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Reviewed by:
  • Under One Roof
  • Andrew Urban
Under One Roof. Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York, NY. Annie Polland, Senior Vice President, Education & Programs; Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs; Nick Capodice, Education Associate for Programs & Digital Content. 12 2017–ongoing.

In January 2002, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a historic site dedicated to preserving the apartments that greeted so many thousands of immigrants upon their arrival to New York City, found itself in a nasty dispute over real estate with a neighbor. The museum had attempted to purchase 99 Orchard Street, which adjoined its main building, 97 Orchard Street, but the owners had rejected its offer of one million dollars in cash. Pursuing a different tack, the museum enlisted political allies and the state-backed Empire State Development Corporation to acquire the building using eminent domain. Renovations next door, the museum claimed, threatened the structural integrity of 97 Orchard Street, which had been architecturally stabilized to the year 1935, when the building was vacated as a residency. This was the official reason for why eminent domain was necessary, although the museum was also forthcoming about plans to install an elevator in 99 Orchard Street, which would make tours of 97 Orchard Street more physically accessible. In the future, the additional building would allow the museum to extend its interpretive focus to cover immigrants who worked and lived on the Lower East Side in the second half of the twentieth century.

The museum emerged from the spat with a black eye and no building. Critics argued that eminent domain had no place in a dispute about property damage that could be resolved in civil courts. The museum's plan to evict fifteen tenants and a Chinese restaurant, Congee Village, from 99 Orchard Street, drew media coverage ruminating on the irony of the museum's perceived indifference toward [End Page 169]

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Re-created Saez/Velez Family Living Room. (Photo courtesy of the Tenement Museum)

the neighboring building's living occupants. Political support for the use of eminent domain vanished.1

It would take another five years, until 2007, for the Museum to instead purchase 103 Orchard Street, at the corner with Delancey Street. Originally constructed as three separate tenements in 1888, the property was combined into a single building after numerous modifications. In 2011, the Tenement Museum moved its visitor center and shop to 103 Orchard Street, and in December 2017, began offering its Under One Roof tour. The Tenement Museum, established to tell the social histories of immigrant and working-class tenants, is now a landlord. In 2014, it began relocating 103 Orchard Street's remaining residents to a third property that the museum owns on the block: 91 Orchard Street. Rent controls traveled with them, but 91 Orchard Street also contains dwellings leased at market rate. Included among the relocated tenants is Mrs. Wong, whose life the Under One Roof tour showcases. The museum had initially selected another Chinese American family to feature in the tour. However, according to museum officials, the original subjects "ultimately opted to not have their family story told, and the museum subsequently decided to [End Page 170]

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Bluma and Bella Epstein, c. 1955. (Photo courtesy of the Tenement Museum)

tell the story of the Wongs, another Chinese American family that lived in the building, in part because [it was] believed their story was better suited to achieving the larger interpretive and educational goals of the exhibit." To what extent the decision to opt out stemmed from the first family's dissatisfaction over the terms of their departure from 103 Orchard Street, as one inside source who wished to remain anonymous claimed during my research, was not something that museum officials felt obliged to explain.

The Wong family's story is indeed educational and deserves to be told. But the museum's maneuvers as a landlord—coupled with the fact that it has invited multiple real estate developers to serve on its board of trustees—should not be dismissed as irrelevant to what it does in its programming. Routinely ranked as one of New York City's top sightseeing...


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pp. 169-176
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