Yesterday we checked in with Barasch, who told us he hopes the fundraising effort will have a true grass roots spirit. The Delancey Underground team has placed a high priority on community engagement and is very focused on winning the support of all kinds of neighborhood organizations as well as individuals from all walks of life. You can see the growing list of supporters on their web site. Among the high profile backers: Morris Vogel, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.