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The Nation

Museum Plan Hits Too Close to Home

Dispute: Space-hungry N.Y. tenement exhibit seeks to evict tenement neighbors. 'The irony just smacks you in the face,' opponent says.

April 18, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — They were once joined at the hip in the heart of New York's Lower East Side, two identical brick tenements offering cheap, dimly lit apartments to waves of immigrants from all over the world.

But they came to play different roles in the community: One was turned into a museum celebrating the area's immigrant history. The other is home to 15 families, as well as a popular Chinese restaurant on the ground floor.

And now, in a move that has some shaking their heads, the museum is attempting to evict the people who live and work next door--many of them immigrants--so it can expand and accommodate more tourists.

"The irony just smacks you in the face," said Martha Danziger, a community leader who opposes the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's bid to take over the adjacent building. "They want to create a virtual tenement museum in a neighborhood that already has tenements."

Built in 1863, the twin walk-ups at 97 and 99 Orchard St. were fixtures in a neighborhood that welcomed Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican and Chinese families. Yet now, as booming property values transform the area, the feud between the buildings' owners highlights a battle over the community's future--and its place in America's immigrant memory.

This is a street where living history collides with living people.

Opened in 1988, the Tenement Museum is a national landmark that has restored turn-of-the-century immigrant apartments to their original conditions and draws 90,000 visitors each year. Ruth Abram, the founder, says she wants to welcome 200,000 tourists and can only do this by acquiring the building next door. She has asked state officials to seize the property through eminent domain if a deal cannot be worked out.

But Lou Holzman, whose family members have been living at 99 Orchard St. since 1910, has no intention of selling the building. Neither does his business partner, Peter Liang, who runs the Congee Village restaurant and employs more than 50 Chinese and Latino immigrant workers. Both say the use of eminent domain to help a small museum would be absurd.

"It's easy to sympathize with the two sides, so the question is, which view of the Lower East Side do you embrace?" said sociologist Christopher Mele, author of "Selling the Lower East Side." "Is this area a gold mine of immigrant history that should be preserved? Or is it a living, breathing place filled with new and older immigrants who should be protected?"

Eminent Domain Decision Nears

Tensions are rising on both sides as the Empire State Development Corp., New York state's economic development agency, nears a decision--expected this week--on whether to proceed with the eminent domain. And the dispute is playing out against a steady drumbeat of gentrification that is rapidly changing the community from a crime-infested slum into an edgy but vibrant melting pot of bars, boutiques and restaurants.

The Lower East Side is a study in contrast. While it continues to pack waves of new immigrants, mainly Chinese, into tenements, the once-rundown buildings of the nearby Bowery are being turned into million-dollar co-ops. The average rent at 99 Orchard St. is $1,600 for a 350-square-foot apartment--a price that is high but hardly atypical, given Manhattan's tight rental housing market.

Bordered on the north by 14th Street, on the south by Fulton and Franklin streets and running west from Broadway to the East River, the neighborhood is growing economically, despite the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

While Latino groups push for more affordable housing and criticize the trend toward higher-priced apartments, young Orthodox Jewish couples have begun moving back into the aging, high-rise units that were once occupied by their grandparents. On a recent afternoon, the sidewalk shops and restaurants near Orchard Street were filled with the aromas of garlic kosher pickles, fresh-baked empanadas and pungent Chinese congee.

"This is one of America's most symbolic neighborhoods," said historian Suzanne Wasserman, associate director of the Gotham Center at City University of New York. "It's constantly reinventing itself, and many groups see it as sacred because so many people can trace their roots back to this community. Everybody wants a piece of the Lower East Side."

The community is no stranger to controversy. As immigrants poured in during the late 19th century, it became America's prototype of a big-city slum. Journalist Jacob Riis wrote his powerful newspaper expose "How the Other Half Lives" after visiting the squalid area in 1890. Ever since then, activists have been drawn to a neighborhood that was the first glimpse of America for millions of people who got off the boat at Ellis Island.

Abram said her overriding goal is to promote tolerance for the different kinds of people who have lived on Orchard Street--and to use history as a tool to better understand the present.

Building Offers Guided Tours

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