January 2, 2013

"Shop Life": Exploring the Immigrant Entrepreneur at the Tenement Museum

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Schneiders' Saloon, Tenement Museum. Credit: Keiko Niwa
The re-created Schneiders' saloon at the Tenement Museum.

Written by Annie Polland, Vice President of Education and Programs, and Kira Garcia, Communications Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s re-created apartments at 97 Orchard Street never housed heads of state or celebrities. But these homes are extraordinary places, making history vibrant, exciting, and relatable.

On December 3, the Tenement Museum (a National Trust Historic Site) inaugurated Shop Life, a new exhibit that explores a century of businesses once housed in the historic Tenement. This exhibit is both an extension of the work we’ve been doing for nearly 25 years, and also entirely new: It includes a meticulously re-creation of John and Caroline Schnieder’s 19th-century German saloon, once located at 97 Orchard, as well as a self-guided exploration of history using objects and touch-screen technology.

Telling the stories of the shopkeepers who filled the lower levels of the museum was a natural progression for the museum, yet as we developed the exhibit, we were also excited about the potential to tell a new kind of story. While the tenement residences we've re-created focus on families, the storefronts provide a lens on a broader communal life. And by telling the stories of communal spaces, we could better explore how immigrant communities responded to citywide and political challenges.

View of the bar. Credit: Keiko Niwa
Another view of the bar in the Schneiders' saloon.

We've taken to referring to the stores as "living rooms" for the community. These were the spaces where immigrants gathered for social, business, and political reasons. And just as living rooms can serve as the site of peaceful gatherings, they can also become places of tension and protest.

Our research showed that Germans organized political organizations that met at the Schneiders’ saloon and criticized blue laws that tried to restrict Sunday commerce. Thirty years later, immigrant Jewish women asserted their consumer rights at 97 Orchard, attacking a kosher butcher store as part of a citywide boycott.

While historians have written about the various immigrant groups that have passed through the Lower East Side and other urban neighborhoods, shop-keeping has never been a major focus. Though a description of the neighborhood’s ubiquitous pushcarts is often part of the background, very little has been written about the successful pushcart peddlers who opened stores.

So what makes an immigrant entrepreneur successful? What are the necessary adaptations? Because our exhibit looks at a series of stores over a century, we're able to explore a more diverse and changing immigrant population, allowing us to focus not just on a particular immigrant group, but more broadly on how shop-keeping reveals continuities across time.

"Shop Life" touchscreen exhibits. Credit: Tenement Museum

As we analyze the series of stores, we ask visitors to consider whether they think each particular business was a success. In doing so, visitors work as a group to construct their definition of success and of the American Dream. Since the latter is such a common phrase, we've found it helpful for people to really think it through and apply it in this context. We don't offer answers as much as help people think about what success means in the past -- and in the present.

Today, 48% of small businesses in New York City are run by immigrants. To make a connection to the present day, we close each tour of the “Shop Life” exhibit with videos of contemporary immigrant shopkeepers working in the Lower East Side.

Check out videos, images, and more information about the Shop Life exhibit online. We hope you'll visit us soon!

Join us for PastForward Online 2020, the historic preservation event of the year, October 27-30, 2020.

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