Tenement Museum’s “Under One Roof” exhibition aims to connect with the local community

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Building museum; “Under a roof.” Saez family lounge.

The Tenement Museum recently broadened its scope by opening a new exhibition dedicated to the stories of Chinese immigrants, Puerto Rican migrants and Holocaust refugees. “Under One Roof,” the exhibit at 103 Orchard St., is not only the most significant expansion in the museum’s 29-year history. It also reflects the local institution’s desire to connect more fully with the different facets of the Lower East Side community.

In the original Tenement Museum building at 97 Orchard St., visitors learn about the experiences of Jewish, German, Italian and Irish immigrants from Eastern Europe. But because the building was condemned in 1935, the stories end there. “Under One Roof” completes the museum’s presentation on immigration to the Lower East Side with a focus on some of the families who lived at 103 Orchard St. during the post-war years.

During the tour, visitors walk from room to room and learn 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 to 2014. The apartment was divided into subsections, in part, to convey that the lives of immigrants on the Lower East Side were and continue to be be intertwined. The last room of the tour is a replica of a Chinatown / LES garment factory, with interactive video stations. Members of the three families worked in the clothing trade.

Epstein family room.
Epstein family room.

Saez family kitchen.
Saez family kitchen.

Wong family room.
Wong family room.

Garment factory show.
Garment factory show.

In an interview, Tenement Museum President Kevin Jennings said: “Under One Roof” is “part of a larger commitment we’re making to be more connected to the neighborhood we’re a part of… (The museum) did not reflect the diversity of the neighborhood we lived in.

In 2016, the museum welcomed more than 238,000 visitors. It is the second largest tourist attraction on the Lower East Side, after the New Museum. But few locals frequent the Tenement Museum. The institution would like to change that.

“By being able to renovate 103 Orchard,” Jennings said, “and put more contemporary stories online – Puerto Rican stories and Chinese stories and stories we couldn’t tell in 97 Orchard because they weren’t there. ‘weren’t produced – I think, I hope, that will help the neighborhood feel a little more like’ this is my home too. ‘

The museum management is well aware that the price of its tours, $ 25, is a hindrance for many people who live on the Lower East Side. So, on the evening of Saturday, December 2, there is a free open house to celebrate “Under one roof”. (See more details at the end of this article). The museum hopes that these types of free events can be scheduled on a regular basis.

Annie Polland, the museum’s senior vice president of education and programs, explained, “Part of what we do is experience a free Saturday night… (in which we) invite people from the community to come, hear the stories, but also post their own stories on our “Your Story, Our Story” website and we will have a real physical room (for those stories). “

During the creation of the new exhibit, 12 family members and hundreds of residents of the Lower East Side (Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Chinese) were interviewed. According to Polland, the museum has always been dedicated to documenting, “stories not only of a group of immigrants, but of as many as possible. But because they got to speak firsthand to people who actually lived in the building, “Under One Roof” feels different. “Being in the present, ”Polland said,“ makes things a lot more vibrant and alive. “

Epstein room 2 - visit photo

On a media day a few weeks ago, some family members were made available for interviews. Bella Epstein, who moved to 103 Orchard St. at the age of seven, spoke to us via Skype from her home in Florida. Recalling his childhood on the LES and referring to the exhibit, Epstein said, “It was the hottest, it was the nicest part of my life. This is how we grew up, what we saw. I look at the exhibition with the eyes of the child that I was, not with the eyes of an adult. I see the magic, I see all the wonder.

At the same time, Epstein acknowledged that life was tough for his parents, who lived through 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, ”Epstein said. We wanted a better life for ourselves. My parents wanted a better life for their children. My parents contributed all they could to the United States of America.

Given the current political climate, the Tenement Museum is at the center of the national debate on immigration. Jennings said there was no concern about it and that the museum’s mission would not change, regardless of the president.

“The point of view of this museum is very clear,” Jennings said. “We believe immigration is good for America. Without immigration, this neighborhood would not have existed. This museum would not exist.

“It’s important to recognize,” Jennings added, “the reasons families may have been here (in this country)… The Epsteins were able to come here thanks to a special executive order from the president. The Wongs were able to reunite as a family thanks to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Government policy has a real impact on the lives of real people. There is no way to browse this exhibit without making this link. ”

103 Orchard Street
103 Orchard Street

If you want to know more about the exhibition and the families on display, the museum has an excellent virtual tour on its website. “Under one roof” costs $ 25, but until December 1, you can take a tour for free. Just send an email to: [email protected]

The open house on December 2 will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. up to performance. Click here for more information.


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