What is history? A musket shot during America’s colonial era? The Moors’ march into Europe? The construction of Giza’s first awe-inspiring pyramid? Yes, yes, and yes. But history isn’t simply large, globe-changing brushstrokes; its many smaller moments, too.
I, of course, knew that, but The Tenement Museum gave new life to those more intimate happenings. Located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, The Tenement Museum highlights the many peoples—The Irish, Germans, Italians, and Jews—who immigrated to America in hopes of finding a better life than what could be procured in the old country. Their stories are radically different from my people’s introduction to America, but they are ones that are just as vital to New York City’s culture.
The Tenement Museum, design-wise, isn’t the typical museum in which you simply gawk at items hung on a wall or resting in a sealed, glass case. The museum delivers its educational load via numerous walking tours in which visitors explore and analyze an actual tenement, 97 Orchard St., that’s owned by the institution. You literally walk into the rooms where desperate and hard-working immigrants worked, slept, and played in the first half of the twentieth century.
Shop Life, the thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening 90-minute tour that I dropped my $25 on, took a look inside a German family’s salon and its back-area apartment. The past breathes new life when you can reach out and touch it. I won’t delve into the the details of the tour—it’s best to experience it fresh—but the session explored the gulf that separated the American immigrant dream from what was the laborious, troubled reality.
More importantly, the tour detailed the struggle of maintaining traditions in a new land, the opposition to that from those who crossed the Atlantic earlier, and what it means to be an American. As a person of color in America, those are themes that still resonate; ones that I ponder on a regular basis. In that regard, I felt a connection with a German family that walked the lower Manhattan streets a half century before I was born.
I didn’t expect to be moved by the Schmidt family, but their actions—opening a saloon, participating in neighborhood political clubs, bonding with their group in solidarity, raising children—were everyday activities that helped shape Orchard St. and the Lower East Side. The record of their simple lives demonstrated that even minor movements create change—you just need the will to act.
History comes later.
Image courtesy of The Tenement Museum.