November 19, 2014

Ruth Abram: Explaining Today through Stories of Yesterday

  • By: Sophia Dembling

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Left: Ruth Abram, former president and now trustee emerita of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Right: Museum visitors enjoy a guided tour.

Ruth Abram believes museums can and should be more than repositories of the past; they should also provide insight into the present and inspire hope for the future.

That was Abram's vision in 1992, when she co-founded (with Anita Jacobsen) the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (a National Trust Historic Site) in New York City, one of the most interesting museums in a city full of them. Past president and now trustee emerita, Abram leaves the running of the museum to others these days ("I don't fiddle," she says. "They're doing a great job."), but remains busy with other projects, including Sites of Conscience and Behold! New Lebanon, a living museum being developed in the rural New York town where Abram lives.

We caught up with Abram to talk about the development of the Tenement Museum and her vision for it. (Responses have been edited for clarity and length.)

What got you interested in preservation?

I wasn't so interested in architectural preservation; I became interested as I got into it. What I was interested in was the relationship between history and social change. Most of my life there's been a single question hanging over each thing I've done, whether in the women's movement or the civil rights movement, and it's how are we going to be one nation and at the same time appreciate, enjoy, and not be afraid of the sometimes profound differences we bring to the table based on our backgrounds?

I thought that one way to get at that question was to deal with the immigration, and a way to get from the broad concept of immigration to this question in a personal way was by introducing Americans to our own forebears at a time before they were comfortable, before they knew the language of the country, before they knew the customs, before they had any money -- at a time when they were themselves somewhat reviled by longer-rooted Americans.

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The apartment of the Levine family addresses not only the lives of Jewish immigrants, but also the history sweatshops and New York City's garment trade.

I understand you had a hard time finding the right building for the Tenement Museum.

Most tenements had been improved because there was money to be made in renting them. The 1934 law which required, for instance, fireproofing in all the public places was expensive for landlords to do, so they either shut them, or made the investment and rented them out still. But when they made the investment, they ruined the place. Our landlord was one of the few who just boarded it up.

[The building] was found by my friend with whom I was working, Anita Jacobson. She and I had pretty much given up. For two years we had gone all over the Lower East Side, where tenement construction began in America. So we decided we would tell the stories of immigrants on the Lower East Side through walking tours, plays, and other means, and all we needed was a storefront.

She spotted the storefront [at 97 Orchard Street and] knocked on the door. The landlord, a young woman, answered. She said her family had held the place since 1905 and it really hadn't been changed.

Anita entered the storefront and there was nothing there. She asked 'Where's the bathroom?', and the landlord said oh, it's in the hall, and that's when Anita saw that [the building] was unchanged. She practically fell over. She had studied enough photographs of old-law tenements to know she was standing on hallowed ground. But it took five years before the landlord agreed to sell us the building.

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According to family lore, Adolfo and Rosaria Baldizzi may have come to America from Sicily as illegal immigrants. They settled first on Elizabeth Street, amongst other Italian immigrants, and then moved to this apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

How did you select families highlighted in the museum?

We wanted to express through the mix of them the breadth of religious affiliations and countries of origin, and we were also always looking for dramatic stories, stories which had within their theme material for connecting with present-day issues.

Sites of Conscience [is] something I developed while at the Tenement Museum. The idea was to interest museums around the world, historic sites, in doing what the Tenement Museum was doing, which is to use its site to raise related contemporary issues.

When it first started, we came together at Bellagio, the Rockefeller conference center. As we went around the room, whether it was the representative of Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp, or the women's historic district, or the slave house in Senegal, or the Gulag museum in Russia, we discovered that evening that except for the British Trust, none of us had come from the museum profession. We had all come from causes -- human rights and civil rights -- and were viewing museums as an instrument for social change. And all of us were dedicated to using our sites to explore contemporary issues.

For example, at the Tenement Museum, the obvious issue to explore is immigration. But there are lots of others. The apartment of the Jewish family raises the issue of the garment trade and sweat shops. And the apartment of the Moore family, the Irish family, with the coffin of a child in the parlor, raises the issue of public health. We thought that that child may well have died because at the time stores selling working-class families milk were getting cheap milk from sick cows that came out from the country, four hours by horse-drawn cart, often in the heat. It was spoiled, so they cut it with ammonia and chalk. So this particular baby had trouble nursing and was probably fed this milk. It was the perfect place to talk about public health and how that shifted into gear and became in an important safeguard.

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The Confinos were prosperous Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman city of Konfino when they fled uncertainty and the Balkan Wars for America, where they had to adjust to a far different lifestyle.

Any surprises for you during the restoration process?

We consciously left the building unevenly restored, respecting even ugly restoration because that's part of the story of how landlords had given up on it after a while and did very slapdash restoration. But at the same time, we peeled back some of the layers so you could see that at some point there was gold leaf chair rails and beautiful stenciling on ceilings. This tenement had been a prized place to live by people who prided themselves on their taste.

We challenged some of the understanding of what tenements were. Most scholars had photographs and the records of people like Jacob Riis. Riis had posed people; his chosen goal was to expose the sordidness and sadness of tenement life. He certainly didn't focus on the golden chair rails and beautiful stenciling or all of the other strengths that immigrants brought to the story.

Some scholars were quite surprised, and in fact annoyed, when we pointed out that, for instance, our tenement, when it was built, was thought to be so fine that the landlord moved in with his family and stayed there for some time. And he brought in people like himself, who he thought were solid. The tenement at first was a great alternative to what working-class people could otherwise find in New York City, which [were] houses which had been divided up into warrens of rooms.

It had been a kind of a tenet that we would go with the facts as they came to us and not try to fit the facts into our preconceived notions. If we had taken the tenement and restored it to 1935, that would have been restoring it to its worst period only. It would have complied with the general understanding of what tenement life was, but it would not have educated us fully about tenement life, immigrant life, or the history of immigration.

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is the author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go.

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

@sophiadembling

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