It’s a Shonda that the Tenement Museum Refuses to Back the Proposed Lower East Side Historic District [Op-Ed]
The following opinion piece about the proposed Lower East Side Historic District was written by Joyce Mendelsohn and Mitchell Grubler from the Friends of the Lower East Side preservation group.
Although the campaign for a Lower East Side historic district has its roots in efforts led by the Tenement Museum, the current administration of the museum has not supported recent attempts to designate a portion of America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood. Regrettably, a community-wide campaign of the Lower East Side Preservation Coalition in 2006, coordinated by the museum, did not move forward. The Coalition’s 23-page Request for Evaluation (RFE) submitted to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) listed as partner organizations: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, City Lore, East Village Community Coalition, Eldridge Street Project, Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue & Museum, Hester Street Collaborative, Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, and the Angel Orensanz Foundation.
The 2006 RFE states that “… designation of a Lower East Side Historic District will break new grounds in preservation. It will be the first Historic District to commemorate the urban working class poor immigrant/migrant experience and the first to pay homage to the importance of affordable housing.”
The founders of the Tenement Museum, Ruth J. Abram and Anita Jacobson continue to be fully committed to an historic district as stated in their letter to the LPC last fall:
November 8, 2015
Hon. Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
One Centre Street, 9th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10007
Re: Lower East Side Historic District
Dear Commission Chair Srinivasan:
We, co-founders of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, write in vigorous support of the proposal to create a Lower East Side Historic District. When we enable the destruction of a widely held cultural memory, we suggest – whether inadvertently or not, that neither the people who hold it nor memory itself are worthy of inclusion in the historical record. The streets and tenements of Lower East Side of Manhattan is such a memory, because the area is synonymous with America’s immigrant and migrant experience.
At a time when immigration is again a source of contention, it is all the more important that we embrace symbols which remind longer rooted Americans that immigrants were once us – our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Reflecting on the heroic role these ancestors play in our family sagas, may help us see their connection to contemporary immigrants. Like our ancestors, new arrivals give up all that is familiar to throw their lot with us and in this way reaffirm the value of American democracy.
Absent the protection a Historic District affords, the Tenement Museum, the nation’s only
restoration and interpretation of an “urban log cabin,” could one day find itself surrounded by a
sea of modern buildings. That would forever erase the streetscape known to so many immigrants and migrants as their first home in America. By tearing down the physical environment in which tenement life took place, we make preserving the memory and telling the story, all the more difficult.
In 2006 a broad coalition (including the Municipal Art Society, Historic Districts Council, New York Landmarks Conservancy, Lower East Side Conservancy, American Jewish Historical Society, Order of the Sons of Italy in America, The New York Irish History Roundtable, The Steuben Society of America National Council, and Howard Dodson of the Schomberg Center., American Jewish Committee—NYC Chapter, Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, and the Jewish Museum) joined to create a Lower East Side Historic District. The Landmark Preservation Commission failed to act at that time. So, we are deeply gratified that new leadership seems interested in moving this important effort forward and thrilled to see that once again the initiative has garnered such distinguished support.
We are pleased to add our voices to the call for a Lower East Side Historic District.
Ruth J. Abram
Co-Founders Lower East Side Tenement Museum
On September 21, 2015, in a meeting with Morris Vogel, Director of the Tenement Museum, Eric Bottcher, representing the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, and Joyce Mendelsohn, representing Friends of the Lower East Side, Vogel stated, “We are not a preservation institution; we are a living history museum.” What is a “living history museum,” if not an organization whose purpose is to preserve and interpret to the public the lives and struggles of immigrants lived in the buildings and on the streets of the Lower East Side?
Here are my suggested changes:
The fact that several major real estate developers sit on the museum’s board, creates a potential conflict of interest between the museum’s mission and support for an historic district (with its own 1863 tenement building as its centerpiece). Vogel also made clear his explicit connection with the local BID’s opposition to designation of an historic district. This unfortunate lack of vision on the part of the BID demonstrates its failure to recognize its greatest economic generator – visitors seeking (and spending money) for the historical experience only protection of the Lower East Side streetscapes can guarantee.
Undeterred, Friends of the Lower East Side sent individual letters asking for support to Co-Chairs of the Board: Ms. Meryl Snow Zegar and Mr. Scott Metzner. Neither person replied.
Manhattan’s Lower East Side is recognized for its unsurpassed architectural, historical and cultural significance to our city, state and nation. Its great variety of age-old tenements, institutional and commercial buildings not only enrich the streets with architecture based on human scale and beautifully crafted ornament, but have given the community and its residents a cohesive and stable environment with a strongly identifiable sense of history and place.