Tenement Tales: The Fashioning of 97 Orchard Street Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 19, 2019
  • Sampson, Elissa
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Geography
  • The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a popular New York tourist destination, intimately reflects its famed immigrant neighborhood's history in tours of 97 Orchard Street's reconstructed ethnic household apartments. Its landmarked tenement building's immigrant spaces are interpreted to provide a visitor experience designed to invoke the Lower East Side's ethnic enclaves. The immigrant past recreated at its historic tenement creates a picture of multi-ethnicity in service of a diverse U.S. immigrant present. One overall message is that for today's newcomers as well as those of the past, hardship precedes multi-generational success. Tracing these reconstructions in the light of the Museum's archives affords insight into its active reconstruction of the past. The Museum's interpretations oscillate among different scales of representation (building, neighborhood, and nation), while working at different registers to harness Jewish collective memory of a place once known as the Great New York Ghetto. I ask how the Museum's uses of history in representing an ethnic immigrant urban past connect it to the present, including to its contemporaneous neighborhood, and vice versa. One way I do so is by examining how its building's interpretive schemes and initial residential stories simultaneously failed to give full voice to a fuller range of the neighborhood's groups (historic and post-1935) even as they undercut its earlier Jewish specificity of place. An overt use of history raises larger interdisciplinary debates about migration, memory, historicity and heritage, the urban built environment, and immigrant acculturation in space as well as time. In this case study, I trace a spatial politics of memory by asking how and where do the Museum's stories of local "historic" ethnic and living communities get told? The acquisition of a tenement building affected the Museum's choice of which groups to represent, since it chose an interpretative strategy that emphasized the affective personal stories of past building residents. Subsequent real estate conflicts with Fujianese neighborhood residents spilled into questions of representation, showing how an activist museum found it hard to cordon off a local immigrant present from a historic past re-created in place expressly for visitors. The question of whose story gets told in 97 Orchard's privileged residential spaces has again shifted as a post-9/11 Lower East Side hollows out into a place of memory, with hyper-gentrification accompanying Downtown's shift into an entertainment hub. Lastly, I ask how the Museum's discursive and material practices change and persist in the course of acquiring and interpreting a tenement building to tell a history of American immigration. More broadly, this thesis uses 97 Orchard Street as a prism to trace and interrogate how history is produced, displayed, received and interpreted spatially through a Lower East Side immigrant building whose tours provide a material window into discursive practices of place. Interpretive layers expose how narratives accrete and get reused, making them harder to later dislodge. Following de Certeau, it documents how associated narratives of 97 Orchard Street eventually become seen as inevitable and "stick to place" in a building whose commodified tours of past Lower East Side ethnicity re-inscribe collective memories today. I trace here how a common poor tenement building was transformed into an American national landmark (thus touching on the role of the state in promoting museums, heritage and citizenship), as a new site of memory at a time when gentrification permits the tenement to be newly presented as precious and authentic.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Kirsch, Scott
  • Ariel, Yaakov
  • Marr, Timothy
  • Martin, Nina
  • Pickles, John
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • There are no restrictions to this item.

This work has no parents.