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Huddled Masses Yearning To Breathe Free

By Carol Antman for Island Eye News

The Depression Years Tour illustrates the actual conditions of immigrants in NYC in the 1930s. (Photo provided by the Tenement Museum in New York).

Numb from the ceaseless clamor of news about immigrant bans, terrorism, border walls and fear, my husband and I visited the Tenement Museum in New York hoping for some perspective. We are both second generation Americans; all of our grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Here they lived the epitome of the American Dream; they arrived virtually penniless and left behind thriving Americanized families that have continued to excel. We came with the conviction that new immigration policies are an abrogation of American ideals. We left with a much more complex understanding.

The mission of the museum is to “tell stories of immigrants who started their lives anew on Manhattan’s Lower East Side between the 19th and 21st centuries through the recreated apartment and businesses of real families…” Unlike museums that are housed in grand buildings, this one consists of two historic tenement apartments.

When the founders, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson stumbled upon the buildings in 1988, they were like time capsules. “It was like the people had just picked up and left,” Jacobson recalls. Today, eight different tours take visitors into the buildings that are set up as if the occupants still lived and worked there. One tour highlights sweatshops; Under One Roof shows the diverse lives of Jewish, Chinese and Hispanic neighbors; one highlights the Depression years; Irish Outsiders shows their struggle against prejudice. Opportunities to extend the experiences include workshops, discussions and behind the scenes tours and even a tasting tour of the neighborhood.

Our tour, Shop Life, took us through the apartment and saloon of John and Caroline Schneider. Interactive elements brought the experience alive. Our guide, Raj Varma, gave us each a bio of someone who actually lived in the neighborhood and prompted us to stay in character and playact an evening in the neighborhood tavern which was once one of the 720 bars within the 15 block neighborhood.

The immigrant experience, Raj stressed, is of equivalent importance to the Civil War in defining who we are as a nation. In the 1840’s, the Lower East Side of New York was the most densely populated place in the world. It was the first area in the country where people spoke a different language, German. It also housed the largest number of families with the worst amenities: few windows and no running water or gas. Eighty percent of babies born in hospitals died. Immigrants who came to this crowded, smelly, noisy, dirty destination may have asked themselves, “Is this the America I was dreaming of?”

Throughout the tour, Raj gave us examples of the disconnect in our country’s attitude towards immigrants. On the one hand we celebrate and encourage them and on the other hand we pass laws to subjugate them.

“The American Dream is a narrative to make us feel good,” Raj said. “But it’s a narrative.”

The museum shows the lives of typical people who worked hard to build the factories and buildings only to die forgotten and poor while the lives of rich people are memorialized. In fact, “We’ve always been anti-immigration in this country,” he reasoned as he cited laws that barred certain “undesirables,” set unreasonable barriers or quotas and turned a blind eye to genocide. I’d always taken the Statue of Liberty’s inscription as a shining example of our country’s fundamental truth but my perspective shifted. “Every citizen of our country has to reconcile themselves to this duality,” Raj concluded.

In today’s highly charged political climate, I was interested to learn that tours at the museum are often disrupted by controversy. In an article written by Sebastien Malo for Reuters, the museum’s director of education Miriam Bader says, “People will now share stronger opinions about whether or not they think immigrants are sort of bleeding the country, they’re taking too much that other people should have, or they’re taking our jobs. You’ll hear … comments like ‘You know the immigrants of the past aren’t like those of today’.” The museum has added training for its guides who have always encouraged interaction and discussion but are now frequently confronted by antagonistic opinions. “The political climate has created a need for new skills or superpowers to facilitate the conversation,” Ms. Bader explained.

It was an eye-opening experience that left us with increased admiration for our grandparents who overcame immense obstacles: escaping murderous hordes, travelling across Europe alone as teenagers, arriving destitute in a country and then scraping together a livelihood amidst degrading conditions. We felt gratitude for their fortitude and for this country that gave them opportunities. But also, our disdain of recent immigration policy changes shifted. As Raj stated, “People who criticize our president for immigration laws have never studied our immigration laws. Our laws have never been about who is let in, they’re about who to exclude.”

Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see

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