Thursday, May 2, 2013

Unpacking the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Graffiti and brass plaques adorn the steps to 97 Orchard Street
Full Disclosure: I spent all of last year interning at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. While I originally signed on to a research position, the Collections Manager was in need of help in cataloguing artifacts in preparation for a collections move, and thus I spent much of last autumn the dusty ruinous basement of 97 Orchard Street. My experience taking an official “tour” this week left me fraught with images from my experience behind the scenes of the museum. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a collusion of narratives, artifacts, eras, and ruins. The Museum is quite different from many of the other museums that have been featured in this blog, and spoken about in class. The walls are not lined with display cases showcasing individual objects protected in an enclosure of controlled light and glass. There are no paintings with elaborate frames, guarded by gallery attendants who remind one not to use flash photography. There are no colossal halls demarcated by imposing classically architected columns. The LESTM is "simply" a tenement that has been restored to reflect specific eras and particular narratives. In order to be privy to the inside of 97 Orchard Street, one must buy a ticket to attend a guided tour, where they will join a dozen others in the (sometimes costumed) “retelling” of a family’s life within its walls over a century ago.
Orchard Street, location of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Emerging from the Upper West Side into Chinatown
Outdoor Fish Market
I headed down from the Upper West Side to emerge at the Grand Street station, right in the hub of Chinatown. I left the depths of the tunnels to the smell of the fish and fruit market. I expected the journey from the subway station to the Museum to be rather mundane, but the happenings around me certainly inspired temporally relevant questions. Although I had simply taken a subway, I was thrown into an area where English was not the language on signs, where the products being sold at the markets were mostly unfamiliar. I was thrown from an unthinking conduit and forced to be very present in my environment. The area where the museum sits is an odd mish-mash of older tenements, newer buildings, traditional Chinatown shops, gluten-free bakeries, futuristic graffiti and lots full of trash. It is an area where multiple places convene in one geographic locality, it is an area where people with specific mindsets build upon one another, smother old businesses, take over condemned buildings, and convene with the familiar. I’ve included a lot of images in this blog because I think they are show how multiple layers of cultures build upon one another and create this place of confluence. Parts of the neighborhood, particularly the "Earnest Sewn" store across the street, provide a playful interaction and mimicry of the insides of the Museum.

I entered the bookstore and purchased a ticket for the “Irish Outsiders” tour, which is described by the LESTM website in this way, “Experience the heart of the immigrant saga through the music of Irish America, then tour the restored home of the Moore family, Irish-Catholic immigrants who left their home in the Five Points to start a new life in Kleindeutschland. Explore how this family dealt with being 'outsiders' in 97 Orchard and how they coped with the death of their child in 1869.” I was instructed that I was not allowed to take pictures once I entered the building, as the museum needed to maintain a “certain image,” according to my Museum Educator. We entered the Museum through the backyard, where the toilets where located, and brought up to the fourth floor. This space has been kept in disarray, in ruin. Visitors are told about how “In 1988, Jacobson responded to a ‘for rent’ sign at 97 Orchard Street, and this fledgling museum settled onto a tenement storefront. This building proved to be the perfect location for a museum, with its upper floors untouched since the owner stopped renting apartments in 1935. After occupying the building for eight years, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum purchased 97 Orchard Street in 1996” (Dolkart 102). The wallpaper in the room that we were brought to showed layers of peeling, layers of families that had lived in those spaces.
On one side of LESTM, "Pop Karma," a gourmet popcorn store
On the other side, a residence home to LES locals
Iremember the first time I saw the disarray of the upper floors of the Museum I was absolutely enchanted. Last autumn, when I was not cataloguing in the basement, I was bringing the already catalogued items five flights up the fire escape and into the unoccupied rooms upstairs, so as to make room in the basement for a new exhibit. I romanticized about the eyes of those who had seen each different layer, about each family’s desire to cover up the walls of the previous owner and make it theirs. The walls are now covered in a sepia-colored collage of wood and molding material, no longer cared for by individual tenants, but used as space to house the unseen. The museum must maintain a certain image. It is jarring to enter such a space, “the key points of tension become visible, and he skeleton – the infrastructure on which all else hands – the pillars, keystones, support walls and beams stand while less sturdy material – the clothing, or the flesh of the building  - peels off” (Edensor 109). It is haunting. How does one react to a space that was so intimate to one, and now commoditized and hidden? I felt emotional for the space itself, for some respect that it had lost in the shifting of eras. I point towards Gavin Lucas’ idea of the emotional aspect of being immersed within a specific time. What if one is immersed in a place where the ghosts of multiple times, none close to your own, dwell? How can immersion in this space of intimacies of the past make one uncomfortable? Does the fact that this was a place of particular economic or social struggle, an immigrant home, make the feelings more resonant?
Photograph of a wall facing the museum on the opposite side of the street, with the same multi-layered effect
Upward view of multi-layered wall, which is next to a purposefully rugged aesthetic clothing store
"Earnest Sewn" the store that demonstrates this fetishization of authenticity and commodification of nostalgia
Layering of Graffiti and Stickers Nearby
Back on the fourth floor, where we were beginning the Irish Outsiders tour, we listened to popular Irish-American music projected from a Mac onto the dusty windows in the purposefully-preserved-as-found tenement. The Museum Educator turned eagerly towards us after listening to the folk song “Irish Need Not Apply” and asked us which immigrant group today reminded us of the Irish of yesteryears.

“Audience participation is encouraged!”

“Please, let’s make connections to today!”

“How is the narrative of the immigrant different or similar in the 21st century?!”

I felt uncomfortable making these connections. The narrative here that was being pushed was one of a blanket story that could be thrown over certain ethnic groups from different places, living in different times. Is politicizing a narrative the only way to make it relevant? Is it ethical to make these types of general statements? Was I disappointed by the injection of present politics while I was trying to immerse myself in the past? I'm not sure. The only person who answered was a woman from France who simply said “Muslims.” No one else had any thoughts to share for the remainder of the tour.

After leaving this room, we entered an apartment that was completely recreated with items from the 1860s. The Museum Educator told us the tale of the Moore family, their three daughters, and the death of the youngest, Agnes. There is the general narrative one can tell of Irish immigration, which in some ways is compelling enough – “coffin” ships, potato starvation by the British, discrimination and hatred from other immigrants. But how does the museum know what would be in their particular apartment? Or that this particular family lived here? Through discrete and sparse documents. There is the NYC directory, which places the family in this apartment; there are the baptismal certificates of the children, the death certificate of Agnes, and the 1870 census in which the family had moved 6 blocks south. These are the only documents used to create this tour, to craft this narrative of this specific family. These documents coupled with what is known about “swill milk” (milk that had chalk or ammonia in it to keep it from going bad and was the cause of many infant deaths during this age) were used to create a compelling story. Edensor remarks on the difficulty, “ to turn such ruined stories into official versions, potted narratives and fixings is almost impossible, for these tales rely upon unforeseen happenings, involuntary memories and revelations, immanent sensations and arbitrary pathways of conjecture and can never post as authoritative, never aim for closure” (161). Edensor remarks that this type of storytelling must not pretend to be “imperialistic” (164). What would Edensor think of the LESTM, with its multiple tours going on at the same time, these fragile narratives from different eras being represented in the same space once plagued by ruination?

The guided tour experience ended with the details of how an Irish Catholic would mourn the death of their child. The group entered the final room of the cramped tenement apartment to the recording of a woman’s melancholic singing. The windows are opened, and we are told that windows remain open three hours after death so that the soul might find its way from the body. The mirrors in the room are covered, and we are told it is a traditional belief that if such a soul sees oneself in the mirror, they might remain stuck on earth and unable to enter Heaven. Though it is 2013, I think the collective feeling in the room was one of sadness, of mourning. The tragedy of the death of a child knows no boundary in time. The nuances of tradition being followed are general rules, but the resonance is undeniable. This strange space, immersed in a room filled with 1860s items, hearing the wails of the grieving song, were more powerful than the voice of the Museum Educator. The hardships of immigrant life that the LESTM so strives to depict were most effectively deployed not by the voice of a 20-something docent, but by the flapping of the curtains on an open window. The “vibrance” contained in this material culture, these artifacts, was most powerful, as stated by Michael Shanks in The Archaeological Imagination.

Influential reads from the past
After this, we were guided downstairs and brought to the shop. As I perused the titles of books – children’s books, famously controversial books, newer books – which mostly focused on immigration, or poverty, the images of the open windows and covered mirrors did certainly haunt me, just as the layers of wallpaper did last year. Perhaps most eloquently stated, “it is also because ruins are rampantly haunted by a horde of absent presences, a series of signs of the past that cannot be categorized but intuitively grasped, can be read for significance but are ultimately evasive and elusive” (152).

I leave the museum with a renewed dizziness at the world around me, the confusing elements of living in a city with such defined conduits and yet so full of vibrancy and diversity. We are living among the past, the past is present in more ways than just the skeletal buildings that envelop us, the strangeness of living in a space with temporal, cultural, linguistic pluralities. The physical building itself is an artifact, a   mix of ruin and eras and narratives and agendas, with an undeniable agency and effect on those who visit it.

Sources Cited:

Dolkart, Andrew. Biography of a Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street. Chicago, Il.: Center for American Places, 2012. Print.
Edensor, Tim. Industrial Ruins: Spaces, Aesthetics, and Materiality. Oxford [U.K.: Berg, 2005. Print.
Lucas, Gavin. The Archaeology of Time. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Shanks, Michael. The Archaeological Imagination. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2012. Print.

All photographs by Emma Gilheany

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