Look For the Union Label: Chinese Immigration in America

For the other parts of this series highlighting the new ethnic groups featured in Under One Roof, you can read Becoming “Nuyorican” and Of Memory and Survival: The Jewish American Identity
Garment factory in NYC's Chinatown. Photo: Bud Glick

Garment factory in NYC’s Chinatown, 1983. Photo: Bud Glick

May is Asian/Pacific Heritage Month, marking the considerable contributions made by Asian- Pacific Americans in the arts, sciences, technology, politics and more, as well as celebrating the immense and richly layered cultures of those Asian and Pacific Island countries.

May 6 is also the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law in 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur. This is the only non-wartime federal law which discriminates against an entire nationality, and has had lingering side effects to this day.

Mrs. Wong and her daughter Yat Ping, subjects of our new exhibition "Under One Roof"

Mrs. Wong and her daughter Yat Ping, subjects of our new exhibition “Under One Roof”

The law was passed because of rising Anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the United States, and the reasons for that are not all that unfamiliar to what other ethnic groups dealt with in the past, and what they deal with today. Originally, Chinese laborers came to the west coast during the Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s. They were hired to help construct the Central Pacific Railroad, but once it was completed, and the gold mines had all but dried up, many Chinese immigrants stayed in the U.S., taking other labor jobs for less money, wanting to provide for their families back home. Of course, this led to that familiar xenophobic rhetoric – they’re taking our jobs, and they refuse to assimilate to American culture.

The Chinese Exclusion Act did exactly as it said it would. It banned the immigration of anyone from China who didn’t have a special work permit, including the families of those already living in the U.S. Beyond that, those who were already here were unable to become naturalized citizens. Many Chinese at this time were experiencing discrimination and violence in those small towns of the west. So of the few immigrants left in the country, many migrated East to denser cities like New York, places with much higher diversities. Today, the metropolitan area of New York is home to the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia.

Photo: Bud Glick

Photo: Bud Glick

During the ban, only immigrants with specialized work permits were allowed in the country, those who were listed as merchants on documentation. So many enterprising immigrants started businesses with friends and family as partners, to allow them to travel to the U.S. — businesses like restaurants, laundromats, and garment factories, which are often still owned by Chinese American families.

New York’s garment industry is almost synonymous with the city’s immigrant history. Prior to the first major wave of immigrants in the mid-19th century, clothing was typically made in the home, or custom-made by tailors for the upper class. But fashions evolved and expanded, and an influx of skilled craftsmen coming into the country created a confluence of events, whereby 1910, an estimated 70% of clothing worn by American women originated in the garment factories of New York City.

In 1943, a repeal of the Chinest Exclusion Act allowed a small quota of Chinese immigrants into the country, in part due to China being a U.S. ally during World War II. Before, the Chinese population in America had steadily declined since 1882, but it was now starting to rise again, albeit at a much slower pace. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and it officially lifted the quota, but still placed caps on per-country and total immigration across the board. Even so, the population of immigrants, especially Chinese immigrants, skyrocketed over the next few decades, and the quota was eventually removed altogether in 1968.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act, 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act, 1965


It was in 1965 when the Wong family, highlighted on our new tour Under One Roof, moved to the Lower East Side. Around the same time, the garment factories had diminished in the city, with much of production being outsourced to other places with cheaper manufacturing costs. But adapting Chinese entrepreneurs created a niche market in New York City, and developed factories that could reproduce high-demand clothing found in Manhattan department stores and have them on the shelves in a matter of days.  A few years after moving to the United States, Mrs. Wong would be one of the thousands of immigrants working in New York City’s garment industry.

The garment factories are an integral part of the recent history of Chinese American immigrants. On our new tour at 103 Orchard Street, visitors will step into a recreated, interactive garment factory instillation. They will learn about how Mrs. Wong, along with some 20,000 other Chinese immigrants, developed communities over their sewing machines. It was where they brought their children after school,  and where they spent most of every day. It was where they took a fierce pride in the quality and speed of their work, and took part in strong Labor Unions, such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, to ensure fairness for themselves and their colleagues.

The garment factory is a representation of the Chinese immigrant experience in New York City during the latter half of the 20th century. It encompasses the culture – family, food, work ethic, values – of their communities while displaying the advancement of technology and the integration of American culture into their own. You will be able to visit our garment factory in our new exhibition, Under One Roof, slated to open this fall.


Shine ‘Em Up Sadie

douglas firs

When Josephine Baldizzi was a little girl, she and her family were evicted from 97 Orchard St, along with the rest of the building’s tenants in 1935. Despite this, she had many fond memories of her time inside her family’s tiny apartment, which visitors can view on our “Hard Times” tour. While standing in her recreated kitchen, visitors can listen to an audio recording of Josephine talking about growing up on Orchard Street, about the games she used to play with her father, and about her mother’s fastidious cleanliness. “‘Shine ’em up Sadie’ they used to call her,” Josephine says in the recording.

Josephine and Johnny on the Roof of 97

Josephine Baldizzi, with her brother Johnny, on the rooftop of 97 Orchard

The oral history adds another vivid contextual level to the tour, to hear in her own words what life was like, growing up a first-generation American during the Great Depression. Her story is one that lingers in the minds of many visitors once they leave the Tenement Museum. Visitors like Gertjan Van Hellemont and his brother, Sem.

Gertjan and Sem head up Douglas Firs, a Belgian indie band. They had been in Montreal earlier this year  when they hopped on a bus to visit New York City for the day. It was their first time in the city, but the Tenement Museum was on their to-do list. “We’d heard from a friend it was a go-to museum,” said Gertjan, “with interesting stories.”

Interesting enough to write a song, it seems. Last Friday, Douglas Firs released “Shine ‘Em Up Sadie,” a catchy new song inspired by the story of Josephine Baldizzi’s immigrant experiences.

“Looking back on the period when she’d lived there, sharing her memories, what really struck me was the amount of happiness and melancholy she felt about this period in her life,” Gertjan said. “She had been really happy there! It made me and my brother think about the importance of a sense of community, friendship,… In combination with having a dream and trying to realize this, and on the other hand, the lack of importance of material things, despite the huge struggle it must have been.”

douglas firs2Gertjan has been playing music for most of his life. Douglas Firs have been playing together for about eight years now, and they are currently working on releasing their third album.

“I think with this song I wrote about the Baldizzi family,” said Gertjan, “it’s actually the first time I wrote about something that far removed from my own life, to really do some research and write about something from an outsider’s perspective.”

Gertjan feels the stories of people like Josephine are as relevant today as they’ve ever been. “There’s a refugee crisis going on and most of the time, I find it scary seeing people respond to this with a sense of fear, short-sightedness and even a lack of basic humanity, sometimes,” he says. “I can lose a little bit of hope when I think about this for too long, but I tried to put the opposite feeling into my song. I think people will always reconnect to that sense of community, solidarity, sticking together, the things I felt in the story of the Baldizzi family who lived on Orchard Street.”

Check out the video for Douglas Firs’ “Shine ‘Em Up Sadie” now!


Beautiful Days in the Neighborhood

Federal-style row house, built over 180 years ago, on Allen St.

Federal-style row house, built over 180 years ago, on Allen St.

Springtime in New York is the stuff of songs. Whether it’s the beautiful clear skies and blooming flowers, the welcome change from the gray and biting winter months, or both, Spring just makes you want to skip the train and walk a couple dozen blocks, just for the opportunity to enjoy it.

So, if you find yourself out walking more, enjoying that crisp weather, you might as well learn something while doing it. The Tenement Museum is back to offering daily Walking Tours which are perfectly paired with are fantastic building tours. Pairing the two gets you a discounted ticket price, as well as an arsenal of information on the discovery and development of this iconic immigrant community.

Tenement Museum tour guide showing a picture of the old elevated subway track that ran down Allen St.

Tenement Museum tour guide shows a picture of the old elevated subway track that ran down Allen St.

The history of New York is the history of real estate. As a city that’s constantly changing, constantly demolishing, constantly building – that history is integral to understanding how far we’ve come and how far we can go. There is a feedback loop between the communities that live in a neighborhood and places they live, work and play. They evolve together, and to learn only one side of that history is to only get part of the story. When we discuss the neighborhood of the Lower East Side, we present more than just a textbook history lesson. After all, our tours go beyond the simple statistics of housing laws, ethnic populations, and square footage.

The walking tours at the Tenement Museum are designed to discuss and educate visitors and widen the worldview of the stories we tell inside the homes of early 19th and 20th century immigrants. The families who resided there present a honed, specific point of view to the New York experience, and with our walking tours, we explore the communities they lived in, and what they might have experienced once they stepped off their front stoops.

A former Jewish synagogue, coverted into an artist studio on Rivington St

A former Jewish synagogue, coverted into an artist studio on Rivington St

We talk about the changing architecture  on our “Buildings of the Lower East Side” tour.  The New York City skyline moves up and down like ocean waves throughout the decades, always reflecting the people who live and acting as a reflection of their spirit and culture. We talk about that mighty, all-powerful connection that spans every generational, geographical, and cultural divide – food, and our love for it. The “Foods of the Lower East Side” tour allows you to explore the many representations in the neighborhood of cuisine from around the world, from dumplings to pretzels to fried plantains, expanding your palette to understand those diverse culinary traditions, as well as how those traditions have affected American meals over time.

Our “Then and Now” tour discusses the gentrification and adaptation of the neighborhood and its residents. You’ll discover fluidly the area changes to represent to people living there, such as the structure on Forsythe St, built in 1890 as a church to convert local immigrant Jews, which was then purchased and converted into a synagogue by a congregation of Lithuanian Jews, and then sold again in the 1960s to a  Puerto Rican Seventh Day Adventist Church. Tenement Museum tour guides are here to highlight the Stars of David that still decorate the outside of the building, in homage to the building and the neighborhood’s rich history.

Burning incense outside a Buddhist temple on Broome St.

Burning incense outside a Chinese Buddhist temple on Broome St.

Finally, the “Outside the Home” walking tour shares the neighborhood as experienced by the residents at 97 Orchard and the other immigrants who made the Lower East Side their home for 150 years. Each space adds another contextual layer to the American story, from the Jarmulowsky Bank Building on Orchard St., where many immigrants lost their savings during World War I when the bank failed, to the Daily Forward building on Broadway, where Jewish socialists championed for worker’s rights in the early 20th century. Both those buildings have been repurposed for other uses now, but the details of their history are still hidden in the stonework, if you know where to look.

Guided tours at the Tenement Museum and the surrounding neighborhood are the best way to get a more comprehensive vantage point of this beautiful and historic neighborhood. Paired together (for a 40% discounted ticket) is the most educational, and most fun, you can have on the bright Spring days ahead.

Historic Romaniote Jewish synagoge on Broome St.

Historic Romaniote Jewish synagogue, Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome St.

Of Memory and Survival: The Jewish American Identity

For the other parts of this series highlighting the new ethnic groups featured in “Under One Roof,” you can read Becoming “Nuyorican” and Look For the Union Label: Chinese Immigration in America


In Bella Epstein’s home, her whole family – what was left of it – would gather together in their tiny apartment on the Lower East Side to celebrate Passover, they would recite the names of the family members who had been taken from them.

The rest of the year, Bella’s mother and father wouldn’t discuss their experiences during the Holocaust if they could help it. Certainly not with their daughters.

But on Passover, the retelling of the Jewish migration out of Egypt had a powerful resonance for many displaced Jews in the 1940s and 1950s. Jews like Bella’s parents, survivors from Germany and Poland who had met in a Displaced Persons camp following the end of World War II, were some of the lucky few able to take refuge and start a new life in the United States. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put severe quotas on immigration, and most of the American population agreed with this policy at the time, mainly for economic reasons. Following World War I and the Great Depression, no one wanted immigrants coming in at a time when Americans struggled to get jobs for themselves. And people feared history would repeat after World War II.

But President Truman’s 1945 directive allowed a small number of immigrants to enter the United States with refugee status. Truman famously stated, “This is the opportunity for America to set an example for the rest of the world in cooperation toward alleviating human misery.” Bella’s parents came to the country through this executive order in 1947. The Displaced Persons Act passed a year later, increasing the number of incoming refugees over the next few years, so that by 1952, there were 400,000 Displaced Persons admitted to the U.S.

Video courtesy of Critical Past

It’s hard to imagine how Holocaust refugees like Bella’s parents might have felt, arriving on our shores. But then, it’s hard to imagine any of the trauma those people had endured. One can assume it was a complicated combination of relief and despair, mixed in with uncertainty of the future and the usual cultural shock of moving to a completely new country. Not to mention, moving from hostile territory to a place that wasn’t exactly welcoming you with open arms.

FPA 15.02

Regina and Kalman Epstein, Bella’s parents

We may not realize it now, but the Holocaust wasn’t thought of a singular, capitalized event for a long time after the war. For many years, exactly what was done to Eastern European Jews and others in German concentration camps was unclear, and just part of a larger number of atrocities and brutalities that occurred during the War. The sheer scale of the War meant misinformation abounded, intentionally  and accidentally by both Allied and Axis powers, so the scope of what was lost took years to fully comprehend. In late 1944 to spring of 1945, three-quarters of the American population thought Germans had killed people in camps, but not nearly the right number. The typical estimate was only 100,000 people or less.

In the decades to follow, the understanding of the attempted genocide changed and expanded in the American social consciousness. Werner Weinberg, a German Jewish writer who wrote often about his experiences under Nazi regime, said, “Immediately after the war, we were ‘liberated prisoners’; in subsequent years we were included in the term ‘DPs’ or ‘displaced persons’…In the US we were sometimes generously called ‘New Americans.’ Then for a long time…there was a good chance that we, as a group, might go nameless. But one day I noticed that I had been reclassified as a ‘survivor.'”

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century did people begin to understand what had occurred, which coincided with the time that the concept of American Jewry began to take hold. Before that, and in the years during World War II especially, there was no real sense of a Jewish American community. Most Jews were either newly arrived immigrants themselves or first-generation. Postwar, American Jews became more politically motivated, and the desire to connect with each other only strengthened as they gained knowledge of whole families, villages, cultures, and histories being completely wiped out overseas. The Jewish American identity was created from the events of World War II.

Bella and her sister on the Lower East Side

Bella and her sister on the Lower East Side

New York’s Lower East Side has been, since its inception, a welcome sign for incoming Jews. And the Jewish history of this place – how Jews formed communities here, kept practicing their religion here, built long-lasting businesses here, raised their families here – has become fully enmeshed in what developed into the Jewish American identity as it is known in popular culture. Hasia R. Diner, author of Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America, wrote about how the Lower East Side is as integral to the soul of American Jewry as the ravaged lands of Eastern Europe. “Since the late 1940s, American Jewish memory had been bounded by these two mythic places, eastern Europe and the Lower East Side,” she said. “Each one stood, and still stands, as a point of memory, replete with an instantly recognizable set of images of people and places, described with a sensual trope built around sounds, smells, and tastes, stimulating a process of remembering even for those… who did not grow up in either place.”

Bella’s parents grew up in Eastern Europe. Then they continued to grow in 1947 on the Lower East Side, learning to reconcile their traumas in order to live here in America and raise American children, and we tell that story at our upcoming exhibition Under One Roof at 103 Orchard Street. The Epsteins, like many other Displaced Persons, were bound by two places, forming the bedrock of a new cultural identity for Jews in America. An identity based on survival, community, and memory.

Meet the Staff: Jamie Salen, Marketing Manager

This month, we profile our Marketing Manager, Jamie Salen, for MEET THE TENEMENT STAFF. Jamie joined the museum in November after moving to New York from Florida and she has been wreaking havoc ever since. Jamie took the time to tell us about her job responsibilities as well as a little bit about herself, including a love for Economy Candy (as you can see pictured below).


TM: What is your title?

JS: I am the Marketing Manager at the Tenement Museum.

TM: What are your job responsibilities?

JS: I work to promote the museum. This means collaborating with, and providing marketing support to our various departments. I also work closely with our Special Events department to expand our client base for private evening events.

TM: Why is marketing important to a museum?

JS: The purpose of any museum is to share knowledge, history, culture or beauty with the public. Used effectively, marketing serves as the link to the public and maximizes a museum’s ability to impact the community.

TM: Where did you work before coming to The Tenement Museum?

JS: I was most recently working in South Florida where I did freelance work as a public relations and marketing consultant and as the Public Relations and Marketing Manager for a historical venue in Boca Raton called the Addison.

TM: Most interesting story related to your job since starting here?

JS: Well, while every day is interesting and has me learning more and more about the museum, so far representing the museum at the American Bus Association Conference in Cleveland stands out. Having the opportunity to meet tour operators from around the country and, in some cases, introducing them to the Tenement Museum was quite rewarding.

TM: What is your family’s immigrant history?

JS: All of my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe and came through Ellis Island. Half of them settled on the Lower East Side and eventually moved to Brooklyn, while the other half settled in South Philadelphia. Now that I am living in New York I would love to do more research and find out where in the Lower East Side they lived.

TM: Where did you grow up?

JS: I lived in Palo Alto, California until high school – when my family moved to the Philadelphia area.

JamieCandyTM: What do you like doing in your free time?

JS: Anything that involves music, history or extreme sports.

TM: What is your favorite Tenement Museum tour and why?

JS: My favorite tour is Shop Life. I love the saloon patron index cards – where you are able to interact with fellow visitors, and the object readers are awesome!

TM: Favorite place to go in the Lower East Side?

JS: As a recent transplant, I have only been able to experience the Lower East Side for a few winter months and I have a feeling I haven’t discovered my absolute FAVORITE just yet. But  for the sake of answering this question, I do love Economy Candy and Katz’s Deli!

Charlie Scheidt: Immigrant Foods and Immigrant Values

The Tenement Museum stands as a monument to the notion that immigrants built America. Without immigrants, we would never have had Google, Santa Claus, . . . or grocery shelves where Asian dried noodles and sauces share space with Andean quinoa, Italian balsamic vinegar, Israeli couscous, and Moroccan anchovies. “American” food today is a delicious blend of flavors gathered from across the world, thanks, in part to Roland Foods – a company founded and run by immigrants.

Roland Foods was founded by Bruno and Suzanne Scheidt, immigrants who fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Paris, only to flee yet again on the eve of World War II, arriving in the U.S. in 1939. Roland Foods grew gradually over the years to become the leading branded specialty food importer in the United States. Today, Roland Foods imports over 1,700 different products from across Asia, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Scheidt photo

Bruno and Suzanne Scheidt

Rachel Feinmark sat down with Charlie Scheidt, CEO of Roland Foods for over 40 years until his retirement, to talk immigrant stories, immigrant food, and immigrant values.

  • Tell us a bit about how your parents got to New York and how they came to start Roland Foods. 

My parents were originally from Frankfurt, Germany, where they met in the late 1920s, probably 1929. My father was an entrepreneur from the age of 19, when he started in business for himself. He began in the chemical and pharmaceutical business, but after a few years switched to buying and selling food products. In 1933, at the time of the April 1st boycott [Nazi boycott against Jewish businesses], my father fled – literally out the back door across the railroad tracks, and got on a train to Switzerland. After the initial crisis had passed, he returned to Frankfurt and made arrangements to have someone else run his business. By August 1933, he had founded Etablissements Roland in Paris with a minority partner. He had done business under his own name in Germany, but in France he decided that the family name sounded far too German and that Roland, the noble knight in the “Chanson de Roland,” would be a better name for the company. The firm specialized in imported food products. My parents married in Paris, as did my aunt and uncle later on. They were joined by other refugees from Nazi Germany, eventually including my grandparents.

The signs for refugees in Europe, including in France, were increasingly dangerous, and the winds of war were blowing too strong. So my parents decided to give up the good life in Paris and were fortunate to have applied for US visas early enough. They left friends and family behind, arriving in New York at the end of March 1939 with their young niece in tow, thereby saving her life. Things got off to a rough start: you know how things often are for immigrants – there are many plans and things don’t always work out as hoped. They were supposed to be met at the pier in New York by a distant cousin, but when they got there, there was no cousin to pick them up. This became a family joke – how unreliable he was, a version of standing them up at the altar. It turned out he was in the hospital having an emergency appendectomy! But there was no end of teasing about excuses.

My parents were the first family members – of the immediate family [to come to the U.S.]. My father’s brother and sister-in-law and his mother and her husband remained in France, unfortunately. Other family members were caught in Holland and Germany.

Despite being stood up at the pier, my parents figured out where to go and what to do on their own . . . My father had to make a living, and within a month of arriving here, he contacted one of his old suppliers. He told him “I’ve moved to New York, and I’d like to buy some of those good French dried mushrooms I used to buy from you.” And that’s how he started in business in America – with the one supplier. And Roland still buys dried mushrooms from that supplier!

A sequel to the story of the Roland brand, this time in the U.S.: My father went to an American bank to open an account and asked the banker, who had been in America for a while, “Is ‘Roland’ an okay name? Is it offensive or some kind of cuss word in English?” After being assured that it was perfectly fine, he said “Well, it worked for me in Paris, so let’s go for it.”

There was a short window in which my father was able to import these French mushrooms to the U.S., maybe a year, and then that window closed due to the war. Once the war started, there was not a lot he could import from Europe. . .  so my dad bought and sold domestic and Canadian foods. But after the war, he exported food products for a few years. I still have a jar of Roland brand Vitamin D Malted Milk powder from those years! Given the war’s devastation, much of the world needed American food products. But my father was able to return to importing in the late 1940s, maybe ‘48, ’49, sometime in there.

  • And he eventually branched out beyond French mushrooms, even Asian foods? 

Well, one thing leads to another – whenever my father needed to hire somebody, he always understood and identified with other immigrants and refugees, and to [Holocaust] survivors. One of the men he hired was Kurt Lang. Though Kurt was a survivor, most of his family had been murdered. He started off as a file clerk, and being ambitious said to my dad one day, “Let me go and try my hand at selling.” The company had gotten a phone call from a Chinese company that wanted to buy our French canned mushrooms – again, that was one of my dad’s old French connections. Kurt offered to go to Chinatown, and Dad said “sure, go! Good luck, but do it during your lunch hour. Make sure you come back here to finish the filing!” So Kurt walked the few blocks over to Chinatown, and either made a sale or at least met the potential customer, and one thing led to another, and gradually Kurt spent more and more time in Chinatown, and my father had to hire a new file clerk. Knowing my father, that person probably was also an immigrant.

Over the years, Kurt became the company’s main salesman, not only in Chinatown, but around the country. He was nicknamed “Mr. Mayor” by some of his Chinese customers and attended customers’ weddings and family events. He learned enough Mandarin and Cantonese to communicate with everyone . . . We actually filmed him for a day or two in Chinatown and you couldn’t walk a block without someone yelling “Hey, Lang, Lang! Come see me! I have order for you.” He was famous there. He worked for the company for almost 60 years – until a few weeks  before he passed away, long after my dad and my mom had passed. He and I worked together for several decades, and he became a mentor to others as the firm grew.

So that’s how Roland got into Asian foods, long before any other firm. Customers trusted Kurt and told him what they wanted. And since he was not a competitor, he was just a supplier, they felt comfortable asking him to try and get them not only products which eventually became mainstream, but also exotic items like dried shark fins, dried sea cucumbers, dried oysters, and dried scallops. Very exotic items, which, of course, Kurt knew nothing about. He had to learn about them, but they taught him and told him what they wanted, and my father found the right products in Asia.

  •  It’s such the quintessential American story – all the outsiders get together and bring in foreign foods, and eventually it becomes so routine that everyone forgets they were once the outsiders. 

Yes, and outsiders from different origins getting together and finding common ground. Gradually things they introduce become mainstream – just look at ramen noodles. We started importing them 30 or 40 years ago, and then it became such a big business that they are manufactured here.

The story of imported foods in the U.S. is a story of how they start off as “ethnic,” exotic or gourmet foods and then, very often, go mainstream. And that was really part of our company’s success – to be part of that. But not everything successfully made the switch – and we still kept some products that had a smaller ethnic following. For example, most Americans have no idea what “sprats” are, nor would they enjoy smoked cod liver, but there are Jewish and European customers who know and love spats and cod liver. So we kept importing them.

  •  I saw an old picture of canned grasshoppers on your website . . . 

That was one of those crazy party items that had its moment in the sun and then quickly disappeared. But the funny thing is that there’s now lots of interest on the part of many people to see if insects could be food sources. So . . . maybe.

  •  Your father made a point of hiring immigrants and refugees. How do you think that impacted the company’s culture? 

Well, if you hire people from different cultures, if you’re surrounded by people with different ideas and different backgrounds, you open yourself up to different ideas and ethnic products. Certainly for any immigrant group, for any immigrant, you look for things you know that can help you make a living in a new place. And what experience, what knowledge do you have that’s unique? It’s the culture you came from, and the foods that you and other people from that world, from the old country, would be looking for. So it’s interesting that many food importers before and after World War II were immigrants, often Jewish immigrants, who settled here and used their knowledge and sometimes their connections to start a new businesses, and to bring products here that had not been available.

People who visited our offices often commented on the diversity, people from all over the world and from very different cultures, a real United Nations. And I was always comfortable with that, because that was the world in which I had grown up at home. It was a very diverse and interesting group of people. It facilitated our doing business all over the world, and eventually, as a company, to buy and sell all over the world. To have an international perspective was a real asset.

I was always open to and excited by new products, products I hadn’t thought of and had never heard of. We welcomed new ideas, and we were known for that. People would send us their ideas for new products, from whatever part of the world they came from. And since we had contacts across the globe . . . that was always very exciting. We would taste foods from all over the world, and ask ourselves “could this be of interest in the U.S. market?” Speaking to people from different parts of the world about their ideas and what products they would like to introduce into the U.S. market was always exciting and fun. Food is such a cultural lynchpin.

I wish that more people today would realize there is no need to feel threatened by people from a different culture. We need to realize the opportunity in welcoming the new perspectives they offer us, and to share our perspective – to be enriched, rather than threatened by “them”. How do you teach that? I can just say that, in my own company, it was obvious. We worked  together no matter anyone’s accent, ethnic or racial identity, and whether they observed Muslim, Jewish or Christian holidays; whatever anybody wanted to observe or was important to them was respected. Period, end of sentence. It’s their right, and we work together and we respect each other for what each of us brought to the joint enterprise, both the company and the larger American enterprise.

  • What Roland products do you always have at home? 

Mustard and vinegar and capers and sardines – all kinds of vinegars. Red wine, white wine, balsamic, sherry wine vinegar . . . and the list goes on and on.

  •  But no grasshoppers? 

Not for me. Yet…

Practicing Facilitation

Originally posted on Medium, February 17, 2017.

How we talk about things matters. We are living in a time of deep divisions, where silos and binaries seem to choke the nuance from our views and social media feeds. In the wake of this political climate, educators are facing new challenges. At museums — places where we seek to create open spaces for the exchange of ideas and conversation — the limits of civil discourse are being grappled with. Can we respectfully listen to people who hold differing opinions and thoughtfully share views with those who disagree?

At the Tenement Museum, we have been facilitating hard conversations since our founding in 1988. We are a storytelling museum and the only way to visit our 150-year-old tenement is to take a guided tour with an educator. This ensures that human stories are shared daily within the museum’s walls and that visitors regularly grapple with the nuances surrounding issues of immigration, discrimination, human rights, and what it means to be American. These stories are complex and have multiple perspectives.

Visitors on the Hard Times tour. Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Visitors on the Hard Times tour. Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Our building bore witness to childbirth and wakes, economic depressions, epidemics, the celebration of diverse holiday traditions, along with countless ordinary acts of living. Our stories reflect these layers of human experience. Like that of Adolpho Baldizzi, who came in 1923 from Sicily seeking economic opportunities, only to struggle to bring his new wife Rosaria to join him a year later due to changing immigration legislation. They would go on to become citizens and to raise two American born children, whose own children would serve in New York’s police force and fire departments. Their story is just one of the many stories that get facilitated within our walls and expanded upon by visitors who contribute their personal experience and insight.

In many ways, bringing strangers together for a conversation is radical within this day and age, and over the years we have experimented with a variety of facilitation techniques to support this work. While the museum’s setting and educational approach of site-specific family-centric storytelling is unique, many of the practices our educators employ will enrich conversations both inside and outside of a museum. We have found that when we get personal with our stories, we can go beyond the rhetoric and consider not just how we differ, but what we have in common.

Within this climate, society needs more facilitators, and both colleagues and friends have been asking for best practices and tips to employ. These five techniques don’t require a museum exhibit to generate a rich conversation. While they may seem deceptively simple, each presents its own challenges and requires practice, patience, and fortitude.

  1. SET EXPECTATIONS: Set realistic expectations for yourself as the facilitator and for the group. Relieve yourself of the impossible pressure of having the golden conversation or changing anybody’s mind. No one is required to agree with you, nor is it your job as the facilitator to make them. Challenge yourself to enter the conversation knowing you have something to learn and the participants have something interesting to say. Owning this lets you set the expectation for everyone to participate and share the mike with each other. And remember, there are multiple successful outcomes for a conversation and that this discussion will be part of a larger conversation, which will be generated once it ends.
  2. LISTEN GENEROUSLY: Listen to understand, and not to respond. Try not to judge, make assumptions, and bring your preconceptions to the conversation. Don’t anticipate responses, but rather challenge yourself to stay curious and open to be surprised. And, remember, our body language, especially our facial expressions and stance communicates receptivity or a lack thereof. Listening generously does not mean condoning inappropriate comments. Instead, it challenges you to understand before rushing to judgment. As the facilitator, this can also mean embracing awkward moments of silence and creating spaces for participants to process what they are hearing.
  3. VALIDATE CONTRIBUTIONS: Welcome and respectfully acknowledge participant’s presence and contributions. Don’t make people uncomfortable for what they think or believe (even though the topic is likely uncomfortable). This should not be confused with placating or agreeing with all comments, but rather seeking to understand them. Some helpful phrases for validating without agreeing include: “I’ve never thought of it that way,” “What a powerful statement” or “That is an interesting point.”
  4. FOLLOW-UP: Don’t attack people for sharing. As a facilitator, you can acknowledge why a comment stings or hurts without attacking the individual who made the comment. Respond with openness and curiosity and ask follow-up questions to clarify, such as “Why do you say that?” and “Let me make sure I heard you correctly.” or “Tell me more.”
  5. ENCOURAGE MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES: Use your own knowledge and experience, as well as the groups to encourage multiple perspectives on the issue being discussed. Genuinely valuing the personal experiences of the participants and their perspectives will enrich the conversation. Remind the group to use “I” statements in order to mitigate conversations becoming “us” versus “them.” Some prompts for introducing other perspectives include, “In my community, I see this…” or “Does anyone have stories that are similar or different?” While you want to ensure that multiple perspectives are heard on the issue, remember that it is ok for everyone to agree or even to agree to disagree.

Facilitation is hard, but it can be learned, practiced, and honed. When we are able to listen generously and truly value the perspectives of others, we gain tools necessary to break down the silos and binaries that threaten our civil discourse.

Becoming “Nuyorican”

For the other parts of this series highlighting the new ethnic groups featured in “Under One Roof,” you can read Of Memory and Survival: The Jewish American Identity and Look For the Union Label: Chinese Immigration in America
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a landmark cultural institution on the Lower East Side

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a landmark cultural institution on the Lower East Side

When I think about Puerto Ricans in New York City, I have to admit something. My mind immediately goes to West Side Story. I can only offer explanations, though not necessarily excuses: I’m not Puerto Rican, I’m not Latinx, I’m not even a New Yorker. I’m just a grown-up theater nerd who grew up in a bubble, and West Side Story, for a long time, was my only reference point. But the fact that I’m a grown-up, though, allows me to acknowledge the problematic aspects of the grand Hollywood movie musical — namely, the lack of any Puerto Ricans in the cast, apart from the fabulous Rita Moreno (a fan, I have to point out, of the Tenement Museum) in an Oscar winning performance.

Film scholar Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, author of West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece, was interviewed at the time of the movie’s restoration release in 2011. A Puerto Rican himself, Acevedo-Muñoz spoke of the initial reaction by the Puerto Rican community to the movie, saying, “There was always some controversy, with some complaints from sociologists and people like that, but the overwhelming majority of reviews were positive,” also pointing out that, by the end of the movie, the Sharks in fact look alot better than the Jets in terms of morality, community and family, and education.

Of the movie’s notorious “brownface” commentary, Acevedo-Muñoz spoke of the novelty that he as a Puerto Rican felt, watching an actual representation of his culture in a major Hollywood production.  “Now, is Natalie Wood something of a brownface? Yes. But does it matter? No,” Acevedo-Muñoz said, “And the reason it doesn’t matter to me is because outside of West Side Story, which I saw first as a pre-teenager… I’d never in my life heard the words “Puerto Rico” spoken in a movie. And I’ve heard it very few times after that. Seriously. The fact that they said the words “Puerto Rico” in a movie and there were Puerto Ricans being portrayed on screen – even if only one was a legitimate Puerto Rican that was born-and-raised-on-the-island, Rita Moreno – we didn’t care.”

The interview also discusses the lyrics to “America,” which pleased me greatly, because when I knew I would be writing about the history of Puerto Rican migrants in New York City, I knew I’d want to include that song. What I didn’t know was that the movie version and the stage version differ drastically from each other. Whereas the original drew criticism as being demeaning to Puerto Ricans, the movie version emphasizes genuine issues of discrimination the Puerto Rican community faces in America, and the constantly warring, constantly changing concepts of the American Dream and the American Reality.

We at the Tenement Museum can really relate to the line, “Twelve in a room in America!

What I find interesting, watching from outside my bubble, is the characters repeatedly calling themselves “immigrants,” which they technically aren’t. The differences between immigrants and migrants are thin, but there. While neither group deserves to be subjected to discrimination, persecution, and violence, both often are. But immigrants will usually have to deal with more complicated legal matters to remain in their adopted country. Migrants, like those coming from Puerto Rico, are United States citizens. I can only imagine the strain and confusion on one’s identity, to be treated as an outsider by the nation to which you are a citizen.

Ramonita Saez, a highlight on our upcoming exhibit at 103 Orchard Street, on a rooftop in New York City

Ramonita Saez, a highlight on our upcoming exhibit at 103 Orchard Street, on a rooftop in New York City

Puerto Ricans have been emigrating to New York City since the middle of the 19th century, in the first so-called “wave.” At the time, the island was still a Spanish province, and the motivation to move was the same as it was for other immigrants — America offered the greatest opportunities for economic success. Puerto Rico then became a territory of the United States as a result of the treaty arrangement following the Spanish-American War.

In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act changed the status for Puerto Ricans forever. Now, they were officially American citizens, and could travel to and from the United States without the use of a passport. Eligible Puerto Rican males could also be drafted into the military, just in time for World War I. This change in citizenship status caused many Puerto Ricans to head to New York City, as the island had previously been terrorized by hurricanes, ruining many crops and causing great financial crisis. But the industrialized city presented other hardships to the newly arrived Puerto Ricans. Discrimination, language barriers, lack of technical skills were all hurdles newly arrived immigrants faced on their job hunt — and these issues are often discussed on current Tenement Museum tours about German, Irish, and Italian immigrants — and many Puerto Ricans encountered the same. However, as citizens, those who struggled to find work often resorted to joining the military.

The third and largest wave of Puerto Ricans occurred in the 1950s, known today as “the Great Migration.” The Great Depression, World War II, and the advent of air travel were all leading contributors to the increase in migration during this time. This era marked the first time a Hispanic group moved to New York City in great numbers.

Throughout these waves, new terminology began to spring up, and the name Nuyorican initially started as a kind of insult towards assimilated Puerto Ricans or second and third generation Puerto Ricans who have lost touch with their island roots. Traditionally, Nuyoricans planted their flags in what became known as “Spanish Harlem” in East Harlem, and “Loisaida” in the East Village, a Nuyorican pronunciation of “Lower East Side.”

Loisaida is one of the neighborhoods where the Nuyorican Movement began in the 1960s and 1970s, the name meant to reclaim the former insult, originally founded by writer Jesús Colón. One of the most iconic, important cultural and intellectual movements to come out of New York City, the Nuyorican Movement produced some of the best works of poetry, literature, art, and music of the 20th century. Miguel Algarín Jr., poet and founder of the historic cultural institution Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side, was one of the first to reclaim the title of Nuyorican. Some other notable artists from this movement include Esmeralda Santiago, Piri Thomas, Pedro Pietri, Miguel Piñero, Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Puente.

Ramonita Saez, focal point for our new tour at 103 Orchard Street, came to live at Loisaida during the Nuyorican Movement. She raised a family during a time when the city was close to tearing itself apart. We don’t know if she ever saw West Side Story when she first arrived on the Lower East Side in 1961, or what her opinion of it would be, but we can imagine, given her achievements, her pride in her work in the Garment Industry, and the success of her children, she might have agreed with Anita in the song “America.” Life can be alright in America.


Immigrants Then, Immigrants Now: A Shared American Dream

Originally posted at The Huffington Post on February 12, 2017

The Tenement Museum’s mission calls on us to “enhance appreciation for the waves of immigration that have shaped and continue to shape America’s evolving national identity.” In the wake of an election that offered a platform to anti-immigrant sentiment and exposed deep divisions in the US, we must acknowledge that not all Americans believe that immigrants should help to shape our national identity. More specifically, while many Americans may be comfortable celebrating how previous waves of European immigrants contributed to the forging of modern American identity, they may shy away from the idea that more recent Asian, South American, Middle Eastern or African immigrants continue to help forge that identity.

Undeniably, the majority of our museum visitors arrive ready to engage with the history of American immigration and consider how it connects to our present. In our tours, we provide space for open conversations, as we do not advocate for specific contemporary policies or politicians. However, as has been noted in some recent press articles, the heat of the election season occasioned a few challenging visitor exchanges, including one sharply worded complaint that a tour guide spoke “broken English,” and did so with a strong accent.

This type of complaint serves a useful purpose, for it helps us to reconnect to our mission statement and allows us to respond through stories—not soundbites, lectures, or sermons—to reveal real, ordinary people in all of their complexities. What would a visitor who lauds immigrants “back then” for learning English think if she walked through the tenement hearing German voices in the 1870s, Yiddish words in the 1900s, or the Italian language in the 1920s? In 1900, immigrant Jennie Levine had three children under the age of eight and shared her 325-square-foot apartment with her husband’s garment shop and its workers. The 1900 census tells us she did not speak English (indeed, only half the building’s residents did). Standing today in her recreated apartment, our visitors quickly grasp that Jennie would not have had the time for English classes, nor room to study. We can imagine her at her coal stove, boiling water for laundry while her eldest daughter, Pauline, helps her younger siblings with their homework. Did Jennie feel pride? Difficulty? Perhaps both?

Jennie Levine, ca. 1925; Jefferson’s mom, ca. 2015.

Inevitably, visitors draw comparisons to the present, and we recently have enhanced these discussions by adding stories written by contemporary immigrants and their children (collected through our Your Story Our Story website). In the Levine kitchen, for example, an educator might show an image uploaded by Jefferson, a high school student, which shows an Ingles Basico textbook, overshadowed by a stroller. Jefferson explains how his mother wants desperately to learn English, “everywhere she goes—schools, hospitals, work, subway, she feels voiceless.” She began to study the textbook, but after Jefferson’s sister was born, “she gives all the time from the busy evenings to her daughter…My Mom keeps pushing her heavy stroller….” This story helps us view Jefferson’s mother as a modern-day Jennie Levine, underlining how across time and space, immigrant parents often sacrifice their own opportunities in order to care for their children.

Jennie’s story might offer hope to Jefferson, for the 1910 census tells us she later learned English; in turn, we see how language acquisition is an evolving process for immigrants then and now. Students have posted dozens of photos of foreign language dictionaries and whether translating to English from Chinese, Korean, Russian, or Spanish, they all testify to the way immigrant parents studied English as they worked and raised children. Theresa Chen, writing about her father’s Chinese-English dictionary, reflected: “Now, this dictionary sits on our bookshelf not only as a symbol of pride for my dad, who can speak relatively fluent English, but also a reminder of the struggles that a language barrier can pose for all immigrants, even today.”

These stories help us confront misconceptions about immigrants past and present, and underline connections, both between past and present and those among us today. If you are an immigrant or the children of immigrants, your stories help us to trace common threads across cultures, and realize how we all adapt old rituals to new environments. If you are the grandchildren or great grandchildren of immigrants or migrants, we realize memories may have faded somewhat, but we urge you to contribute your stories and uncover their complexities. When my daughter submitted the story of my first American ancestor, my great grandmother, we focused on a pair of Sabbath candlesticks brought over from the Ukraine in 1906. But recently, as I tried to enhance the scope of my great grandmother’s story, I uploaded a drawing of a bathtub. This bathtub lets me share another aspect of her life: during Prohibition, she made bathtub gin to help support her seven children. She, like Jennie Levine and perhaps the woman with the stroller, always felt more comfortable in her native language. Nevertheless, she gave everything she had so that her children could achieve their own versions of the American dream.

We can’t resolve today’s political debates solely by sharing our family histories with each other, but we owe it to the past residents of 97 Orchard Street to examine their lives not with romanticism, but honesty. By the same standard, we owe it to today’s immigrants, their modern-day counterparts, to think of them as real people, not stereotypes. The selflessness and drive of these individuals to sacrifice all that is familiar in order to build better lives for their children will continue to contribute to the character of our shared national identity. Their stories, and your stories, are our American story.

  • Annie Polland, Senior Vice President for Programs & Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer


The little girls are adorable, standing on the sidewalk, smiling big, the chrome trim of last year’s model passing by.

The mother is looking past the camera, leaning on the vintage television set, talking on the phone, hair done, dressed up for something, but we don’t know what.

A mother and her daughter are waiting patiently for their portraits to be taken wearing frills and floral, standing in front of a staid curtain.

All three of these images are captured and framed by a Polaroid’s white edges, hearkening back to a time before Kodak was tinged with the nostalgia of analog technology, highlighting the impermanence of memory, of moments, of instant photography, of marketing handouts.

These are the photographs collected by the Tenement Museum from the Epsteins, the Saez family, and the Wongs, the people who are at the heart of our new exhibit at 103 Orchard that will open this summer. These photographs are also part of the promotional campaign we are distributing to in the Visitor’s Center.

The reactions to the cards have been overwhelmingly positive. Visitors are charmed by the families photographed and are drawn in by the clever design with its built-in appeal to memory and the very feeling of pointlessly shaking the picture until the image appeared.

While many visitors resist being asked to carry yet another piece of paper with them, others express appreciation and excitement for what we are doing. They want to extend the story. They want a reason to come back. They want something new to learn, something new that will connect them to the stories of the past as much as to the issues of the present.

polaroids3Beyond this general reaction, the most frequent response we get is visitors exclaiming that the little Epstein girls look like themselves and their sisters or their mothers at an early age. The background of the photograph with that vintage car helps, and the familiarity of the corner of Orchard and Delancey Street does too. Ultimately, I think the response to this image is really about the relationship between history, memory, and youth, the idea that we can relate to the past through our own formative experiences.

Indeed, one of the things that is most exciting about the new exhibit is its ability to use the oral histories of young people who grew up on the Lower East Side. These stories and the young characters that populate them provide a connection for some of our smaller visitors and, for some of our older guests, encourages a critical kind of nostalgia grounded not in an idealized past but in a real one. Like the exhibit will, these cards activate memories and use memories, but juxtapose them with the historical record.

Similarly, visitors see their own mothers in Ramonita Saez or see their own childhoods in the old Cathode Ray Tube console. At the visitor center, this is the image that, after staring at it for days and weeks, many staff have fallen in love with. We talk about Ramonita as archaeologists and storytellers wondering who took the picture and why. Is the object of the photographer Ramonita or the television? Why is Ramonita so dressed up? Where is she going? Who is she talking to on the phone? Even more so than the Epstein girls, this image captivates us because it does ask us to tell a story, and it asks us to be historians.

All three of these images also represent relationships, relationships between sisters and daughters and mothers, between photographers and the photographed, between the subjects whose pictures are taken and the viewer looking at them as family history or as an archive of the past. They predict the intimate connections visitors will have when they visit the recreated apartments at 103 Orchard. They remind us all of the work that the Tenement Museum does so powerfully.

Indeed, while of course these handouts are designed to get visitors excited about the new exhibit, to inspire them to come back next summer, they also preview what it is we’re trying to do. We can be captivated by the familiar, but the exhibit will also introduce all of us—educators, staff, and visitors alike—to stories that are different, stories that have often been left out of the history books.

After all, this is not the story of post-war suburbanization and white flight. It is the story of new waves of immigration. It is the story that union organizing didn’t end when the working classes moved on up and became middle managers in offices uptown. It persisted through Puerto Rican seamstresses and Chinese garment workers.


The new exhibit will show that women like Mrs. Wong who is posed here waiting for her portrait to be taken, holding hands with her daughter, also fought for a living wage the same way the Rogarshevskys did. The new exhibit will show that people like Ramonita and her children watched television the same way the Baldizzis listened to the radio. And it will show that kids like the Epsteins played on sidewalks and in backyards like so many generations before them, watching horses and trolleys and trains and eventually cars pass through the streets.

Everything we do as an organization from curating and educating to fundraising and marketing drives this message and tells America’s story through the present as much as through the past. The visitor center is where so much of this experience begins. We’re looking forward to the conversations these Polaroids start, and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.

  • Mabel Rosenheck, Visitor’s Services at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum