Recreated Apartments Used to Tell More Personal Immigration Stories

The history of immigration to the United States is often conveyed on the macro level. Graphs, statistics, and studies can convey who was entering our country, when they arrived, and how they contributed. This information is inarguably valuable, but in using traditional research methods to explore complex immigration trends over the past 200 years, the unique and personal experiences of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have crossed over to our shores can become muted. An exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum aims to address this shortcoming by utilizing a unique method to tell the stories of three immigrant families who settled in the Lower East Side neighborhood after World War II. The museum is welcoming visitors into the apartment building that once was called home by these members of the melting pot.

“Under One Roof” meticulously recreates the apartments of three immigrant families who lived at 103 Orchard Street through the 1950’s, 1960’s, and early 2000’s, right down to the furniture, wall paper, and appliances that were popular during each respective era. The exhibit is the latest in a series of projects developed by the museum, which is devoted to preserving the history of its two tenement buildings that housed over 15,000 immigrants from the 19th through the 21st century. The families showcased in the exhibit include Jewish refugees who escaped to the U.S. from Poland to avoid the Holocaust, a young mother from Puerto Rico who supported two sons by working in the garment district, and a family from Hong Kong who earned their living by learning how to sew. [See Tenement]

In a recent interview with PBS News Hour, Annie Polland, Vice President of Programs and Education at New York City’s Tenement Museum, provided a walkthrough of the exhibit and delighted in pointing out details of each family who made 103 Orchard Street their home. She noted a framed picture in the dining room of Kalman and Rivka Epstein, who met in a displaced person’s camp for Jewish refugees in 1945, married, and immigrated to the U.S. to raise their family. In the living room, she explains that the plastic covered couch was a point of pride for Ramonita Rivera Saez, who was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and one of the half million Puerto Rican migrants who settled in New York City during the 1950’s. And she gestures to video projections throughout the exhibit featuring interviews with Mrs. Wong, the matriarch of an immigrant family from Hong Kong, recounting her excitement at earning money for her family with her newfound sewing skills. [See New Exhibit Looks Inside the Building Where Three Families Gained a Foothold in the U.S., by Ivette Feliciano, PBS, 25.Mar.2018.]

During the interview, Polland also reflects on how the unique stories featured in “Under One Roof” impart a multi-dimensional view of the immigrant experience. “This apartment is almost like three time capsules rolled into one.” Polland explains that they realized that, in one exhibit, they would be able to tell a migration story and an immigration story and a refugee story. It is also her hope that visitors to the exhibit will realize the impact that changing immigration laws have had on families through the generations, such as the “Immigration and Nationality Act,” eliminating race-based national origin quotas, that was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. “Being able to frame stories through the lens of family allows people … room to talk about immigration and talk about refugees and talk about migrants in a way that’s more open then when we talk about it with regard to policy and laws.”


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