“Out Harvey Wang’s Window” Opens at the Tenement Museum Visitors Center

Posted on: November 22nd, 2011 at 10:22 am by

Could there be a more appropriate opening exhibit for the recently-opened Tenement Museum Visitors Center than “Out Harvey Wang’s Window: Photos of the Lower East Side,” a series of photographs documenting the Lower East Side and Chinatown, from the late 70’s to the mid 90’s?

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Meeting with Wang at the new 103 Orchard Street Visitors Center last week, he spoke of moving to Chinatown in 1979 and photo-documenting both his new surroundings and the vibrant East Village nightclub scene. Passing between the two neighborhoods, he would wander through the Lower East Side every day and notice that many long-established small businesses in the area were closing. Wang saw the disappearance of, as he put it, “the New York of my grandfather.” He started taking photos of remaining establishments that were in jeopardy of closing, many of which were the last of their kind – pillow makers, kosher butchers, a matzo factory, a Russian bathhouse. A number of these images are documented in a favorite book of ours, Harvey Wang’s New York.

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Catching the neighborhood “at a time of great flux,” Wang captured not only the holdouts who remained on or near the Lower East Side during a depressed time (Jewish, Italian, Irish, Ukrainian), but also immortalized a wave of newer immigrants (Dominican, Puerto Rican, Chinese) starting afresh by carving out what they could in an extremely gritty downtown New York in the 70s and 80s.

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There are portrayals of a few faces who some in the neighborhood will immediately recognize, ranging from Mark Russ Federman of Russ & Daughters, to Adam Purple, creator of the iconic “Garden of Eden.” Known for always dressing head-to-toe in purple tie-dye, Purple constructed his garden on Eldridge Street at a time when there was nothing but bombed-out buildings in the area; and certainly no such thing as greenery. From 1978 – 1986, Wang chronicled the beginnings and, sadly, the city’s destruction of the garden.

Among the powerful images included in the installation are workers in a Chinatown sweatshop hiding their faces and an Italian marching band accompanying a Chinatown funeral.

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Unlike a typical exhibit, “Out Harvey Wang’s Window” was curated by the staff of the Tenement Museum. Over the course of the past year, employees viewed Wang’s photographs and reflected on how the work affected them personally, and how they related to the museum’s mission. Visitors can refer to a laminated handout which tells some personal stories from both museum staffers and Wang.

For some, the Tenement Museum is about the immigrant stories of the turn of the last century. This inaugural show emphasizes the museum’s broader mission: to tell the continuing immigrant story of the Lower East Side. Wang, quoting Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel, explained “You think of the Tenement Museum as being about the turn of the century, but the history doesn’t end there.”

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“Out Harvey Wang’s Window” officially opens at the Sadie Samuelson Levy Immigrant Heritage Center (103 Orchard Street) on November 30.

Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg

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