Imagine standing in the New York dining room of two Holocaust survivors sometime in the late 1950s. There are mugs on the table and family portraits on the baby blue-painted wall.
As you make your way to the kitchen, though, you find yourself in a completely different home and era. The kitchen is pink, there’s a cross on the wall, and appliances from a different, more recent time that belong to a Puerto Rican family.
Then, as you walk past the living room with plastic-covered sofas and seats, you find yourself in the bedroom of yet another family’s home—this one Chinese, with a typewriter and a high school trophy.
This is what it’s like to walk through Under One Roof, the latest exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For the last couple decades, the Tenement Museum has provided a rich history of the Lower East Side’s immigrant population. Their flagship exhibit, located at 97 Orchard Street, focuses on immigrant families between 1863 and 1935. Under One Roof explores the lives of three immigrant families who lived at 103 Orchard Street from 1955 to 2014.
Under One Roof has been in the works for a decade, ever since the Tenement Museum purchased the 103 Orchard building in 2007. Since then, the museum has been working to find some of the 10,000 families that lived there. Through years of interviews, donations of personal items, and recollections, the museum has recreated these homes with extraordinary detail, giving uniquely personal perspectives on the immigrant experience in New York City.
“How many of us ever get to see the childhood room of our grandparents?” Annie Polland, Executive Vice President of Programs and Interpretations at the museum, told me over the phone. “Even if we know them really well?”
The tour focuses on three families: the Epsteins, two Polish refugees and Holocaust survivors who lived in the building from 1955-1961; the Saez-Velez family, Puerto Ricans who lived in the building from 1964 to 2013; and the Wong family, Chinese immigrants who lived there from 1968 to 2014. Because members of all three families worked in the garment industry, the exhibit also includes the recreation of a garment shop, complete with two rows of sewing machines and an area where children would play while their mothers worked.
On top of the decor, each room has an audio/visual component. In the Epstein’s daughters’ bedroom, a turntable plays an audio recording of Bella, one of the daughters, discussing how listening to Paul Anka’s “Diana” helped make her feel like an American. The television in the Saez-Velez living room plays an interview with Jose Velez, who grew up in the apartment. The children’s corner in the garment factory room plays a video of the son of a Chinese immigrant garment worker who recalled going to work with his mother as a child and being hidden on inspection day.
Under One Roof not only marks an expansion of the museum’s real estate, but an expansion of the kinds of immigrant stories it has been able to tell—one that doesn’t rely solely on impersonal census records as the 97 Orchard location did.
“Instead of the census, we have the family members themselves who we could interview, so there was a real shift in methodology from the kind of research that we did with papers involving historians to research with the family which involved more skill of an oral historian as well as the skill of a historian and sociologist,” Polland told me.
It’s clear that a lot of research and care went into the recreation of the family homes both on the part of the museum and by the family members involved. “I think all of them participated in this because they wanted to honor family members, parents specifically who were no long living in some cases,” Polland said.
“In the last couple of years I brought my mother to Puerto Rico, never thinking that my mother was going to pass away so fast,” Jose Velez told me over the phone. His mother Romanita’s apartment, where he grew up, was recreated by the museum. “She was in very good health, went to the best doctors, but a flash of fast cancer got her and that was it. I just thought that was the end of it.”
Velez now lives in what he calls “the country side of Bayamón, Puerto Rico,: and while he thinks fondly of his time living on the Lower East Side, he never expected to be able to revisit such vivid memories of his time there or of his mother, who died in 2014.
“I thought she was gone and that I would see no more of her, but when I walked in [the exhibit], whew! I got this big flashback,” he said.
“I didn’t expect that living room to look exactly how it looked,” he added, noting that the museum got every detail, right down to an ashtray, right. “I’d come home hungry and lay on that sofa, the plastic covered sofa, you see. I’d just lay myself there, and my mother looked out the window. She would look down on Orchard Street.”
Velez was reflecting on memories that were 50 years old. But Under One Roof feels especially relevant as the Trump administration attacks immigrants and fails to help Puerto Rico. These families were brought together through a shared immigrant experience. They learned to live not just in American culture, but alongside other international ones.
“When we started this we wanted to tell stories and interesting stories,” Polland told me. “And then as time has gone on the refugee issue became such a big thing, and no one would have known that.” She added that it’s even more pertinent to explore the stories of migrants as people question whether Puerto Ricans are even Americans.
“The stories preceded the political climate, we started well before the climate had become so charged, but we’re fully aware of how far the stories resonate,” she said. “And our visitors are the ones that connect it, and talk about how it resonates today.”