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Tenement Museum Showcases Three Unique LES Immigrant Stories

By Allegra Hobbs | August 25, 2016 5:56pm
 The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is expanding into the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is expanding into the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

LOWER EAST SIDE — The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is transporting visitors back to the 1950s, '60s, and '70s and into the lives of three immigrant families — Holocaust survivors, members of a mass Puerto Rican exodus, and Chinese immigrants seeking a better life — who have all called the tenement at 103 Orchard St. their home.

The museum, which has already created immersive exhibitions dedicated to Lower East Side life up to 1935, has now set its sights on the stories of immigrants who flocked to the neighborhood post-WWII — and beginning in July of next year, locals will get a walking tour of those never-before-told stories.

“A lot of things happened in this neighborhood and in American immigration post-1935 and this museum has always wanted to tell those stories,” said Jon Pace, the museum’s communications director. “Those are stories we’ve never been able to tell.”

The new exhibition will focus on the Epsteins, a Jewish family that fled Europe following the Second World War, the Saez family, who joined the growing Puerto Rican community in the neighborhood during the 1960s, and the Wongs, who came to the tenement from China during the 1970s.

The exhibition, spread across the third floor of 103 Orchard St., will take visitors through a series of rooms telling each family’s unique story of moving to America and making a new life for themselves on the Lower East Side. 

But in the meantime, novice neighborhood historians can take to the museum’s website for a virtual tour of families' lives — featuring, for the first time, first-person accounts of the former tenement dwellers themselves.

“Most of the people whose stories we’re telling now, they’re all alive at this point, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it,” Pace said. “There will be people alive whose stories are going to be told in an exhibition, which is kind remarkable.”

In fact, the unveiling of the new exhibition has been so long in the making because several of the tenement’s residents were still living in the building when it was purchased by the museum in 2007 — those tenants have since been relocated, the museum confirmed. 

According to Pace, the museum worked closely with six remaining rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants over an 18-month period to move them to new units where they pay the same rent.

One of the most recently moved tenants, Mrs. Wong, is among those sharing her story with museum visitors in the newly launched virtual tour, and her story will be on display in the exhibition launching next summer.

The Tenement Museum in 2013 received a $500,000 grant for an expansion from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which went towards renovating the residential portions of the building, which is already the site of the museum’s visitors center.

The expansion will also bring new office spaces and classrooms for educational programs to the museum, said Pace.

Though construction began during the summer, the museum will host an official “kick-off” of the expansion on Sept. 15. You can find more information about the upcoming exhibition here.