When I read an article in the New York Times recently (www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/arts/design/tenement-museum-coronavirus.html )about how the Tenement Museum in New York City was struggling financially during the Covid-19 pandemic, I thought of how quickly things had changed since we visited the Museum right before Christmas 2019. In fact, even with a Broadway play, a climate justice concert, sojourns on the High Line, and a visit with a high school classmate, the Tenement Museum was the highlight of our trip.
Located on Orchard Street on the lower east side of Manhattan, the Tenement Museum chronicles the life of the poor, the 99%, the rest of us, with its focus on refugees, migrants, and immigrants in America. Founded in 1988 and occupying two dilapidated but now partially renovated buildings, the Museum offered a plethora of tours before the pandemic forced its doors closed in March. During our December visit, we picked one inside tour and one outside tour, the inside being “Under One Roof” and the outside called “Building on the Lower East Side.”
Under One Roof took us inside an apartment that was once home to Jewish refugees, Puerto Rican migrants, and Chinese immigrants, covering the years from 1940 to about 1970. Each section of the apartment was decorated as that family had lived, based on consultation with the descendants of each as well as family photos. Our tour group was about 10 people with a volunteer guide who was a teacher in her paid life. We were asked to sit in each portion of the house while we heard a description of the family and what brought them to America. Then we had a conversation prompted by our empathic guide about what life might have been like, what we might have felt, what we might have done in response. Because everyone had shared their name, home state, and reason for their visit right at the beginning of the tour, we were aware of our differences from the start and listened attentively during the conversations. I can think of no other tour in my life that sensitized me to the fabric of our country in such a meaningful way.
The last room on this inside tour was a sewing room, as many immigrants used parts of their apartments for work. The sewing room was set up not only with sewing machines but phones where one could hear individual stories of refugees, migrants, and immigrants from different periods. There were special exhibits for the younger set including toys and games. Our guide kept the three children on our tour occupied throughout with period storybooks, a record player, and specific questions related to school and home. She was a gem.
Our “Building on the Lower East Side” tour was a walking tour of the area surrounding the Museum and was exclusive due to the frigid temperatures. We got to see early apartment buildings and churches and hear about how discrimination impacted the area in different eras. The tour ended fortuitously outside Katz’s Delicatessen but the line was out the door so we passed on grabbing lunch there.
Just because the Tenement Museum is closed for now does not mean you should forego a visit. While visiting the Museum in person is ideal when it is again safe to be in New York City, the Museum has expanded its online programs during the pandemic www.tenement.org. They are offering digital resources and materials to educators to aid in remote teaching and learning, including a video about making your own pickles and one about the effects of past epidemics like cholera, tuberculosis, and AIDS, among others. Museum President Morris J. Vogel is committed to the Museum’s goal of educating about the cultural life of everyday Americans and is quoted saying, “A lot of what makes us strong as a people came from the strength immigrants found in themselves. It’s important to focus on that.” I could not agree more.