Ode to a Plastic Covered Couch

Coney Island has its Cyclone, the American Museum of Natural History its dinosaurs, MoMA its Picassos. At the Tenement Museum, what elicits thrills these days is the 1960s plastic-covered sofa and armchair in our recreation of Ramonita Rivera Saez’s parlor. The furniture serves as a paean to this sociable Puerto Rican garment worker, who raised her children (and helped raise her grandchildren), embraced the Catholic community at St Teresa’s, and—as “matriarch of the building”—welcomed successive waves of immigrant families to 103 Orchard Street.

Visitors exploring our recently opened Under One Roof exhibit revel in the memories evoked by the shiny squeakiness of this plastic-covered furniture: “My great aunt had a sofa like this!”; “My grandmother covered her furniture too!”; “This brings back memories.” Plastic-covered furniture resonates for Puerto Ricans, Jews and African Americans, as it does for Americans of Chinese, Irish, and Italian origin. Those seat covers are a common denominator of 1960s and 1970s American family life and identity.

Many Americans who took seats on plastic covered furniture understood how migrations shaped their families. Some were the children and grandchildren of Eastern and Southern Europeans who came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before being stopped by the 1924 race-based immigration quotas. Some were among the refugees brought in by the Displaced Persons and Refugee Act of 1948. Some were those whose families had undertaken migrations from one region of the United States to another, from Puerto Rico to New York, from North Carolina to Brooklyn, from Mississippi to Milwaukee. In 1965 Congress passed the Hart Celler Immigration Reform Act, lifting race-based quotas and bringing Civil Rights Era ideals to immigration policy, expanding the idea of who could become American and enabling Asians, Africans and others to take seats on plastic-covered furniture.

Under One Roof focuses on how three families—the Epsteins, Saez-Velezes, and the Wongs—started over at 103 Orchard. They found work in the garment industry and raised their children on a Lower East Side that had become one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Their memories shed light on American identity and pluralism, its messiness and its beauty.

Individual homes allowed families to maintain their distinct traditions even as they gave them the space to learn how to negotiate the cultural and linguistic barriers their migrations exposed. The same record player in the Epstein home played cantorial music for Kalman and Rivka, and Paul Anka hits for Bella. Seated on their plastic-covered couch, Ramonita’s boys did their English homework, but by the 1960s also watched Spanish language stations 41 and 47. The Wong children had a desk where they worked on their public school and Chinese school assignments; they also devoured Marvel comic books and enjoyed The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels. In shared hallways families learned that being American was also about living with neighbors who came from other traditions. The three families experienced diversity daily through the cooking aromas emanating from airshafts, the foreign language conversations overheard in hallways, and the accented-English pleasantries they exchanged with neighbors in the stairway. Tenements schooled residents in shared living.

Conflicts, tensions and insensitivities inevitably arose as families adapted to their new lives. Coming home after a long day of factory work, Ramonita couldn’t decipher PS 42’s English-only notices. Her son, Andy Velez, remembers Italian boys chasing him when he crossed Chrystie Street. Bella Epstein recalls how her Catholic friend and neighbor, Rosetta, abruptly told Bella her parents weren’t invited to a party because they were Jewish. In the fifth grade, Yat Chung Wong became “Kevin” when his teacher distributed a list of “American” names and instructed Chinese students to adopt one before the bell rang. On a larger scale, neighborhood conflicts over control of the schools and housing resources fell out along ethnic lines, exacerbating tensions.

Despite the tensions and misunderstandings that separated them, people also overcame differences to form crucial ties on a daily basis. Andy and Jose Velez joined a Little Italy Boy Scout troop that made Andy a leader. Jose honed his carpentry skills under the tutelage of an Amish teacher, and turned on Sabbath lights at neighborhood synagogues. Rosetta’s abrupt declaration of family prejudices did not dent the hours of playtime that bonded her and Bella. Bella also befriended Barbara, the African-American girl she met at the park who became her favorite checkers partner. Kevin Wong speaks admiringly of Ramonita, who moved beyond her Spanish-language comfort zone to use English and made welcoming conversation in the halls with Chinese families. As well, the Velez brothers recall how neighbors brought them red envelopes and pastries on the Chinese New Year.

from left to right: the Wongs, the Epsteins, and the Saez-Velezes on Orchard Street. Photo by Julie Stapen Photography

As our country debates immigration, we still have much to learn from the tenements, and how our own daily experiences, and those of our ancestors, help shed light on an American identity that is dynamic and complex. Living under one roof and being part of a diverse country is not easy: its messiness and complexities demand constant discussion, negotiation and reflection. The Epstein, Velez and Wong children and grandchildren became nurses, doctors, soldiers, contractors, teachers, IT directors, lawyers, school administrators, and government employees, experiencing moderate economic mobility. Though they’ve left 103 Orchard, they’ve kept its lessons, cherishing an American identity that encompasses people of all backgrounds, religious and skin colors. They remind us that the American Dream has always been as much a spiritual as a material quest, a hope that our strength as a nation derives from the experience of people of all backgrounds living among one another.

We invite you to take a seat on Ramonita’s plastic covered sofa, and consider how your family stories contribute to our country’s ever evolving identity.

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

7 Protests That Shook Lower Manhattan

New Yorkers have always known one idea to be true: there’s strength in numbers.

The history of this city is peppered with revolutions that reflect the issues of the neighborhood and the people populating them. The protests of Lower Manhattan reflect the people who lived here – immigrants, students, workers, and marginalized communities who made an effort to stand up for their beliefs, despite the risks in doing so.

Below is a timeline of seven uprisings and riots, stretching from the 19th century to the 21st century. Each story shows the unwavering courage of the protester, the importance of a unified community, and the timeless strength and spirit of the New Yorker. From low wages to no wages, from civil rights to overpriced meat – each cause, in the end, proved to be worth the fight.


Our American Holiday: Refugees and the Meaning of Hanukkah

What is the American holiday tradition? It might not be what you think it is. Or rather, it’s everything you think it is: if you live in this country and are celebrating this holiday season, your customs, celebrations, and beliefs are woven into the fabric of the American cultural tapestry. Throughout the month of December, we’ll be looking at these different customs – where they came from, how they’ve evolved, and how they’ve become integral to defining what we know as “Our American Holiday.” 

Bella Epstein (right) with her sister on Orchard Street

Every winter, Bella Epstein (Under One Roof) would gather with her family to light the Hanukkah candles. Her mother Rivka, a Holocaust survivor, always insisted that Bella’s childhood be filled with light and color and joy, so it’s likely the new American way of celebrating would have been adopted by them early on. For eight nights, their traditions would come to include catchy songs, lively games, and treasured presents. And their menorah would be one of many illuminating the windows of the tenements on Orchard Street.  

In the Jewish faith, every moment is a story. And from every story, comes an opportunity to learn, to interpret new meaning from centuries-old tales in order to make sense of modern-day hardships. The story of Hanukkah is one such tale – how can one relate to a two thousand-year-old victory by the Maccabees against the Syrian Greek army? 

While there is much to be appreciated from a military battle, it is the story of the aftermath, the survivors, the miracle of their continuation that early Rabbis chose to focus on. Hanukkah is the holiday of rededication, in remembrance of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem which had been sacked and destroyed during the fighting. “Very few remember when the Temple was first dedicated,” says Rabbi David Wolpe, “but almost all Jews remember when it was rededicated.” 

The Rabbi goes on to say how people who have experienced such unbelievable hardship, such as “Holocaust survivors, refugees who fled oppression, people plagued with illness and others to whom life has dealt cruel blows,” – how they might take this concept of rededication to heart. Given every reason to despair, to grow cold, to become hateful, a bright future is possible, if one is strong and determined enough to rededicate themselves to a better life. 

It is both easy to imagine and hard to contemplate the mixture of emotions felt by Holocaust refugees Regina and Kalman Epstein, when their ship arrived in New York Harbor on April 22, 1947. Trepidation, exhaustion, fear, hope. By the time their daughter Bella was born the following year, the Epsteins had begun adjusting to the American way of life. They had a home in New York City, were starting a family, and were taking part in their community.  

While we don’t know for sure how the Epsteins celebrated, there is evidence of Hanukkah celebrations taking place in the ghettos and camps throughout Europe during World War II. Both Regina and Kalman were religious, and during times of great persecution, the importance of these rituals increased, even if the rituals themselves had to be subdued. “Already in the Talmud,” says Rabbi Wolpe, “there are provisions for lighting secretly in times of persecution.”   

Jews in the Westerbork transit camp in Holland light candles for the seventh night of Chanukah.

We can surmise, though, the shock they must have felt, living in American in the years following World War II, and seeing the differences in the holiday celebration. By this period of time, Hanukkah had already started to become the Jews answer to Christmas. In the late 19th century, America was going through a lot of changes. Waves of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization created an attitude of upheaval. Emphasizing winter holidays became a way of boosting American morale. The sentimental home celebrations became even more important, with two major wars being fought overseas in the first half of the 20th century. And, by the time the Epsteins lived in New York in the 1950s, American manufacturers were making and selling goods at a higher volume than ever, and the middle class was born. People used the opportunity of the holidays to showcase their wealth, as well as providing delights for children that parents never received themselves. 

Hanukkah in America meant something extra, though, for Jews immigrating to the U.S. After decades of persecution – from the pogroms in the 19th century to the Holocaust in the 20th – here was a place they could celebrate their religion openly. Here, their holiday was mainstream. 

Giant Hanukkah candlelight ceremony at JCC, circa 1950 (Courtesy of the Center for Jewish History)

Bella describes the bravery of her parents as they put up a mezuzah in the doorway of their American home. The courage that took, after escaping such horror, to proudly proclaim their Judaism. For refugees and survivors of persecution, maintaining a custom becomes an act of valor. 

The Jewish tradition is the tradition of storytelling, and many of these stories are ones of struggle, oppression, and subjugation. In that sense, each Hanukkah candle becomes the hero of that story, glowing in the windows of tenements and houses over the decades and throughout the country. 

What is your American holiday tradition? Share it now on Your Story, Our Story!


Our American Holiday: Saint Nicholas Day

What is the American holiday tradition? It might not be what you think it is. Or rather, it’s everything you think it is: if you live in this country and are celebrating this holiday season, your customs, celebrations, and beliefs are woven into the fabric of the American cultural tapestry. Throughout the month of December, we’ll be looking at these different customs – where they came from, how they’ve evolved, and how they’ve become integral to defining what we know as “Our American Holiday.”

Children around a Christmas tree. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Today, on Saint Nicholas Day, we’re exploring the traditional American Christmas celebrations, many of which are actually a product of German immigrants – from spiced cookies and wine, to the ever-present, always-beautiful Christmas tree.

Imagine it’s evening on Orchard Street, December 1871, and though the streets, homes, and saloons of Kleindeutschland are crowded and noisy with people, the song that rings out into the cold is a newer German classic: “Stille Nacht.” Otherwise known as “Silent Night.”

We may not know exactly how John and Caroline Schneider, saloon owners discussed on our Shop Life tour, were celebrating that Christmas, but we can easily infer it was a festive night for them. The New York Times describes the revelries of Christmas Eve, 1871 as a joyous, busy affair, especially for business owners:

“Among the Germans Sunday was a busy day in making preparations for Christmas Eve, which is a German family and children’s festival. A feature of this is always the brilliantly illuminated Christmas tree, decorated with toys, confectionary, and holiday gifts for the young.  As the weather was delightful yesterday, the principal thoroughfares on the east side, the Bowery, Division, Grand and Houston Streets, were crowded with persons, patronizing the shops where Holiday goods were retailed, which yesterday were kept open for the occasion.  The places of amusement in the Bowery, the beer saloons and other public places, were decorated with Christmas trees, and many of these places were illuminated in the evening.”

Tenement Museum costumed interpreters portraying Caroline and John Schneider, on our Live! at the Tenement program “Last Call at Schneider’s Saloon.”

Christmas had only become a National Holiday the year before, but German immigrants like the Schneiders would have been celebrating every year, and their customs are now what we know as traditional Christmas features in America. Having a celebration on Christmas Eve in general was first part of the German festivities, as are holiday markets, letters to Santa, gingerbread houses, and, of course, the Christmas tree. Preparations for Christmas began even earlier than December 1 (so the next time someone tries to shame you for listening to Christmas music in November, inform them you are just partaking in a centuries-old German tradition.) The lead-up to Christmas is known as the Advent, which takes place throughout the month of December.

The most famous of these Advent days is St. Nicolas Day and is, as you might have guessed, the foundation for another Christmas tradition – Santa Claus. However, St. Nicolas visits the children of Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland on December 5th, not the 24th, and the holiday is seen as a preliminary to Christmas.

Still practiced in some areas today, children would place freshly polished boots in front of doors, under windows, or at the foot of their beds before heading to bed. Then, St. Nicolas would leave gifts – candy, nuts, and toys – inside the shoes to be found the next morning by well-behaved children. Unlike Santa Claus, though, St. Nicolas had a counterpart known as either Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht, who teased the badly-behaved kids with a switch, or gave them goal instead of presents.

But while German children might have been more excited by St. Nicolas Day, Christmas Eve was the biggest of the celebrations. This is when families would exchange gifts (rather than on Christmas morning) and parents would reveal the beautifully decorated Christmas tree to the children. Outside the home, the religious would go sing carols and attend midnight Mass. Everyone else would go to the saloons.

The Schneiders most likely decorated their saloon with a Christmas tree, and John, a talented musician, would have filled the warm bar with music and songs. Yes, German immigrants were likely the first to start “rockin’ around the Christmas tree.”  John’s home region of Franconia is famous for its Lebkuchen, a tradition Christmas cookie that Caroline might have made for her customers to snack on year-round. And while the Schneiders typically just sold beer at their saloon, Caroline likely made Glühwein for the holidays. A delicious spiced wine served hot, Glühwein would have paired well with the Lebkuchen and all the other traditional German food that the Schneiders gave away for their free lunch.

Immigrating to a new country is always a trial, even when still surrounded by fellow countrymen like that in Little Germany. But with the holidays being a time to celebrate family, good will, and community, these cherished traditions are essential in making a new home feel like home. And likewise, over time, these rituals become adopted, and blended into their current landscape, creating what some might call “the new old-fashioned way.”

What is your American holiday tradition? Share it now on Your Story, Our Story!


The Tenement Museum has a wide array of books, housewares, gifts, knick-knacks, and memorabilia to make your holiday season one for the history books! Everyone likes getting gifts, but is there anything better than being known among your friends and family as the person who gets everyone the perfect present? We’re here to help your claim that title, my friend, with our unique collection of gifts for all the HOSTS, NEW YORKERS, TRAVELERS, and KIDS in your life!
For the HOST…

Whether you’re having friends and family over, or you want to thank a loved one for opening up their home, we have the perfect items to make hosting a breeze.

  • Click to purchase: Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, $18.95


Stuff you won’t find at an airport gift shop! We at the Tenement Museum know there’s no such thing as a singular type of New Yorker. You don’t have to be born here to love this city, or these gifts.

  • Click to purchase: Brownstone Candle, $34.99


Here are all the basic necessities to help your wanderlust-filled loved ones set out on new adventures and craft new memories in 2018.

  • Click to purchase: See The World 2018 Planner, $14.99


For the KIDS…

We don’t have Tenement Museum fidget spinners (though keep an eye out for the 2018 Holiday Gift Guide!) but hopefully this collection of books, toys, and activities will keep the kids entertained for at least 30 minutes.

  • Click to purchase: This Book is a Planetarium, $40


Happy shopping, and happy holidays from the Tenement Museum!


The Gunfight at Rivington Street

On a warm Tuesday night in 1903, the Levine family was most likely settling in for a much-needed night’s rest. If you’ve taken our “Sweatshop Workers” tour, you’ll know that Harris Levine ran a sweatshop out of his tiny apartment at 97 Orchard Street. His wife, Jenny, spent her long days cooking, cleaning, and caring for their five children, one of whom, Fay, had only just recently been born. This is a family that needed their sleep, but one can imagine that on the night of September 15, 1903, their dreams were interrupted by the thunderous sound of gunfire and destruction only a block away. 

For on Rivington Street and Allen Street, a bloody gang shootout was in full-swing between the Lower East Side’s Eastman Gang and the rival Five Points Gang. The battle lasted for hours, a culmination of conflict between the two gangs over territory and criminal opportunities. There’s no doubt that, if Harris and Jenny were jarred awake that night, they would have known exactly who was causing all that trouble. 

Edward “Monk” Eastman ran his Jewish-American gang beginning in the 1890s. The 1,200 or so “Eastmans” ran brothels, protection rackets, and drug rings on the Lower East Side, as well as murder-for-hire. They were associated with the corrupt politicians at Tammany Hall, who would turn a blind eye to their criminal activities in exchange for their services.  

The Five Points Gang was run by an Italian-American named Paul Kelly, formed out of the remnants of earlier 19th century gangs like the Dead Rabbits and the Whyos. They were an army of about 1,500, entrenched in robberies, racketeering, prostitution rings, and also worked as strong-arm men for Tammany Hall. When they finally waned in 1910, they helped train the next generation of mob bosses, such as Johnny Torrio, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone. 

September 15th was a hot day, a busy day. It was Election Day, and a ceasefire had been issued across New York City. Both gangs had been instructed by Tammany Hall to help secure their votes, by whatever means necessary. This typically entailed intimidation and voter fraud – submitting voting slips for people who didn’t exist, or who weren’t able to vote.  

After fulfilling their “civic duty”, these Bowery toughs were looking to unwind. The first fight started when about 40 of Eastman’s men entered Livingston’s saloon on 1st Avenue and 1st Street. Immediately, they got into altercations with some men already inside, resulting in one man, Anton Bernhauer, being shot through both cheeks by an Eastman gang member. According to The Evening World paper which came out the following day, Bernhauer had been trying to leave when he’d caught the bullet, and had been “spitting out his teeth as he ran” all the way to the Bellevue Hospital. 

The fighting spilled out into the streets and over blocks, fueled by previous aggressions and probably a lot of liquor. The worst occurred just before midnight, when about six members of the Eastman gang stumbled upon an equal number of Five Pointers, getting ready to rob an Eastman-run card game beneath the elevated subway on Allen Street.  

Beneath the Allen St. subway, by Berenice Abbott

Nowadays, Allen Street is a flowery, sunny, wide street with winding bike and pedestrian paths, and benches and tables to stop and take it all in. But in 1903, Allen was known as “the street of perpetual shadow,” both because of the constant darkness beneath the elevated railroad tracks and for all the crime and prostitution that went on there.  

As soon as the gangs saw each other, weapons were drawn and the firefight began, shots firing indiscriminately. More gangsters hightailed it to the battle, so that by the time the first cops tried to intervene, there were roughly fifty men all shooting at each other (though they did take a quick break to shoot at the first two cops instead). The gangs had turned out the streetlamps, and in the shadows the only lights were the sparks of bullets ricocheting off the ironworks.  

By midnight, the number had raised to 100 gang members, firing at each other beneath the train tracks and stretching out over several blocks. At one point, Monk Eastman himself arrived and began directing the shooting like an army officer (some foreshadowing, as Monk would later enlist in the armed forces and become something of a war hero during WWI), and though Paul Kelly had not been recorded as being there, it’s unlikely that he’d miss such an event. Finally, reserves from several police stations arrived, banded together like an army themselves, and stormed Rivington Street. For a good fifteen minutes, there was nothing but the sound of shooting. Men were even reported on the rooftops, throwing bricks down at police officers.  

Eventually, the gang members dispersed and only a few were arrested, including Monk Eastman. He claimed he’d just been a bystander passing through, and with no one willing to bear witness to the event, he was set free, along with most of the other members of his gang. In the end, only two men died from the event, both Five Pointers: John Carroll, who was shot by a detective, and Michael Donovan, who had been shot in the stomach and refused to identify the man who shot him, saying, “I know who shot me, and when I get out, I’ll fix em.” Several more were injured, including one of Eastman’s chief lieutenants, George “Lolly” Meyers. Meyers had been one of the few arrested, and hadn’t said anything about the bullets lodged in both legs as he was moved around from place to place and examined by policemen and lawyers. His injuries were only discovered a full 24-hours later, when the pain was too much for him to bear silently any longer.  

The next morning, the residents of the Lower East Side, including the Levines, could see the evidence of the night’s previous battle. Many of the windows of nearby tenements had been broken, and there was clear damage to the ironworks of the subway track and to the trains that ran overhead as the fighting went on. Public outrage over the incident made it difficult for politicians to keep turning a blind eye to the goings-on of their criminal allies, and a city-wide crackdown was issued against all gang members, including the Eastmans and the Five Pointers. But crime never truly lessened because of it, and when the Levines finally moved out of 97 Orchard the following year, the safety of their family was likely one crucial factor to finding a new home.  

Rivington and Allen Streets in 2017

An Updated History of the Undocumented Immigrant

This is the small boat of the Immigration Service which carried aliens from the pier to Ellis Island. Sometimes the number of immigrants waiting was so great, that they waited for several days and nights before the little ferry boat could bring them to the island. Photo-study by Lewis W. Hine

by Lewis Hine

Immigration is very much on everyone’s mind this week with the announcement of the Trump Administration’s decision to end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order. It’s a decision that puts the future of 800,000 immigrants in jeopardy, as it affects their homes, their education, and their jobs. The threat of deportation is very real for these 800,000 young people, who have only ever known America as their home. Government policy has a longstanding history in the United States of both embracing and keeping out immigrants, of both reuniting families and tearing them apart. But an understanding of this history is the only way in which to learn from it, which is why we strive every day to tell this story.

When we talk about immigrants at the Tenement Museum, our intent is to find a common understanding of the American Dream, whether that dream was realized in 1874 or 2017. We seek to inform our visitors with the stories of everyday immigrants trying to make a life for themselves. We hope that by learning of their dreams and the trials they overcame, our visitors might come to a conclusion themselves for a question we often pose on our tours: What does it mean to be American?

A group of Slavic immigrants register many shades of emotion. The baby salutes his new home - quite a family group. Photo-study by Lewis W. Hine

by Lewis Hine

Because the families we talk about only lived at 97 Orchard from 1863 to1935, we typically reserve the legal facts to the immigration laws that might have affected them specifically. We might discuss how, before the late 1800s, the U.S. had few immigration policies. The American Immigration Council (AIC) points out that it is impossible to judge where someone’s ancestors who came here at that time did so “legally,” as there was a period when there were not many ways to immigrate here “illegally.” As the AIC notes, “most of our ancestors would not have qualified under today’s immigration laws.”

We talk about how the agents at Ellis Island, which opened in 1892, were more concerned about immigrants arriving free of disease, and that they had enough cash so as not to be a “drain on the tax dollars.” We talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which is the first time the government prohibited specific ethnic groups from entering. We talk about the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which strengthened restrictions on Chinese immigrants, as well as Southern and Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Indian, and other Asian peoples.

Rosaria Baldizzi, mother of two, who entered the U.S. in the 1930s as an undocumented immigrant from Italy

We also might talk about Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the 1930s and 1940s, who worked on procedures to help those struggling against these tight immigration prohibitions. She would encourage undocumented immigrants to take a day-trip up to Canada, only to re-enter the United States as a legal permanent resident. We know Rosaria Baldizzi, one of the matriarchs on our Hard Times tour, likely took advantage of this loophole.

With the addition of our upcoming exhibit, Under One Roof, we are able to keep the history of American immigration moving. We’ll soon be able to discuss in context the Immigration Act of 1965. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this Act (also known as the Hart-Celler Act) abolished the national-origins quota system of the Johnson-Reed Act, eliminating the discriminatory practice of denying immigration to the U.S. based on race, ancestry, or national origin. This Act resulted in a new wave of immigrants coming to our country from all over, but especially from China. One of our new families, the Wongs, were able to make it to the United States because of the Hart-Celler Act.

Mrs. Wong, who was able to immigrate to the United States after the passing of the Hart-Celler Act

We may even find a way to discuss the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). This law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, sanctioned and fined employers for “knowingly” hiring undocumented immigrants. But the Act also provided amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants. Although in hindsight, the law is not considered a success, the amnesty is provided is seen today as one of the few benefits. A former Reagan speechwriter named Peter Robinson said, “It was in Ronald Reagan’s bones — it was part of his understanding of America — that the country was fundamentally open to those who wanted to join us here.”

We could also mention the Immigration Act of the 1990s, which raised the annual cap on immigration and revised the political ideological grounds for exclusion and deportation. It also allowed people coming from countries afflicted by natural disasters or armed conflict to be granted “temporary protected status.” By the turn of the century, immigration had become heavily linked to national security. Several programs and laws were passed singling out foreign-born Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, as well as mandated improvements and tamper-resistant documents for entry, the prevention of obtaining a driver’s license without proof of citizenship, and the building of an additional 850 miles of fences along the Mexico border.

Tenement Museum educator Raj Varma was naturalized in 2013 at a ceremony held at the Tenement Museum

By looking at the scope of our immigration history, we can see that it has moved like a pendulum, both for the benefit of and the disadvantage of immigrants. Our history is one of inclusion and exclusion. With all this knowledge, we then become better suited to answer the question: What does it mean to be an American, and who gets to make that decision for the nation? At one point does an immigrant truly become an American, the day of their naturalization ceremony or their first day of school? The day they arrived or the first day they start thinking of this country as “home”?

This is an updated version “A History of the Undocumented Immigrant” first posted on the Tenement Museum blog in 2013.

Stitching the Seams Between Past & Present: A Conversation with a Modern NYC Garment Shop

Photo by Lafayette 148 New York

It’s impossible to talk about New York City’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side in the middle of the 20th century without talking about the garment industry. So when the Tenement Museum knew we would be telling the story of Chinese immigration in the 1960s and 70s in our exhibit Under One Roof, we began to look at ways of incorporating this important aspect into the story we wanted to tell. And since we’re all about our neighborhood, we called on the designers at Lafayette 148 New York to help bring this story to life. 

Since the garment industry is vital to the story of Chinese immigration to New York, we knew we had to incorporate it into our new exhibit, in a way unlike anything we’ve ever done before. To properly share this integral part of Mrs. Wong’s life, we have built an interactive garment shop inside 103 Orchard Street. Visitors will have the opportunity to sit down at sewing machines like the ones Mrs. Wong used, and learn about the daily lives of these women who worked tirelessly to provide for their families, who joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to bolster their community, and whose work ethic and determination are deserving of recognition and admiration. 

Photo by Lafayette 148 New York

And that’s where Lafayette 148 comes in. A local garment shop and fashion boutique in the heart of Chinatown, their story resonates with the one we will be telling at 103 Orchard Street.  They’ve generously donated some of the materials that will be viewed in our recreated garment factory, helping us to share this unsung story with everyone. These reproduced 1980s style jumpsuits will help us demonstrate how production of these garments sold all over the world went from assembly to finished product. 

In Sweatshop Workers, another Tenement Museum tour, we show how one family, the Levines, ran a small garment shop from their home in 97 Orchard at the turn of the century. The garment factory Mrs. Wong worked in decades later differed drastically in size, with new technologies increasing the scale and speed of the garment productions. So, too, does Lafayette 148 differ from the factories of the garment industry in its heyday. Their shop is 11-stories tall, designed to be bright and open to inspire creativity among their team, who not only manufacture the clothes but design them, too. Similar to how the industry operated in Mrs. Wong’s day, the operation at Lafayette 148 is just as large, with a quick turnaround rate. But they’re also capable of producing special order and custom fits, which has more in common with Mr. Levine’s sweatshop, or even Nathalie Gumpertz’s seamstress business, seen on our Hard Times tour.  

We sat down with Deidre Quinn, CEO of Lafayette 148, to share the company’s story, and how their history and mission coincides seamlessly with that of the Tenement Museum. 

Photo by Lafayette 148 New York

Tenement Museum: What about the Museum’s mission, and our new exhibition Under One Roof, speaks to your brand? 

Deirdre Quinn: The story of immigrants coming to the United States from China to open a factory and support other immigrant families by providing jobs is a direct reflection of our history as a company. Our founder Mr. Siu, brought his family to the United States and opened a factory in Chinatown. For many years before we became Lafayette 148 New York, we were a garment factory producing clothes for some of the best-known companies in the fashion industry.  

Photo by Lafayette 148 New York

TM: How did the garment factory culture of the 1960s & 70s influence the modern Lafayette 148 New York?  

DQ: Founded in 1996 by Shun Yen Siu, Ida Siu, and myself, Lafayette 148 New York fuses the energy of its cosmopolitan New York roots with strong Chinese heritage. Our namesake Manhattan street address is home to our company’s headquarters, where our design studio, showroom, merchandising, brand communication, and sales departments thrive together under one roof. Our New York team works seamlessly with our talented team of artisans in Shantou, China resulting in an alluring combination of craftsmanship with our modern, minimal designs.  

TM: What kind of other work do you do with education nonprofits, and why do you think this work is important? 

DQ: Education is at the core of Lafayette 148 New York’s philanthropic ventures. In 2007, our founder, Shun Yen Siu, provided excellent employment to migrant workers with the creation of the company’s state-of-the-art design and manufacturing facility. When he realized that many of the children in his hometown of Shantou, China, had difficulty entering good schools to obtain a proper education, he felt an overwhelming urge to help the next generation and sponsored a local school which we call the School of Dreams. The School of Dreams is 100% supported by Lafayette 148 New York, and each season, the company holds multiple events to raise funds.  

TM: What do you hope people will come away with after viewing Under One Roof, many of whom might be learning about the garment industry for the first time? 

DQ: We hope that people will be reminded of the American Dream, and that when you work hard to pursue your dreams, you can achieve anything. We also believe in the importance in giving back to the community, so to be able to support the Tenement Museum and its’ efforts to preserve the history of Chinatown.  

Photo by Lafayette 148 New York

Sharing a Journey on the Ave. of Immigrants

photo from Patch.com

Peeking around the corner of Allen and Delancey Streets is a lone figure. Standing seven-stories high, it has no gender, no age, no race or religion, and so it encompasses them all. The only thing one can tell by looking at it is the feeling of anxiousness and anticipation. It is both seeking something in front of it and apprehensive about what it might find.  

It is “Migrant,” the latest mural painted by British street artist Stik. This is Stik’s third mural in New York City, and they all draw on the city’s rich history. His piece “Liberty” in Tompkins Square shows solidarity with the workers riots of 1874, as well as the 1988 housing riots. The mural in Union Square on a water tower, of people joined hand in hand, is a symbol of unity with the men and women who marched in the first Labor Day Parade in 1882.  

Stik came to the Lower East Side to paint, and became inspired by the diverse and vibrant history of the neighborhood, after discovering that Allen Street is also known as the “Avenue of the Immigrants.” He recently donated the proceeds from his gallery showing at Fat Free Art to the Tenement Museum, and took a Shared Journeys tour of the museum. Shared Journeys is a free program we offer to not-for-profit ESOL classes, which creates unique connections between past and present immigrants. The tour offers an important contextual level which really resonated for Stik. 

When did you start painting, and why? 

I started painting my simple stick figures on the street back about 15 years ago in the East-End of London, as a way of making me and my community visible in the city. The figures have no mouths, which represent the people who live in the area making their presence felt, and humanising the changing city as a gentle form of resistance. People from the neighbourhood started to invite me to paint their walls, and so I had more freedom to create larger murals. Years later I am invited to paint with communities all over the world. 

 How did you come to paint a mural on the Lower East Side? 

The Lower East Side is going through a similar change to my own neighbourhood, and I feel a special resonance with the people who call it home. I was invited to paint by my friends at Fat Free Art, and you can see the working drawings for the mural at their gallery on Allen Street.  

What inspired you to paint “Migrant”? 

When I arrived to start painting, I sat in the café opposite [where the mural would be] and saw a signpost reading ‘Avenue of the Immigrants’. Nobody seemed to know about it, so I asked at the Tenement Museum, who gave me a potted history of why Allen Street is dubbed ‘Avenue of the Immigrants’ and the history of migration in the area. I decided there and then to make this the theme of the mural.  

Did you visit the Tenement Museum before you began work on “Migrant”? 

I knew about the museum and had seen the tour groups passing by the wall, but it wasn’t until I started digging that I found out how important the place actually is. They were helpful with my research into the history of the area I was painting in, and gave me a lot of their time. 

How did our mission to tell America’s story through the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, affect what you decided to paint? 

The Tenement Museum is so positive and pro-active, I was inspired to paint something that reflected that. The classical architecture and shape of the building was also a challenge that dramatically shaped the finished piece. 

The proceeds of your work are supporting the Tenement Museum’s “Shared Journeys” program, which offers free classes for English Language Learners. You recently had the opportunity to sit in on a “Shared Journeys” class, join them for a tour, and talk to them about your work. Tell us about your experience. What did you discover about immigration history or about your fellow tour members you hadn’t previously known?  

The Shared Journey’s tour opened my eyes to how people struggled to settle here in the past and the challenges they still face, their stories often tragic but told candidly and with humour. Taking the tour with a group of people who are going through that exact same process right now, and being an outsider myself, was a moving experience. I’m happy to have been able to support the project. 

What kinds of emotions are you hoping to evoke with “Migrant”? 

The giant figure is nervously looking around the corner, emerging into an unknown city but with hope in his chest and eyes cast upwards towards a brighter future. The figure is simple, an everyman transcending gender, religion and race, symbolising our universal wish to be accepted as human beings. 


Joys and Sorrows: Lewis Hine at Ellis Island

All photos courtesy of the New York Public Library

Lewis Hine was a social photographer, whose work literally changed the world. His most famous work captured, with great risk to his own safety, the invisible child laborers who worked difficult and dangerous jobs at the turn of the century. The newness of the photography medium combined with Hine’s beautiful and haunting portraits of working children led to fundamental changes in child labor laws in the United States.

But a few years before he began his work for the National Child Labor Committee, he worked at the Ethical Culture School in New York City as a teacher and school photographer. His first assignment was to photograph contemporary immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Some of these photos are available to view in the New York Public Library’s digital collections. Many of these photos were taken between 1905 to 1909, but Hine also returned to Ellis Island in 1926 to take pictures, after immigration quotas were implemented.


As he did later with his child laborer photos, Hine made sure to photograph his subjects with respect and dignity. Because of the limitations on photography equipment at this time, candid pictures in this collection are few and far between. Hine’s photos are more like modeled portraits, his subjects posed but no less authentic and honest. Not to mention, getting permission from these immigrants would have been exceptionally difficult, considering both the many language barriers between Hine and his subjects, as well as the magnitude of people passing through Ellis Island at the time (about 5,000 immigrants per day at its peak).

Not unlike today, popular opinion of immigrants at the time wasn’t the most flattering. Hine’s work didn’t set out to reproduce the same old stereotypes of the day, nor create a spectacle of the “foreign” or “exotic.” He wanted to show immigrants as everyday people, just like “you and me,” trying to work hard and provide a better life for their families. His hope was for people to look upon his photos and feel, as Hine himself said, “the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they have for Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock.”

His photos emphasize the relatability of his subjects, whether they’re front-facing portraits or grouped family photos, whether they’re dealing with the tireless bureaucratic processes or the unending wait. Like the Tenement Museum, Hine sought to humanize immigrants, to make their journeys, their wants, their struggles indistinguishable from any American.

Hine would later go on to photograph the living and working conditions of immigrants, but his Ellis Island work serves to preserve a specific moment, and capture the spirit of migration. Everyone photographed had already endured an arduous journey to arrive at Ellis Island, but their odyssey was far from finished. Hine was able to focus on those complicated and human feelings of anxiety and hope, exhaustion and anticipation, as these men, women, and children stood at the way station between their old world and a new one.