The Tenement Museum, immigration, and my family.

Posted on
Apr 26, 2010

Note: Photography is not allowed inside the Tenement Museum. All of the pictures of the interior of the building are property of the Tenement Museum and can be seen on their Flickr photostream. Most of the exterior photos are mine, unless otherwise noted.

The challenge I’ve presented to myself before writing this blog post was as follows: tell you about the Tenement Museum. Try, to some degree, to incorporate exactly how much it meant to me. Make some reference to the current situation that immigrants now face in Arizona.

And do everything without getting too emotional.

I seriously doubt I can do that. Because here’s the thing: my family is right off the boat. As in, there was an effing boat.

This is my father. And the boat he came in on.

This is my father, at left, with his brother. And the boat they came in on. Circa 1950.


They arrived in New York. My dad said he hung out with the other Russian kids, and the Poles, and the Ukrainians. He went to high school, though he was petrified because he didn’t speak any English upon enrollment.

“Somehow, I graduated,” he told me once.

And then he joined the Air Force, and became, in the esteem of the U.S. government, and later in my own eyes, very important.

But before all that, he lived in a small apartment with his mother, grandmother, and brother, and I imagine it wasn’t unlike the ones they’ve reconstructed at the Tenement Museum.

The museum is located on New York’s lower east side, at 97 Orchard Street. The entrance is down half a block at 108. It’s there where you can purchase tickets for one of several guided tours they offer (the tours are the only way to see the museum). I had hoped to see Getting By, the tour that talked about Russian and Italian immigrants during the depression, but the timing didn’t work out . Instead I saw Piecing it Together, about immigrants who ran garment shops out of their homes. It was actually way more interesting than it sounds, and it focused a lot on Italian immigrants (which describes everyone on my mom’s side of the family).

In the background, to the right, you can see some tenement buildings.

A plaque denotes the entrance to the Tenement Museum.

A plaque denotes the entrance to the Tenement Museum.

Going inside feels like a bit of a time warp. Back in the late 1980s, the museum’s founders were looking for a perfect spot on which to recreate the immigrant lifestyle of a hundred years prior. They had little luck: most buildings were too expensive, and heavily renovated. Turning back the hands of time was going to be a lot of work. Then they stumbled upon the building at 97 Orchard Street. They were originally drawn to it on account of the street-level store fronts (one can be seen in the above photo – with the sign “Felty Hats” in the window).

Once they peeked inside the building, they were shocked. It had been condemned in the 1930s, and sealed up for more than 50 years. While in heavy decay and disrepair, it hadn’t been renovated at all: so they found turn-of-the-century finishings and toilets, old bannisters and decades of wallpaper layered over wallpaper. For their purposes, it was perfect.

They would later find that over 7,000 immigrants had lived in the building before it was condemned. Since the museum acquired the location, they’ve renovated 6 apartments, restoring them to what they were like back near the turn of the century through the 1930s.

The staircase at the Tenenment Museum. Photo courtesy of via

The staircase at the Tenenment Museum. (Photo courtesy of The Tenement Museum via

This is the Levine Family Kitchen, which I saw on the Piecing it Together tour. Photo courtesy of via

This is the Levine Family Kitchen, which I saw on the "Piecing it Together" tour. (Photo courtesy of The Tenement Museum.)

But my absolutely favorite part might have been the laundry hanging in the back of the building. It reminded me of my maternal grandmother, who would always ask for help hanging laundry out on the line. I remember standing with her, in the hot Florida sun, shaking out damp clothes and pinning them up.

Photo courtesy of the Tenement Museum. (I really wish I could take credit for this one.)

As I left the museum, it was hard not to think about my family. Not just my dad, who sort of epitomized the American dream in so many ways – escaping gulags and hopping on trains to make it from Russia to Germany, and later New York. And he was just a kid. His brother was even younger. He told me how he and his brother would, occasionally during stops, jump off the boxcar they were hiding in with the rest of their family, and they’d run out into the fields.

“We ran through the wheat, until there wasn’t any wheat anymore.”

And upon hearing that, I stared at my dad, and tried to figure out exactly when he became Hemingway.

“What if the train had left without you?” I asked, absolutely shocked that his mother would let him run off into the Eastern European countryside.

“Well … it never did.”

See? Hemingway.

Instead, he told me how he and his brother would steal vegetables from the fields, and drag them back to the train, where his mother would cook them on a tiny portable stove in their boxcar. Not an actual passenger compartment, mind you, but a boxcar. In this manner, they slowly made their way towards Germany, where the threat of being sent to Siberia was practically nil.

My grandmother did all this with two kids, and her younger sister and mother. She was, at the time, already a widow, and younger than I am now. In light of that, it’s hard not to look at your own life and realize how incredibly, profoundly lucky you and your own American upbringing have been.

I also got to thinking about my mom and her family. They came over much later than my dad, with the exception of my mom’s grandfather. He had arrived in New York, hoping to make enough money to send for his wife and family, but he ended up getting sick and dying stateside, leaving his wife and six daughters in Italy. Eventually, my mom’s family would make it back here. She herself would arrive just before I was born, and my grandparents came soon after.

Fresh off the boat. Or in this case, the plane.

So, as you can imagine, it’s hard to see the Tenement Museum and not think of all that. And it’s the reason why I get so damn upset when I hear about things like the current situation in Arizona, where police are now within their legal jurisdiction to ask people for proof of citizenship.

It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I mean in this in the truest sense: I don’t understand it. When people say that they’re tired of immigrants taking jobs and using up U.S. resources and services, I genuinely get confused because my family is composed of immigrants. And I’ve never really noticed them taking jobs from other people or living off the American taxpayers.

And the thing is – and I’m sure this is going to piss off a lot of people – but if they did, I wouldn’t think it was that bad. If they lived on welfare and social security (which they don’t) I wouldn’t think it was any worse than anyone else doing it because aren’t we all immigrants? Sure, it might be a generation or two back, but still. We’re all pretty damn new to this country, so I figure we all have equal claim to it. Just because my mom moved here a few months before I was born, I don’t think it somehow gives me more entitlement to an education and federal programs than someone who came over when they were a newborn. Or who came over last year.

I know, I know – this will cause my taxes to spike, or whatever. That’s fine with me. I’m fine with paying out the wazzoo for social and federal programs. Rand says all the time, unironically, that he loves to pay taxes. He likes to know he’s helping put kids in school and build streets and parks. And damn, do I love him for it.

A few months ago, I met an Irishman who talked about how much he loved America, and how many people he met over here who told him, proudly, that their grandparents or great-grandparents were Irish.

“We build your country,” he said to me. “Us and the Eye-talians.”

And I had to smile. Don’t forget the Russians, I thought, thinking of how American soldiers salute my dad every time he goes to the PX to buy something. And how my father waves them off, saying, “Fine, fine. Whatever.”

And don’t forget the Polish. Or the Chinese. Or the Jews. Or the English. Or the Mexicans. Or the Indians. Or the Africans, who, if memory serves, didn’t often come here of their own volition. Or the effing Native Americans who are the only ones who really have a claim to any of land in the first place. We seem to skip over that a lot.

The point is, the thing that really makes America so amazing is that people are from everywhere. The Tenement Museum helps remind me of that.

So does my family.

Leave a Comment

  • eM

    My Italian greatgrandfather arrived in the Lower east Side of NYC around 1890 – took one look and high tailed it to mexico! he did very well for himself in the construction business. 30 years later,in the midst of revolution, his youngest daughter made her way to San Francisco.
    My other grandmother comes from a Southwestern farm family. i often think of her when I do my laundry: she boiled water in the yard; I measure soap and push buttons.

  • Speaking as someone who got lost on a veritable Highway to Nowhere last Friday courtesy of Jack Murtha (may he rest in peace), I agree with Rand, but only to a point.

  • Everywhereist

    eM – that’s amazing. My grandmother fetched water in a pot and had to carry it back to their house. Apparently she wasn’t very good at it as a kid. 🙂

    Laura – Yeah, there’s no excuse for bad allocation of funds. But theoretically, if it all went to schools and highways and parks, that would be nice.

  • My view on taxes:

    Governments seem to be highly inefficient. They seem to waste a lot of money. So do businesses, do do people, so do families. No one writes about that much in the press, though, and hence we have a warped narrative that governments are the only ones who waste money and think that we, therefore, shouldn’t give it to them.

    This is bullshit.

    I love to pay taxes because I know that, at least in a mostly non-corrupt country (the US ranks in the top 50 on this, though not the top 10), something between 50-60% of the money goes to good causes that help make people’s lives better. The other 40% often goes to help make a few people’s lives better (sometimes they deserve it, sometimes not). Either way, my government has given me some pretty incredible opportunities and (here’s the important bit) even if they hadn’t, I’d want them to. I can’t really understand why anyone wouldn’t or why irresponsible spending habits (which appear to be part of the human condition just as much as herpes or baldness) would put someone off.

    So Laura – I’d happily pay for your bridge to nowhere, knowing that, hopefully 2 or 3 other bridges are doing pretty well getting people from one place to another. I think between my company and my personal salary, I’m paying about $1 million in taxes in 2010. My hope is that 50% of it goes somewhere that helps people and that next year, I pay a lot more 🙂

  • Rand = keeper.

    This is a beautiful story. Everyone has value; everyone can contribute something amazing. Everyone deserves the chance to try.

  • Very powerful story – and I love the photos from the Tenement Museum, they have so much emotion in them.

    I agree with Rand, but another point that a lot of people caught up in the immigration debate sometimes overlook is this: many illegal immigrants actually DO pay taxes. Not to mention sales, excise, and consumption taxes on everything.

    We SO desperately need immigration reform and NOT the way it’s happening in Arizona, and I can say that because I actually live in Arizona and am opposed to much of what is going on here regarding illegal immigrants – they are some of the hardest working people here, and many do jobs that citizens truly don’t want to do (I detest the argument that they’re “taking jobs from citizens”, which in my opinion, is total bullshit), and our sorry-ass state government is making a mess of it with their paranoia-driven over-regulation.

  • Kitty

    Everywhereist, and everyone who has immigrant ancestors. Make sure you spend a bit of time collecting old family photos and keepsakes, make a proper family tree with all sorts of data about each family member. Don’t let family history die! Specially when you have ancestors who gave up everything and everyone they knew to get your family (and extensively to you) where you are right now.
    I mean, the pic with your dad and his brother is PRICELESS. I have an old picture of family members who all I know is that they arrived in my country of origin to build a new life of opportunities for those who followed… But the whole story and who they were is completely lost.

  • Abby

    Dear Everywherist-
    1- I ADORE your blog. Like, truly adore it. You are interesting and wild and inspiring and oh-so romantic. I’m into it.
    2- I love this deeply poignant and touching post.
    3- That being said, here is my own personal opinion on the CURRENT immigration issue. (Mind you, my great-grandparents came over via Ellis Island from Poland, and my ancestors helped to literally build Massachusetts, having just gotten off the Mayflower and signed that there Compact).
    My great- grandparents, and your parents and grandparents, all came to America because they wanted a fair shot at life, and because at the time, Americas borders were essentially open, should you follow the rules. And they came over legally to do so. And I totally support refugees who seek asylum because they are being persecuted in their own nation. And I support legal immigrants. However, I truly struggle with the current illegal immigrant situation. Because I think about it the other way around– We cannot get care, speak ill of the government, buy waterfront property or receive any benefits from the Mexican government if we decide to jump over the border illegally, but illegal immigrant familys can get IDNI checks for 10-15K a year (money that comes from our taxes) without a social security number, and their children may attend school, and they can go to the hospital and protest our government without paying taxes. And once they become citizens, which it seems they will if things continue as they are with our current policy, they will be a huge group of uneducated limited-skilled workers who will need government funding (aka tax dollars). If someone from the US who was a low-income worker struggling to get by overstayed their VISA or snuck into another country, that other country would send them back promptly.
    I LOVE that the Statue of Liberty says “give me your poor, your huddled masses longing to be free”. It is gorgeous. But I struggle with the idea that so many people from another country think they can sneak into our country and be given so many rights that would not be reciprocated back to us anywhere else. I don’t make a lot of money- I live in NY and penny pinch and live in a rent-stabilized apartment, and I do OK. But I’m in Brooklyn, in a borderline-y kind of neighborhood. I don’t have the money for my taxes to be raised to cover so many people who did not fill out the paperwork and go through the due process that my family went through. I have family whose business has been cut in half because of illegal immigrants who are doing construction work for 1/2 the going rate.
    I certainly don’t have answers, and I believe in community, and caring for others. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around supporting a huge community of people who didn’t follow the rules and are expecting to be welcomed in. I just don’t know.

    Just my thoughts.

    A loyal fan and thoughtful reader,

  • Lupita

    Geraldine & Rand: I was already an avid reader but now I think you’re freaking awesome.

    I’m sick and tired of people blaming immigrants of exhausting social services when in fact immigrants pay taxes and, in the case of undocumented immigrants, do not qualify for tax refunds (or social services). Nobody talks about those billions of dollars kept in the system (and this is a well-documented fact by scholarly research).

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