Modern-Day Immigrants Get First Permanent Exhibit at Tenement Museum
With immigration dominating the national conversation, a new permanent exhibit opening this week at The Tenement Museum immerses visitors in the lives of three immigrant and migrant families from different corners of the world -- China, Puerto Rico, and Poland -- who all lived in the same New York City apartment building during the 1950s to 1970s.
Based on the oral histories of living family members, Under One Roof tells the stories of three families who lived at 103 Orchard Street in New York City's Lower East Side during the decades following World War II: the Epstein family, Polish refugees and Holocaust survivors, who lived in the building from 1955-1961; the Saez-Velez Family, Puerto Rican migrants, who lived there from 1964 to 2013; and the Wong family, Chinese immigrants, who lived at 103 Orchard from 1968 to 2014. Over the course of its 127 years as a residence, 103 Orchard Street housed more than 10,000 people.
"Engaging Americans about the role of immigration and migration in our country's past, present, and future is more important than ever," said Kevin Jennings, President of The Tenement Museum. "There is nothing more powerful for engaging hearts and minds than standing in the place where the Wongs, Epsteins, and Saezes lived and listening to their stories. Under One Roof promises to foster a deeper understanding of how newcomers from all part of the world make our country stronger and more dynamic."
Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum tells the story of American immigration through the personal accounts of immigrant families, allowing visitors to encounter immigration as a vital force in shaping the nation's culture, economy, and society. In 2016, the Tenement Museum welcomed more than 238,000 visitors, including 55,000 students. The new exhibit will increase annual visitors to the Museum to nearly 290,000 in 2018.
Under One Roof is the Museum's first exhibition exploring modern-era immigration and migration, as well as the first exhibit built in 103 Orchard Street, which the museum purchased in 2007 and which houses its Visitor Center and Museum Shop on its street level.
The guided Under One Roof tour takes visitors through an apartment that has been subdivided into three sections. The first section recreates the Epstein home in the late-1950s; the second section features the Saez-Velez family home in the late-1970s; and the third section recreates the Wong family home in late-1970s. Since each family had one parent who worked in the Lower East Side's garment industry, the 90-minute tour concludes in a recreated garment shop.
Throughout the exhibit, visitors are able to listen to recordings of the families' memories and learn how each family earned a living, raised their children, and made new lives while navigating one of New York City's most diverse neighborhoods, which by the 1970s was 45% White, 34% Hispanic, 11% Asian, and 10% Black. Just as importantly, visitors gain unique insights into how immigration policy at the national level allowed the Epstein and Wong families to enter the United States, and how the bilingual education and labor movements improved the lives of families in the neighborhood.
"Under One Roof reveals that being American is more than mastering English or passing a citizenship test," said Annie Polland, Senior Vice President of Education & Programs. "It is about learning how to live, work, and play with neighbors who come from other traditions and cultures, while also discovering the similarities that connect all of us."
Highlights of the Under One Roof tour:
- The Epstein family: The doorway to the apartment features the original mezuzah, an ornamental case holding a parchment with a Biblical passage, which the Epsteins hung there in 1955. In the Epstein girls' bedroom, visitors observe a portable record player and Paul Anka's "Oh, Diana" album cover while listening to a recording of Bella Epstein Seligsohn, now 71. "This song made me an American," says Seligsohn.
- The Saez-Velez family: In the living room, visitors will see furniture with plastic slip covers, a console TV, iconography reflecting the family's Catholic faith, and photos of the family's two sons: Andy, who was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, and Jose, who became the building's superintendent at age 14. Visitors also learn about Ramonita Saez, considered the building's matriarch by many residents of all backgrounds, who was a dues-paying member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union for 24 years.
- The Wong family: The apartment tour concludes in the tiny bedroom of the three Wong sisters, whose mother supported the family by sewing in the Chinatown garment shops, enabling all of the Wong children to go to college. See photos of Mrs. Wong in a red dress (considered good luck) at all of her children's graduations.
- The garment shop: Amidst rows of sewing machines, wrapped packages of completed garments, and a rice cooker, visitors learn about life in the garment industry by. At stations throughout the recreated shop visitors can watch short videos featuring stories told by garment workers and their children, union leaders, and shop owners. At a pay phone, visitors can listen to recorded memories of the Wong family. The Under One Roof tour concludes with an inspiring video of Mrs. Wong recalling her naturalization ceremony in 1973.
Under One Roof is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the City of New York.
The Under One Roof exhibition will be on view at the The Tenement Museum
103 Orchard Street. Admission: $25 (adult); $20 (senior, college, student) at www.tenement.org.
The Tenement Museum tells the story of American immigration, the core of our continually evolving American identity and a central part of today's national conversation. Personal stories of immigrant families allow visitors to encounter immigration as an essential force in shaping this country and to absorb how much our open society, democratic institutions, cultural creativity, and economic vitality owe to our experience as a nation of immigrants.
Established in 1988, the Tenement Museum has become one of New York City's preeminent cultural and educational institutions, welcoming more than 238,000 visitors, including 55,000 students, in 2016. Its two historic tenements on Orchard Street were home to an estimated 15,000 people from more than 20 nations between 1863 and 2000, and represent the heart of the Museum. Educators guide visitors through restored apartments and retail spaces in the buildings and the surrounding neighborhood, and help them understand how immigrants weathered hard times and built new lives. For more information, visit www.tenement.org.