On November 11th the High School class visited the Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street, on the lower East side of Manhattan. The Tenement Museum provides opportunities for visitors to experience a taste of old New York. The museum is housed in a tenement property that was erected in 1863, where 7,000 working class immigrants have previously lived prior to it becoming a museum. The Tenement Museum, and its subsequent tours, have inspired all of us to re-imagine the role that museums can play in our lives.
During our visit we watched a short documentary on the building and neighborhood. This film outlined the history of the area through its various waves of immigration. We then participated in a walking tour, which investigated local communal spaces and places central to immigrant life over a century ago. We also discussed how public spaces and buildings shape a community’s identity and how that identity is not only shaped by need, but by the political climates of each time.
We walked a lot and explored so many buildings we may never have thought about. We examined how the neighborhoods had changed in accordance with how the predominant immigrant populations changed. One significant change was the old protestant churches, which had become Jewish Temples, and in one case, converted to a Spanish speaking Seventh Day Adventist Church. The buildings’ architecture spoke of days past as each wave on immigrants left its mark on the buildings.
We walked through depression era parks that had now become community gardens, complete with chickens in the warmer weather. While walking through the park, we noticed that many of the trees that were planted were very old. We observed an ancient fig and a large ginkgo biloba. A teacher pointed out that these trees provided food and medicine and that you could probably tell something about who was living in the area based on the age of the plants. The students photographed the park. The guide shared that at one point in the late 70’s the park was too dangerous to be used and even the police were anxious when they had to approach it; this was a great example of the neighborhood’s further evolution.
Max and Lily enjoyed seeing the synagogues that had been created from other buildings to serve the immigration of the many Jewish people from different areas of the world. They tied this to their own Jewish heritage.
Jenna and Winnie resonated with the synagogue that had been purchased by an artist where the Jewish Star in the main window had been re-designed to look like the lens of a camera. Perhaps this drew them in because of their artistic bent.
Julian thought that the roads were ‘super busy’ to have so many families with children living here. He really internalized the living conditions of the immigrants in the tenement houses.
Roman was very interested in all of the different kinds of food vendors in the neighborhood. The variety of foods reflect all of the ethnic influence of immigrants throughout the years.
Owen reports that his family has an attachment to some of the famous buildings in the area of upper mid-town area. Our immigrant past is still alive and spoken about in some of our homes.
Many of us really paused to think about the 7,000 people having lived, loved, worked, and maybe even died in that tiny tenement building. We also spoke about what “home“ really means.