A new exhibit at the Tenement Museum in New York tells the story of newcomers after World War II, from Holocaust survivors to the Chinese families that populate the Lower East Side today.
NEW YORK – In an ordinary brick building on a commercial street, a narrow stairwell with peeling walls and rusty bannisters leads to a modest apartment, and in it a square dining table of cracked wood, upholstered chairs, a simple toaster, flowery coffee cups, an old record player and silver candlesticks. Nothing unusual for the three-room apartment of an elderly person, you might say.
Maybe that’s why at first glance it seems there’s nothing special about “Under One Roof,” an exhibit that opened in December at the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
In the immediate neighborhood there are bodegas, fruit stands, dollar stores, cheap pizzerias, simple clothing stores and a disproportionate number of beauty salons. Nearly all the residents are immigrants – some from Latin America, many from Asia. It’s a 10-minute ride from the World Trade Center site, five minutes from Chinatown and a few blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn.
And like the surrounding neighborhood, the third-floor apartment at 103 Orchard Street is modest and unglamorous. The items in it are plain, almost trivial. To borrow from “Seinfeld,” you could say it was an exhibition about nothing. One building, three families, three decades from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. And the tenants? Ordinary; no fancy family connections and no noteworthy achievements.
“There’s nothing special in this exhibition,” says Kathryn Lloyd, one of the museum’s directors. “That’s what’s great about it – the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and the routine. The story of this building could have been told equally in any other building on the Lower East Side.”
Sarah Mechling / Perkins Eastman
Maybe that’s why this exhibition is actually about everything. The one apartment and three families tell the stories of tens of millions of immigrants who flocked to the United States in the 20th century. The backdrop is New York and the most American social and cultural context imaginable, but the difficulties are universal. The challenges are no different from those experienced by immigrants in scores of other countries, as is the desire to integrate into the new society and leave the past behind.
“Nothing made me feel more American than Paul Anka’s record,” says Bella Epstein, the daughter of Kalman and Regina Epstein, one of the three families that lived in the apartment, from 1955 to 1961. Bella, like most members of the second generation, quickly assimilated into American culture.
Her father, an Auschwitz survivor, remained with one foot deep in the Old World. Western music hardly spoke to him – he continued to listen to the cantorial works of Moishe Oysher and Yossele Rosenblatt. Like most Jewish immigrants, the Epsteins earned their living at one of the textile factories and sewing shops that dotted the neighborhood at the time. Within six years, they saved enough money to buy an apartment in Brooklyn.
The uniqueness of the neighborhood, as Lloyd explains, is its proximity to the piers where, before the jet age, the immigrant ships arrived, making the Lower East Side the first stop in the lives of millions of new Americans. “It’s the most varied history you can find in terms of the backgrounds of the immigrants who shared the neighborhood,” Lloyd says.
From the end of the 19th century into the 20th century, Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe to make the neighborhood the beating heart of American Jewry. They established scores of synagogues, opened kosher butcher shops and filled the traditional restaurants. Over the years, Italians, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, Chinese and labor migrants from Latin America arrived. Gradually the Jews left the Lower East Side and moved elsewhere in the city until hardly any traces remained of the vibrant Jewish-community life in the neighborhood.
The exhibit focuses on three families from different backgrounds: the Epsteins who arrived after World War II, the Rivera Saez family from Puerto Rico who immigrated at the start of the 1960s, and the Chinese Wong family who lived in the building in the 1970s.
First the museum bought the building, then the research work began. It took years as the institution contacted dozens of families that had lived there; some agreed to take part, providing photos and interviews.
“We wanted to show the immigrants’ great importance in the history of New York; how ordinary people can shape our history and what that says about being an American citizen today,” Lloyd says.
The apartment is split up among the families. The Epsteins’ story is told in the dining room and Bella’s bedroom, the Rivera Saez family’s story is told in the kitchen and the living room, and the Wong’s story is told in the room shared by their four children. The only family that actually lived in that particular apartment was the Epsteins, and sure enough they seem to get the most comprehensive coverage.
The dozens of visitors who join the 12:30 P.M. tour don’t talk about politics, at least not explicitly. This tour, like all the others that day, was sold out. When the museum bought the building in 2007, probably few people in New York dreamed that 10 years later the U.S. president would depict war refugees from Syria as enemies of the people and labor migrants from Mexico as rapists.
It’s hard to ignore the obvious political context, which also perhaps contributes to the exhibit’s huge success. The story of the Epstein family, for example, can’t be separated from the historical context. In 1924, Congress approved the Immigration Act, which limited the number of immigrants flowing into the United States, especially those from southern and eastern Europe, largely Italians and Jews.
Under the act, the number of immigrants admitted to the United Sates annually stood at 2 percent of the number of immigrants from a given country who were in the United States during the 1890 census. Thus the number of Jewish immigrants was limited to a few thousand a year, compared with the hundreds of thousands who had come every week until then. Only World War II softened the decision a bit; between 1947 and 1952, about 400,000 Jews came from Eastern Europe.
Kalman Epstein was from Russia; his wife Rivka, (later Regina), from Poland. He had lost his first wife and his young son in the death camps. He met Regina, who was 13 years younger, in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt. Their daughter Bella was born in New York. She spoke English with her friends in the neighborhood. Her parents spoke Yiddish. At school she pledged allegiance to the United States; in the dining room there was a blue box collection change for the Jewish National Fund. Kalman worked at his uncle’s clothing store.
Within a few years the Epsteins bought a television, the first in the building. Bella remembers how the many neighbors, Italian and Jewish, gathered in their living room and watched the new wonder together. In a presentation to the viewers, she tells how they had to watch what her father wanted to watch – and he wanted to watch wrestling.”
Her bedroom, as it’s displayed in the exhibition, looks as if it was taken from an old American television show – a flowery bedspread, a large record player, a colorful jewelry box, china dolls and a bookshelf. Bella, who wasn’t alone in later trading cold New York for sunny Miami, tells how the family observed the Sabbath and kept kosher. They put up a mezuzah at the front door and every Friday her mother made cholent. On Passover it was matza, no bread. About the war they hardly spoke at all.
Too much work to cook
Bella didn’t know Andy and José, Ramonita Rivera Saez’s children. They moved into the building from Puerto Rico at the beginning of the ‘60s, part of the wave of half a million immigrants from the island.
The circumstances of their move were different from those of the Epstein family – the latter were Holocaust survivors, the former came in search of a better life, but their stories meet at a number of points. They’re both stories of a new beginning, suspicions on the part of veteran residents, acclimatization to a strange culture, a language they didn’t know at first and work at the textile factories.
“It’s not that there wasn’t tension between immigrants from different countries,” Lloyd says. “I can’t say that all the Jews were friends of the Italians and the Italians liked the Chinese, but at the building level, of the tenants who lived alongside one another, they learned to live together.”
The Saez family kitchen looks like a continuation of the Epstein’s dining room: an old plastic blender, a metal toaster, a large pot and a kettle for hot water. The exhibit doesn’t try to prettify the story of the mother of the family, a seamstress in the same clothing factory for 30 years. Ramonita Rivera Saez went to work early in the morning and came home late in the evening. Dinner was made by her sons.
They had a regular daily schedule, José says in a video at the exhibit. Every morning they had to soak their beans in water to soften them, and when they came home from school they had to cook the beans over a low flame and set the table. For a family of limited means, if they burned the beans they were in trouble.
In the apartment’s living room sits a high school graduation picture of the two brothers. Back then José worked as the maintenance man for the building and Andy was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam. He served for six years.
A picture of him in uniform is on display in the living room, flesh of the flesh of the American nation, a source of pride for the whole family. José, though, married a Puerto Rican girl and went back to the island. In 2011, 50 years after she moved to New York, Ramonita also returned to her birthplace.
Fulfilling the dream
The story of the Wong family gets the briefest treatment, maybe because the story of the Chinese immigrants is still the story of the neighborhood, a story that can be felt today just by walking down the street.
Mrs. Wong, too, worked in one of the many textile factories in the neighborhood. Her four children are the American dream come true: All of them acquired a higher education, found odd jobs and have scattered around the United States.
Their mother lives in the neighborhood to this day, surrounded by people of a similar background. The children’s bedroom, as shown in the exhibit, is more modern than their neighbors’ thanks to life in the ‘70s and 80s: an alarm clock, a typewriter, a calculator.
“I’m proud of her,” says one of her daughters, Yat Ping Wong. “I never told her that, but now that I think of it maybe I should tell her how proud I am of her. How proud I am of her achievements.”
As I leave, I meet a couple on their way to see the exhibit, New Yorkers in their 50s who have come especially from the other end of Manhattan. In a city with 83 specialized museums, from the amazing Metropolitan Museum of Art to the colorful Museum of Sex, it’s hard to understand what has made them spend an afternoon poking around the crowded rooms of an ordinary apartment.
“Sometimes we forget that this is the story of us all. We picture the immigrants as a group of alien and dangerous people who are far from us, who aren’t connected to us,” says the wife, Annie.
“We forget that nearly all of us are children of immigrants of one sort or another. It’s a human story about people who built our city and it’s doubtful that even today the city could exist without them. It’s important for us to remember this when we talk about them as if they’re trying to harm us.”