Educators at the museum give on average ten tours a week, to groups of up to fifteen people on each tour. That’s thousands of stories to thousands of people over the years. And although the stories we’ve told have always been based on the same dozen or so families, they unfold uniquely every single time.
The Tenement is a metaphor for America and all her ingenuity and vulnerability, her strength and her weakness; the Tenement Museum’s stories are a complicated and poignant reflection of America herself.
The tenement at 97 Orchard Street represents so much of what Lucas Glockner, it’s German-speaking developer and original landlord, hoped for as a hard-working, innovative immigrant in America. One of Glockner’s earliest tenants, Bridget Moore (née Meehan), an Irish potato famine survivor, likely traveled to America alone as an unmarried teenager. Bridget had little in the way of material belongings aside from perhaps a lightweight St. Brigid’s cross, which provided both spiritual protection of her American apartment and evoked memories of the Irish home she left behind.
A few decades later, Dora Goldfein, whose husband Barnet acquired the building as a part owner in 1905, may have arrived to collect rent checks for the first time wearing the Edwardian-style hat that represented high fashion and status at the time. This hat was an ultimate symbol of being a true American, something Dora may have been proud of as someone who “made it out” of the neighborhood.
At the exact same time, one of Dora’s tenants, Harris Levin, is preparing to move his family over the Williamsburg Bridge, to Brooklyn, where he hopes his family will live a more comfortable and prosperous life. Along with the belongings they’d collected in their 15 years on the Lower East Side, they probably packed the few items they traveled from Poland with—like Shabbos candlesticks—that embody the culture they hope to preserve as they delve further into the process of becoming American.
If any of these narratives sound familiar, it’s because despite the differences in names and places of origin, these are stories that could easily be told at dinner tables and family reunions across America. The foundations for these stories are innocuous objects: a tenement, a cross, a hat and a pair of candlesticks. But it’s the stories themselves, of Mr. Glockner, Mrs. Moore, Mrs. Goldfein and Mr. Levin that make them at once unique and universal.
Ultimately, that is from where the power of the Tenement Museum emerges: we all have a story to tell. Despite being “ordinary” people—like the residents of 97 Orchard Street—we all hold the key to an extraordinary legacy. And often that legacy includes the objects that we collect along the way.
For almost 30 years, the Tenement Museum has informally collected these stories. On every tour, visitors are invited to share connections they make; the narratives often compel visitors to share anecdotes of their own families. Some recognize artifacts that evoke particular memories. Others are inspired to go do research on their own ancestors.
The Your Story, Our Story digital exhibit was born of this informal practice of collecting stories from Americans of all backgrounds and ages that demonstrate the dynamism of our objects. Objects that on their own may seem ordinary, but with a legacy attached, become extraordinary.
Objects like Nafesa’s mother’s jolpie acer—a flavor enhancer found in abundance in Bangladesh—which became a sudden delicacy in America. Like Joseph’s toy dog, that symbolized survival and hope for his parents arriving in the U.S. after the Cambodian genocide. Like Alex’s school ID card, which bears the Aztec name he initially struggled to connect with as a Mexican-American. Like Blaake-Kirstyn’s family recipes, which were created by her great-grandmother, a house slave on a Georgia plantation, and preserved by the three generations that followed her.
These are the stories of an America that has evolved considerably since 97 Orchard Street was last a residence. And yet, they are stories that can in so many ways draw parallels to the lives of the former residents that we interpret daily at the Museum. These connections we make across place and time are deeply meaningful—as a country of immigrants and migrants, we are rooted in what we share with each other. We all have something to share, a story to tell, a legacy to maintain. What’s yours?
- Posted by Victoria Marin, Project Coordinator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum