It's possible you've visited the Lower East Side of Manhattan multiple times and marveled at the buildings there without really knowing the story behind them. The Tenement Museum offers a series of tours to curious patrons. I recently embarked on the museum's two-hour "Building on the Lower East Side" walking tour, and afterward Senior Education Associate Brendan Murphy was kind enough to respond to my questions via email.
Q: The Lower East Side is clearly under transformation and redevelopment. Why is it so important, in your opinion, to have a deep appreciation for the past 200 years of these buildings in this area?
Murphy: Buildings tell stories and root those stories in the present, even when they happened decades or even centuries ago. So often we walk past an old building and ask ourselves, "What's the deal with that one?" When the buildings disappear, the link between past and present is so often severed. Preserving the old alongside the new allows the stories to be in conversation with one another, and the conversations are all the richer for it.
Q: What's your favorite building on the tour, and what's its backstory?
Murphy: My favorite building is IS 25, a Brutalist school building at Stanton and Suffolk. As the structure was designed in a rather foreboding style - Brutalism comes from the French for "raw concrete" - this building often gives visitors a visceral reaction, and quite often a negative one. However, when we put this building in context, we're presented with a different story.
Opening in 1977, this school came to the neighborhood during a tumultuous period for the Lower East Side and for New York City as a whole. Crime and drugs were prevalent; thus the building was built with safety in mind. What might it have felt like to fear for your child as they walked to school, then be presented with this brand new school designed to keep your students safe? Today, some think it an eyesore. In the 1970s, in many ways this building represented the hopes of a community. IS 25 helps us redefine what it means to be significant, which is a really powerful conversation to have during this period of rapid neighborhood change.
Q: Some buildings on the tour were handed over to different groups of immigrants at different periods. Can you talk a little about how one building can reflect multiple stories?
Murphy: During the urban renewal period of the mid-twentieth century, houses of worship tended to survive where tenements did not. It's actually fairly rare to find a historic church or synagogue in the neighborhood that still serves its original congregation. Saint Mary's on Grand Street, built for an Irish Catholic congregation in 1833, today houses a vibrant Spanish speaking community and has since the 1960s. Even though the stories of Irish immigrants and Puerto Rican migrants are clearly different, there are some resonant similarities. Both groups used the structure to root themselves in the neighborhood and foster a community in a new land. The languages are different, but the stories surely rhyme nonetheless.
Q: Public housing programs can conflict with other needs to honor heritages. How can cities do more to represent a community's past while also enriching its future?
Murphy: I don't think that public housing programs and honoring heritage need to be mutually exclusive. Admittedly, New York's relationship with its public housing is different than that of many other large cities, as ours remains large, occupied, and one of the more successful housing experiments (up for debate, but that's a different tour). In the early 1970s, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized that the First Houses, located in the East Village, were a vital part of the history of urban housing. Thus, the First Houses were landmarked in 1974.
Historians and city planners can and should work together to experiment with creative reuse and find ways to celebrate the stories of cities, both past and present. The current occupants of public housing have a story to tell, and their experiences should be equally as valid as those who lived in the tenements on which those public houses sit.
Q: Real estate developers have done more than act in accordance with zoning laws, they've embraced the culture of the area. Rowhouses, for instance, were built this century to honor the old tradition. Is that blend of the old and the new at the heart to the mission of the Tenement Museum?
Murphy: Some real estate developers have indeed utilized the culture of their area in their designs. On the other hand, some have chosen to look forward, eschewing the past and present for a subjectively idealized future. That future often excludes low income and minority residents, immigrant and native-born alike. A blend of the old and the new is central to the mission of the Museum, but our "new" is an inclusive one. Glass towers sit alongside small, immigrant-run hat stores and perfume shops. Immigrants from China are currently beginning their American stories in the Lower East Side like so many have before.
So often the only players in the preservation vs. progress debate are the rich and the dead. The low and middle-income residents are often excluded, as are those whose stories aren't old enough to be declared part of "history." The Tenement Museum believes that the stories of the New York City Housing Authority residents and the owners of the restaurant supply stores and bodegas must be factored in to the American story. We are absolutely in favor of landmarking and are actively participating in conversations to do just that, all the while advocating for all of the stories of the Lower East Side: immigrant, migrant; past, present.