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New York City, Under a Single Roof

In a new exhibition, the Tenement Museum teaches immigration policy through the stories of three families on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Some portions of the exhibition are designed to look like living rooms.
Some portions of the exhibition are designed to look like living rooms.Courtesy of the Tenement Museum

Since its opening in 1988, the Tenement Museum has explored the lives of immigrants who lived in the 97 Orchard St tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But the original building was condemned in 1935, which constrained the stories that this site-specific museum could tell. In 2007, the museum purchased and renovated 103 Orchard Street, and this fall the museum will unveil its first exhibit in this space. “We’re finally able to tell the full scope of the immigration story of the Lower East Side,” says museum president Kevin Jennings, “which in many ways is the immigration story of America.”

The new exhibit, “Under One Roof,” will tell the stories of three different immigrant families: the Epsteins, Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who lived in the Orchard Street building from 1956-1961, the Saez-Velez family, who immigrated from Puerto Rico in the ‘40s, and the Wongs, a Chinese family who moved into the building in 1968. As previous museum exhibits have covered the lives of immigrants from the 1860s to 1930s, “we’re very excited to be bringing our museum and history into the 20th and 21st century,” Jennings says. He feels strongly about telling stories of more recent immigration—especially in a political climate where refugees have been compared to poisoned Skittles and a bill cutting immigration by half has been introduced on the Senate floor. “For us to be frozen in time back in the ‘30s when this is an ongoing and vital topic is frustrating,” Jennings says.