Using history as a tool for social change
Published: Saturday, May 22, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 19:05
Using history as a tool for social change Audio interview:
NEW YORK CITY-- As a visitor walks into 108 Orchard St., the first thing she notices is the lingering odor of more than 100 years of impoverished immigrant families.
They see the old mahogany banisters, worn to the bone, and the peeling burlap wallpaper, dripping down to the floor like seaweed. An image comes to mind of barefoot children running across the labyrinth of chipped tile on the floors and weary, dirty workers coming home after a 12 hour shift at the factory.
Here the ghosts of Italian, Russian, and Irish families live on in one of the oldest immigrant houses on the lower East Side, the site of the Tenement Museum. America is a country of immigrants, built on the "sweat equity" of more than 200 years of immigrant citizens, yet it still struggles to deal with new immigrates today.
"Maybe this is just growing pains; I'd like to think that but I am seeing more anger and frustration from folks who are living in places that are not as diverse as New York because they don't have our history." said museum facilitator Lily Paulina, "Here at the museum we encourage people to embrace stories of immigrants in their own families, also what gets told in a story and what does not."
The Tenement Museum's mission statement is, "To promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattans Lower East Side, a gateway to America."
This exhibit is growing in popularity following the passage Arizona's immigration bill, which will make it a crime for immigrants to not carry proper documentation, a bill eerily similar to the historical Geary Act of 1892, which made it a requirement for all Chinese residents to carry permits.
"Many of the issues that immigrants are dealing with today are the same as in the late 1800s and the turn of the century," said Paulina. "Financial struggles, prejudice about their ethnic background, and in particular prejudice in connection with language in their communities are all widespread problems."
Paulina, whose parents immigrated to New York from Romania, believes that New Yorkers are especially upset about the Arizona bill based on their history.
"New Yorkers deal much more easily with immigrants because there is such a history and they feel more connected to an immigration history in their own family and in their community here in New York," she said.
However, not all the visitors to the museum are against the new bill. One of the main arguments in favor of tighter legislation that Paulina has come across is the assumption that immigrants today have lower IQs than immigrants at the turn of the century and that they are also more likely to engage in criminal behavior.
"I'd like to think that they would have more sympathy if they could see their own families for the desperate things that they did in times of need," Paulina said, "but sometimes I see people put up blinders and try to turn the world into what they want it to be."
Michelle Ashbury, a descendant of Russian and Polish immigrants described what it was like for her family during the Great Depression.
"I remember my grandfather telling us stories of how he and his brother used to taunt railroad workers to get them to throw coals at them," she said. "They would take the coals and sell them, people did whatever they had to back then to put dinner on the table."
Another visitor of the museum, Kathy Galvin, said that in San Francisco the illegal Mexican immigrants struggle to find work that will not require proof of citizenship. "I have several immigrants who come and do repairs for me," she said, "I pay them ten dollars an hour and they send the majority of the money back to their impoverished family in Mexico because that is more money than they can make in a week back home."
The families which are featured at the museum dealt with the same economic issues, sometimes forcing them to find alternative ways of making money. "People would become peddlers selling anything they could on the streets to make a nickel," Lily Paulina said.
Tenement Museum believes they can help people feel a more personal connection to immigrant families by sharing their stories in the intimate setting of their homes.
Paulina said, "I think the desire to keep immigrants the ‘other' and keep it really impersonal and dehumanize them is something that happened a hundred years ago and still happens now."