Living history collides with living people

Tenement museum's plans for expansion in N.Y. would displace 15 families

May 02, 2002|By Josh Getlin | Josh Getlin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - They were once joined at the hip in the heart of New York's Lower East Side, two identical brick tenements offering cheap, dimly lit apartments to waves of immigrants from all over the world.

But they came to play different roles in the community: One was turned into a museum celebrating the area's immigrant history. The other is home to 15 families, as well as a popular Chinese restaurant on the ground floor.

And now, in a move that has some shaking their heads, the museum is attempting to evict the people who live and work next door - many of them immigrants - so it can expand and accommodate more tourists.

"The irony just smacks you in the head," said Martha Danziger, a community leader who opposes the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's bid to take over the adjacent building. "They want to create a virtual tenement museum in a neighborhood that already has tenements."

Built in 1863

Built in 1863, the twin walk-ups at 97 and 99 Orchard St. were fixtures in a neighborhood that welcomed Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican and Chinese families. Yet now, as booming property values transform the area, the feud between the buildings' owners highlights a battle over the community's future - and its place in America's immigrant memory.

This is a street where living history collides with living people.

Opened in 1988, the Tenement Museum is a national landmark that has restored turn-of-the-century immigrant apartments to their original conditions and draws 90,000 visitors each year.

Ruth Abram, the founder, says she wants to welcome 200,000 tourists and can do this only by acquiring the building next door. She has asked state officials to seize the property through eminent domain if a deal cannot be worked out.

But Lou Holzman, whose family members have been living at 99 Orchard St. since 1910, has no intention of selling the building. Neither does his business partner, Peter Liang, who runs the Congee Village restaurant and employs more than 50 Chinese and Latino immigrant workers. Both say the use of eminent domain to help a small museum would be absurd.

"It's easy to sympathize with the two sides, so the question is, which view of the Lower East Side do you embrace?" said sociologist Christopher Mele, author of Selling the Lower East Side.

"Is this area a gold mine of immigrant history that should be preserved? Or is it a living, breathing place filled with new and older immigrants who should be protected?" Mele asked.

As the Empire State Development Corp. nears a decision on whether to proceed with eminent domain, tensions are rising. And the dispute is playing out against a steady drumbeat of gentrification that is rapidly changing the community from a crime-infested slum into an edgy but vibrant melting pot of bars, boutiques and restaurants.

A study in contrast

The Lower East Side is a study in contrast. While it continues to pack waves of new immigrants, mainly Chinese, into tenements, the once-rundown buildings of the nearby Bowery are being turned into million-dollar co-ops.

The average rent at 99 Orchard St. is $1,600 for a 350-square-foot apartment - a price that is high but hardly atypical, given Manhattan's tight rental housing market.

The neighborhood is growing economically, despite the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

While Latino groups push for more affordable housing and criticize the trend toward higher-priced apartments, young Orthodox Jewish couples have begun moving back into the aging, high-rise units that were once occupied by their grandparents.

On a recent afternoon, the sidewalk shops and restaurants near Orchard Street were filled with the aromas of garlic kosher pickles, fresh-baked empanadas and pungent Chinese congee.

`Symbolic neighborhood'

"This is one of America's most symbolic neighborhoods," said historian Suzanne Wasserman, associate director of the Gotham Center at City University of New York. "It's constantly reinventing itself, and many groups see it as sacred because so many people can trace their roots back to this community. Everybody wants a piece of the Lower East Side."

Abram said her overriding goal is to promote tolerance for the different kinds of people who have lived on Orchard Street - and to use history as a tool to better understand the present.

The narrow, six-story building offers guided tours of meticulously restored apartments that were occupied by poor immigrant families dating from 1897. The museum also sponsors film festivals, walking tours and community forums on social issues, including the problems of Garment District workers on the Lower East Side and America's historical perceptions of poverty.

"We want people to understand how hard it must have been to come to America and live in such small apartments," Abram said. "But I worry that a lot of the people who come away moved by the experience of Jewish and Italian families leave the museum and then look down on the Chinese and Hispanic people who live in the same neighborhood today."

It is this very attitude, however, that infuriates her opponents.

"Here's a museum that wants to promote the history of immigration and educate people," Holzman said. "But it proposes to do this evicting tenants and throwing 50 immigrants out of work. It makes no sense."

Josh Getlin is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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