LES Tenement Museum Wins $500K for Exhibit on Post-WWII Immigrants

By Serena Solomon on December 5, 2013 8:54am | Updated on December 5, 2013 10:04am

LOWER EAST SIDE — The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is jumping ahead in time — to the 1960s.

After years of chronicling life in the neighborhood's tenements during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the museum is turning its eye to the post-World War II era, when Puerto Rican and Chinese immigrants flocked to the Lower East Side.

The museum received a $500,000 grant this week from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help restore the floors above its visitor center at 103 Orchard St. to how they looked in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

"The stories that we are going to tell in 103 Orchard are told nowhere else in the country, so it is pretty powerful," said Morris Vogel, the museum's president.

The new museum space at 103 Orchard St. still needs millions of dollars and does not yet have a construction timeline. It will focus on the little-told stories of newcomers, including the Chinese immigrants who moved to the neighborhood after anti-Asian immigration laws were repealed, Vogel said.

"What makes it [103 Orchard St.] extraordinary is it allows us to tell the stories of people who built this country," Vogel said.

Some of the apartments in 103 Orchard St., which the Tenement Museum owns, are still occupied by residential tenants, while others are vacant. It was not immediately clear whether the tenants would be able to stay or whether they would have to move out in order for the museum space to be built.

To give the project a boost, Congress passed a bill Tuesday to include 103 Orchard St. in the Lower East Side Tenement Historical Site.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is best known for its historical walks around the neighborhood. It also takes visitors back in time through its other tenement building at 97 Orchard St., using the real stories of former tenants such as the Gumpertz family from Germany who lived there in the 1870s.

The stories at 97 Orchard St. ended in 1935 when the building was condemned by the city and emptied of tenants, according to Vogel.

"Because it [103 Orchard St.] stayed active as a tenement after World War II, it reflected the continuing immigration to this neighborhood," he said.

The museum has already begun researching the history of 103 Orchard St. and staff recently interviewed the daughter of a former tenant, who now lives in Florida. 

"We will have a rich and deep story," Vogel said. 

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