Heritage Travel, Historic Preservation, On Leadership, Recommended Readings
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How we came to be the people we are today

Tenement Museum

One of my favorite historic sites in the world began life in the 19th century as a tenement house on New York’s Lower East Side.

Historians Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson co-founded the Tenement Museum in 1988…

…to honor, preserve, and interpret the stories of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the neighborhood that was, at the turn of the 20th century, the country’s most densely populated area. They began with educational programs and walking tours, and in the mid-1990s they purchased a former tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. It had housed nearly 7,000 people between its construction in 1863 and its conversion to a commercial building in 1935.

There they restored the apartments of seven families, including Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European–Jewish immigrants. Visitors got an immersive, experiential window into the residents’ lives, as educators gave interactive tours. The museum became both a National Historic Site and a National Trust Historic Site in 1998.

Preservation Magazine, Winter 2018

Ruth served as the Tenement Museum’s president for twenty years and was recognized last year for her lifetime of vision and work with preservation’s highest award, the Louise duPont Crowninshield Award from the National Trust. Ruth is, to put it simply, a national treasure. She was followed as president at the museum by Morris Vogel, who filled that position two different times beginning in 2008 and, to put it simply once again, is also a treasure and one of my favorite people.

Morris took the impossible task of following a visionary founder of one of the country’s most unique cultural institutions and not only ensured its survival, but helped it thrive through good times and bad. That is no easy job, but his success ranks him, in my estimation, as a great leader.

His second go-round as Tenement Museum president is nearing its close, as he moves (again) into retirement. But I was delighted to receive a note from Morris earlier this week with his thoughts about some of the things he’ll miss. He mentions the Lower East Side neighborhood walking tours and the in-building “meta-tour” overviews of the two National Historic Sites that he has given since 2008; tours which allowed him to set the stories the museum tells against the larger backdrops of American history.

That’s Morris at his core: a teacher. He writes some of the best monthly updates to his board and supporters that I’ve ever read. And they are so good in part because he uses those opportunities to teach those of us who provide financial and other backing to the museum about why this place, and the immigrant stories it embodies, is so important in telling us today who we are as a people.

Morris has said that there is no more professorial a habit than sharing the books that have shaped his thinking. And then, in his most recent note, he recommends a thoughtful list of books “that might occupy, inform, and perhaps even delight you as we wait out the last stages of the pandemic.”

Most are old—classics, even—and reveal lots about our current circumstances; some are new, but with enough of a nod to the past to suggest how we’ve come to where we are now. All are available through online orders at the Museum’s independent bookstore, and you can purchase them here. As an added bonus, all shop purchases support the Museum.

I think seeing the books someone recommends opens a small window into their mind and heart. Here’s just a small sampling of Morris’s list that he provided, along with his comments on their importance. If you click the link to go to the museum bookstore (which you should) you’ll see more of “Morris’s Reading List.”

  • Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans, Vol. 1: The Colonial Experience, 1958; The Americans, Vol. 2: The National Experience, 1967; The Americans, Vol. 3: The Democratic Experience, 1973. Brilliant panoramic overview of the full sweep of American history — as least as it was defined in the premodern period. Boorstin was Director of the (Smithsonian) National Museum of American History and later Librarian of Congress — and before that my professor at the University of Chicago. Another of his books, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1962, explains everything you need to know about Donald Trump (emphasis added).
  • Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, 1951. The classic overview of immigration history: scholars have been disputing its interpretation since it appeared. Pulitzer Prize in History — and Handlin trained the generation of scholars who created immigration history as a field.
  • John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 1955. The best overview of American nativism.
  • Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, 2001. Good contemporary scholarship on the subject.
  • Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, 2020. Oprah’s Book Club and Pulitzer Prize in Journalism. Wonderful contemporary overview about the intersection of race and class in American history.
  • Tyler Anbinder, City of Dreams: The Epic History of Immigrant New York, 2016. Smart and novellic.
  • Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, The Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 2012.  Annie, formerly the Museum’s executive vice president for programs and interpretation, is the most creative historian with whom I’ve ever worked.
  • Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 1890. Powerful journalistic expose of conditions on the Lower East Side. With the author’s photographs.
  • Andrew S. Dolkart, Biography of a Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street. Our story, by the scholar who did so much to preserve 97 Orchard Street.

And, from the history of medicine (Morris’s own field):

  • Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866, 1962. Rosenberg wrote or edited more than a dozen books (including one we did together) and nearly 100 articles. The Cholera Years, his first book, focuses on New York City’s tenements to explore how epidemics shifted from being understood as God’s judgment against the poor and socially marginal to disorders amenable to government intervention.
  • Judith W. Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health, 1996. How far can government go in restraining an asymptomatic carrier to protect the public? A great early 20th-century New York story about an Irish immigrant cook in a world of class divisions and prejudice against immigrants and women.

I’ve read about one-tenth of this list, but find Morris’s pithy descriptions so evocative in helping understand their impact on his work that they encourage me to go online and buy the whole lot. (I’m not, but I’m tempted.)

Morris, thank you. What Ruth, Anita, Annie, you and others have done is to remind us that in America, just about all of us came from somewhere else. The Tenement Museum and other places where we came together — places where, as the poet Remo Fasani phrased it, we see “the past live in the present and in the future both, to have time again vibrate as one” — are worth saving. And our stories — all our stories — are worth remembering, honoring, and cherishing in the years ahead.

All the best, my friend, as you head into your next retirement.

More to come…

DJB

Image: 97 Orchard Street (credit: Tenement Museum)

2 Comments

  1. I found the description of the shifting mindset about epidemics particularly provocative in our current context. Have “we,” indeed, made that shift into a scientific understanding, or is some of the public health noncompliance still rooted in the idea that God will use the disease to punish the sinners among us, while leaving the righteous untouched? Certainly, the links between non-compliance and a certain fundamentalist reading of Scripture are strong…

  2. Deborah, Thanks for this comment. I was also taken by the fact that as a country we cannot seem to make a shift that at least some started in the 1800s. I think your analysis of our current context is spot on. You would like Morris, I expect. He taught at Temple for a long time before coming to the Tenement Museum. He’s thoughtful, but also has a good sense of humor. And he’s very committed to telling the story of America’s immigrant past. Hope you are well. DJB

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