NYC Tenement Museum Sets Example for OTR

When Ruth Abram speaks Friday at the Mercantile Library about how she founded New York’s successful Lower East Side Tenement Museum, many in attendance will be wondering if they can do here what she did there.

Jan 20, 2016 at 12:51 pm
click to enlarge New York Tenement Museum founder Ruth Abram
New York Tenement Museum founder Ruth Abram

When Ruth Abram speaks Friday at the Mercantile Library about how she founded New York’s successful Lower East Side Tenement Museum, many in attendance will be wondering if they can do here what she did there.

There is an active local nonprofit group trying to start the Over-the-Rhine Museum, modeled on the Tenement Museum but with a somewhat broader focus. It is sponsoring her Cincinnati visit, with funding from Ohio Humanities and American Legacy Tours. Its board members and supporters want Abram to use the lecture, already filled to capacity, to offer advice and insight.

“I can’t begin to tell you the outpouring we’ve had for this event,” says Anne Delano Steinert, chairman of Over-the-Rhine Museum’s board. “There are people driving in from out of town to hear her. She’s really a Rock star in the museum world.”

New York’s Tenement Museum uses restored apartments in an old tenement building at 97 Orchard St. to educate — through guided tours — about specific immigrant families who lived and/or worked there between the late 1800s and the early 1930s. Costumed interpreters play those actual residents.

“I come from the South — Georgia — and my family was involved in civil rights/human rights issues for a long time,” Abram says. “So I grew up with the notion of public service. The work I had done before the Tenement Museum had revolved around one particular question: ‘How will we be one nation and at the same time appreciate and not be afraid of the profound differences we bring to table?’ ”

She adds: “If you present an issue with a historical perspective, people can discuss it rationally and thoughtfully and then apply it to the related contemporary issue with less anger.”

The larger issue for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is to teach tolerance of immigrants. Their arrival in large numbers has often stirred xenophobic fear from American isolationists, even though most Americans have immigrants in their genealogy. 

Abram saw a “living museum” as a way to combat prejudice. “It would help (visitors) learn their ancestors were very similar to today’s newly arrived people walking around the streets,” she says. “I hoped that by thinking this through, Americans would see the need to appreciate the strength and courage of new immigrants and their potential for giving to American society.”

The museum had humble beginnings. At first, Abram and co-founder Anita Jacobson just conducted neighborhood walking tours and plays out of a storefront, because they couldn’t afford to buy an old tenement in Lower East Side, where immigrants settled in often squalid buildings.

They were eventually able to purchase their current museum building, where apartments had been vacant since 1935, but it had storefront tenants. The price was $750,000. It took until 1992 to raise money, do research and then open the building with two “Hard Times” tours. One featured the apartment of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family of 1878; the other the Italian-Catholic Baldizzis during the worst of the Great Depression.

The museum has grown consistently since then — Abram no longer is actively involved in operations, but is a trustee emerita. There are now four different guided tours, and more than 200,000 people visit each year.

And it is starting an $8-million expansion to put museum space into part of a second building. When finished in 2017, that will include three new apartments that tell the stories of a post-World War II Holocaust-surviving immigrant, a Puerto Rican family and a Chinese family.

Those behind the Cincinnati museum see their project as being more about population movements than just immigration, and hope to include apartments once occupied by German, Appalachian and African-American families displaced by West End demolition. They are currently doing feasibility studies while scouting for an appropriate old apartment building.

Fundraising has not yet begun, but hopes are high. “This is going to be a transformational museum that does things differently than other ones in Cincinnati,” says Steinert, a University of Cincinnati doctoral student in history. “It will change the understanding of what a museum can be.”

Ruth Abram speaks 5:30-7 p.m. Friday at the Mercantile Library. For more information on the OVER-THE-RHINE MUSEUM: