NYC’s Tenement Museum goes off the rails as the Woke elbow aside the story of immigrants to emphasize issues of race

December 11, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Both of my maternal grandparents entered America from Eastern Europe: my grandfather (David Frank) came fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, and my grandmother, Salie Mermelstein, came from Hungary in 1901 as an infant.  I don’t know what my grandmother did after arriving, but I know (or rather, was told) that my grandfather lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where many Jews found their footing in America, and rolled cigars for a living. Later he moved to Pennsylvania and started an auto parts store that burgeoned into a chain. He married Sali (now called “Sadie”) who was younger, and produced a single daughter, my mom, along with two boys, my Uncles Bernie Moe. Here’s the arrival certificate for Salie.

And here’s a photo of Bernie (left) and Moe, all duded up to play golf at the Jewish country club (they weren’t allowed in goyische country clubs). I love this photo. Look at Moe’s pants!

Anyway,  if you go to the Ellis Island website, and know the names of your ancestors who immigrated, and the names aren’t too common, you can find them. (I couldn’t find my grandfather, and will research further.)

The reason I brought this up is because I always feel drawn to the Lower East Side when I go to Manhattan, and always go there to sample the rapidly-dwindling Jewish culture, which has largely moved to other places. (The area is now becoming Hispanic.) One of the places I wanted to visit was the Tenement Museum, a building on Orchard Street that really held immigrants (about 7,000 of them between 1863 and 1935) before it became decrepit and was later converted into a Museum showing how immigrants (many of them Jewish) and refugees lived in various times. Here’s a video about it:

When I was last in New York, I discovered the place because I was staying in a hotel across the street, but my time was limited (I was there for the New Yorker Festival) and I never got to see the place. I won’t miss that chance again, as the Museum gets very high ratings.

At any rate, Wokeness has now invaded the Tenement Museum, as the following two articles (the first in the Spectator World [SW] and the second in the Jewish News Service[JNS]) relates. Click on the screenshot to read.

As the first article notes, the immigrant who resided there were Irish, Jewish, German, and Italian. The writer Peter Van Buren, who worked at the Museum until it got too woke, notes:

When I joined the Museum as an educator in early 2016, it was a small, elegant, good place. Inside a restored 19th-century tenement apartment house, it told the story of some of the actual all-immigrant families who had lived there, from inside their actual apartments. Of the over 7,000 people who inhabited that building over its lifespan, researchers established who had lived in which rooms, detailed their lives, forensically reconstructed the surroundings, and shared it with guests. Some rooms had 20 layers of wallpaper applied by the different generations who had lived there.

Rule one for educators like me was “keep it in the room,” meaning focus on specific individuals and how they lived in the room where you were standing. Over the years, these included Irish, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants. There had been no Bangladeshis, Spaniards, or blacks; their stories lay elsewhere, “outside the room.” It is the same reason there is no monument to those who died on D-Day at Gettysburg. That didn’t happen there. That story is told somewhere else. [JAC: I’ve read that some Chinese immigrants also lived there.]

No longer. The second article’s title tells the tale: the story of European immigrants wasn’t good enough in these times, especially when the murder of George Floyd changed many people’s ideology and, indeed, their narrative of American history. Now everything must be not just about race, but about whites versus everyone else. So it goes. And that trend has affected the Tenement Museum.

Quotes from the second article by Jonathan Tobin:

But the moral panic over race that swept through the United States in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 caused the museum’s management to forget its core mission. It was a moment when woke politics demanded that the national discussion be solely focused on race and the notion that America was an irredeemably racist nation. Retelling the saga of how poor European immigrants lived in late 19th- and early 20th-century New York no longer seemed so crucial to its staff. They searched for a way to shift that focus to tell a very different story about the lives of 19th-century New Yorkers who were black.

. . .As a fawning feature about the shift published earlier this year in The New York Times reported, the museum was able to find a rationale to change direction because a city directory from the 1860s showed that there were two Joseph Moores in the city. One of them was an Irish waiter who lived at 97 Orchard St. Another was a black man who lived elsewhere in New York. In order to stay current with the times, the museum has now redesigned one of its apartment tours to tell the story of that particular Joseph Moore and his wife, even though—unlike everyone else featured in the exhibition—he never lived there. Nor was he an immigrant. As opposed to migrants who had braved ocean crossings in unhealthy “coffin” ships to get to America, Moore had merely taken the ferry from New Jersey.

Along with that shift, the museum has also redone its Irish family tour to downplay the sufferings of those immigrants. Instead, it will speak of the racism of some of the Irish that supplied part of the motivation for one of the most disgraceful incidents in New York history: the 1863 draft riots in which mobs not only protested the government’s policy of conscripting immigrants during the Civil War but also lynched African-Americans.

There are a few problems with this decision. One is that the Irish family whose story has been revised wasn’t even in the country in 1863; they arrived later in the decade. More to the point, it reflects a decision to stop highlighting the problems of immigrants to one about another subject and to portray one such group negatively as if the entire saga of the Irish in New York could essentially be erased because of what some did. Were any institution to do that about an immigrant group with a more protected status in 2021, it would be considered an act of prejudice. But in today’s woke culture, it’s considered enlightened storytelling.

There’s more:

One of the people who have commented about this startling and disappointing turn of events is writer Peter Van Buren, a former Tenement Museum educator, who discussed the topic in a column in The Spectator. [JAC: the article above.]

As Van Buren notes, the life of the African-American Joseph Moore is worthy of remembrance. But shoehorning that into the Tenement Museum is much like commemorating those who fell during the fighting on D-Day during World War II at the Gettysburg battlefield. “That didn’t happen there. That story is told somewhere else,” he said.

Moreover, the desire of the museum to move in this direction reflects the passions of the moment, rather than a devotion to history that should be at the core of any such institution. He speaks of an Asian-American staffer at the museum who exclaimed at a meeting, “No more Jews. I want to tell my story!” As he writes, that person was the child of university professors who had grown up in a wealthy suburb. These days, however, the narcissism of contemporary woke professionals transcends history.

The Tenement Museum’s remodelling, like the NYT’s 1619 Project, is a conscious, deliberate, and misguided attempt to tweak American history in the service of an ideology. And the ideology is the same in both cases.

Let’s face it, blacks and immigrants had a rough time, but their stories aren’t the same. Blacks had it worse in many ways: they came here involuntarily, were put into forced servitude without pay, and were treated as chattel. Immigrants came of their own volition and took paying jobs, although those jobs were often low paid and the immigrants themselves, including Irish and Jews, suffered pretty severe discrimination from residents (all of whom, of course, came from immigrants themselves).  Blacks came to New York and other northern cities seeking opportunity after slavery ended, and did not settle on the Lower East Side, but in places like the South Side of Chicago.

This is all part of the tapestry that is America, and it all needs to be taught.  We need a Tenement Museum, and we need (and have) a Museum of African-American History and a Holocaust Museum. The more opportunities for such education, the better.  I have been to none of these, but I did tour what’s left of the Manzanar camp where Japanese-Americans (citizens!) were interned during World War II. These are all life-altering experiences. (For a real life-changer, visit Auschwitz.) The other three museums are on my bucket list.

I’ll end with another quote from Tobin:

In the last two years, wokeness has helped undermine freedom of speech and promoted a narrative in which racism dominates the discussion to the detriment of individual rights. The Tenement Museum isn’t so much celebrating diversity and inclusion as it is betraying its central mission to the detriment of the discipline of history. It is asking us to regard the stories of the immigrants who came to America in this period as somehow less important than those of others, whether or not they are entirely accurate. That may satisfy the desire of today’s elites and the chattering classes for virtue signaling, but it does neither the country nor the study of history any good.

h/t: Cate

40 thoughts on “NYC’s Tenement Museum goes off the rails as the Woke elbow aside the story of immigrants to emphasize issues of race

  1. It takes the breath away that the George Floyd incident “changed many people’s ideology and, indeed, their narrative of American history” based on race. The case contains zero factual elements of race or bigotry as a cause for the killing. It was misuse of police force, not race.

    So … consider what power must be behind the ability to turn it into a gigantic project to re-shame America over race when it had nothing to do with race! That is construction of reality of the first water.

    With no disrespect intended to the insane atrocity on this page, turning a museum of immigration into racial warzone based on vapor/lying facts is trivial compared to terrorizing America over the George Floyd killing.

    1. The essence of “woke” totalitarianism can be reduced into three false allegations which support the entire fraudulent enterprise:

      1. All whites (and only whites) are, and have ever been, racist,
      2. Racism is ubiquitous.
      3, Racism explains everything.

      This utterly anti-rational form of magical thinking now controls (and is too seldom challenged) almost the entire culture as well as the body politic.

      1. Replace “race” with “class in #2 and #3 above.” You will see that this is simply classic Marx repurposed to attack the weak spot of America, race.

      2. All whites (and only whites) are, and have ever been, racist,

        When the white men’s ships turned up at ports in Africa in the 18th century, I wonder who it is the woke think rounded up the slaves to sell to them.

  2. My wife and I visited the Tenement Museum in 2017. We were mostly killing time waiting for our names to be called at Russ & Daughters restaurant just down the street. It is a great little museum and very interesting. It doesn’t surprise me that they have become Woke. It is very much a social justice-themed place. I hope they haven’t completely ruined it.

  3. … I always feel drawn to the Lower East Side when I go to Manhattan …

    You get a chance, you should read Richard Price’s wonderful 2008 novel set in the Lower East Side, Lush Life. Price’s own Jewish-immigrant grandparents came through there, too. Price himself was raised in a Bronx housing project.

  4. I was born in 1935 and we lived on the lower east side at 40 Monroe St. one of the two Knickerbocker Village complexes. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived in the other one at 10 Monroe St. I went to public school down the block under the Manhattan Bridge until I was about nine, when we moved to Queens. My mother would take me shopping at the immigrants’ stores (one was named Weinstock’s) and there were horse-drawn wagons in the street selling produce and other goods. As a nonobservant atheist Jew I am horrified at the suppression of Jewish history, of the sacrifice of Jews before the altar of wokeness. I believe this is a manifestation of the New Anti-Semitism and it is reprehensible that those who suffered oppression (blacks) as well as Asians have joined in this
    attempt to suppress the very multiracial and multiethnic diversity that they claim to be fighting for.
    That is what I feel intellectually. Politically I now feel in no way required to support the “struggle” for
    equality as it is presently constituted. I do not think or act with race in mind, never have and never will. And though I am only a cultural rather than an observant Jew, I fully support Jewish efforts to
    insure that their culture and history are neither diluted nor distorted nor erased. That this museum has subordinated itself to racial pressure is truly a contemporary horror. Let us hope that the present administration and board will be replaced with those who are truly committed to the true and diverse history of this country.

    1. Liel Leibovitz (an Israeli writer now living in NYC) has written a fascinating essay for The Tablet (entitled “The Turn”) about his disenchantment with today’s “woke” left. Near the end he writes: “Not being a left-wing racist or a police-state fan does not make you a white supremacist or a Trump-worshipper, either. Only small children, machines, and religious fanatics think in binaries.”

      1. That’s ironic because the premise of perhaps the most popular book on anti-racism currently says that in fact it does.

  5. Well, most of the immigrant stories are inspirational. A vast number of people came here with nothing but a desire to work, and made very good lives for themselves and their descendants.
    They are examples of the American dream. More such examples happen every day.

    But that whole narrative runs counter to the woke ideology. Even though the immigrants showcased there endured hardships, and were not always treated fairly, they were never victims. Whether they prospered was largely a matter of their own choices and work ethic. Such journeys, although commonplace in this country, defy the woke belief that everyone is a permanent victim or oppressor.

    It must be very difficult to continue to force yourself to believe that the US is a place where there is so much oppression and effective systems in place to keep the poor struggling in vain to succeed, when you work in a museum that showcases people doing exactly what you believe cannot be done.

  6. “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” by Jane Ziegelman is a delightful book about the immigrant inhabitants of New York’s lower east side, and the food that they ate. Unfortunately, it contains not a word about the arrival of Black slaves in Jamestown in 1619, nor about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the academic world, nor about the transcendent importance of chosen personal pronouns. Due to these lamentable deficiencies, there will no doubt be demands (perhaps from the ACLU?) that the book be cancelled.

  7. The only salvation I see from an increasingly totalitarian future is if pushback comes from the old guard Left who will realize that wokeness is a youth movement that is just as much an attack on them and their legacy as anything else. Ironically Democratic Socialists will need to be at the forefront of this and often are. As increasingly the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free are portrayed as privileged oppressors those Marxists who have fought for economic justice for these groups for decades are going to have to fight against the unreality of all this.

  8. As a long time liberal, I am soooo tired of woke. It’s slowly turning me into a conservative, kicking and screaming! Never a Trumper, though.

    1. C’mon, there are other options. Libertarians have been sick of the New Right and the New Left for decades. You don’t have to choose the lesser of two evils. This really should be the Third Party Renaissance.

    2. It’s slowly turning me into a conservative, kicking and screaming!

      That is interesting. What does that mean? What principles are you changing?

      Perhaps the word ‘liberal’ is used in the US in a slightly different sense to the one to which I am accustomed.

        1. Sir, it makes more sense to me in the context of the Nolan Chart. It’s not a perfect model; the map is not the territory. Also imperfect, but Horseshoe Theory maps well to it. Both the New Right and the New Left have moved towards the Authoritarian corner of the Nolan Chart.

        2. It hasn‘t. You tend to equate loudness or volume with extremism, and certain progressive identity politics with “the left”. This is unwarranted, in particular when this movement is a sizeable part of neo liberal America, well alloyed with capitalist mega-corporations (like Nike), the CIA (I refer to their woke recruitment video) and its elite institutions, e.g. elite universities.

          Further, Bernie Sanders economic, health care platform is also seen as “The Left” or has been their champion in the last nominations. However, what I described in the first paragraph (“woke” so-called) is apparently a very different kind of left. Furthermore, the woke movement was very hostile towards Sanders. Recall the story in the SF Chronicle you reported, extreme but also unsurprising, where he was brought into distance to white supremacy, because of his mittens. Somehow.

          I appreciate your writing greatly, but it bothers me a lot that you keep repeating the idea that wokeness is practically identical with leftism, or is a “too left” version of it, ignoring at the very least the stark divide that exists — all the way to actual socialists who oppose wokeness for a long time (the WSWS, Adolph Reed etc).

          You report frequently about wokeness’ pernicious influence, and therefore you make it seem as if left wing politics have a strong part in US politics. But meanwhile, there is an important switcheroo in there, because American people are very far away from decent health care, income equality, labour improvements i.e. leftist evergreens and what people hear when you say “the left”.

        3. I don’t think that is true. The Left has basically been ascending in our culture for the last 70 years. Obviously slowly at first, but sometime in the last decade you could reasonably claim they won the culture war and replaced the old paradigm. We are simply encountering the age-old phenomena that whenever a new group comes to power in their society their is often little legitimate pushback on them and they tend to abuse their power simply because they can.

          I also think the Left is encountering the paradox of radicalism. Radicals adopt the position that society is corrupt at its core and must be overturned, but obviously replaced with something more to their liking. So when that finally happens their fate is to either defend that status quo, and thus become conservatives, or continue to be radicals and simply oppose everything they helped build which is self-defeating. Today’s far left is in the latter position because a lot of what they are opposing is actually the successful work that Liberals had been doing for change in the last 70 years that I mentioned absolve. There is also a paradox of conservatism is the realization that if the most conservative elements in a society always won out, that society would never grow beyond its current status, so you have the problem of when do you disregard that conservatism to accept change?

        4. It will be interesting to see what the future brings. I recall Irving Howe writing, years ago, that he was never attacked by anybody on his left that didn’t eventually end up attacking him from the right. Howe kept up the good fight and was never a fellow traveler. One of my heroes, although the world of his father and mine were radically different, culturally and geographically. I reference, of course, his great work “World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made”. Wish he were yet with us to hear the scorn he would pour upon what is happening to the Tenement Museum.

      1. In most of the world, ‘liberal’ means libertarian. In Australia, the Right co-opted the term. In the US, the Left co-opted the term. In the US, the term ‘liberal’ has been stretched so far from its original, classical sense that is is effectively meaningless. I personally blame it on McCarthyism; people couldn’t talk openly about communist or socialist policies, so people had to adopt other words.

        1. In Europe, “liberal” has a different meaning from “libertarian”. They overlap in parts, but are not identical.

          For example, take a look at the new German government. It consists of the centre-left Socal Democrats, the left-liberal Greens and the liberal Free Democrats.

          The Free democrats have a small share of libertarian politicians, who do not wield much influence. The Social Democrats as well the oppositional Christian-Democrats also have several members whose view can be described as liberal. That is, with modern adaptation, still classical liberalism, as it developed in the 19th century in the course of the national movements in Europe.

        2. You have it backwards. In the US, leftism was subsumed (and suffocated) by liberalism. The US is far behind compared to developed nations when it comes to “leftist” politics, like healthcare, labour rights, public transports etc. but is generally touted as the “land of the free”.

          This is because liberal and libertarian elements exist in both parties, but they are split (as in other countries) among liberalisms fault lines between personal liberty and “free market” libertarianism. The fault line runs underneath questions of property rights, and moral authority.

          US Republicans tend to be paleo-libertarians, freedom depends on your wealth, but under god and rules from a moral majority. And US Democrats tend to be classic liberals, wanting greater personal freedoms (e.g. gay marriage) but more regulation of markets.

          Emphasis on personal, civic liberties, individualism, is associated with the Left, whereas market liberalism is associated with the Right. Left and Right emerged in France, the Right being in favour of hierarchy, gods and feudal/capitalist masters, and the Left against it.

  9. Often in times of political and social turmoil, people tend to be drawn to one side or another. It is difficult for the “vital center” to hold. Extremism becomes more prevalent. Such seems to be the case today among White people. One group is burdened by a soul crushing guilt. The other group manifests a cauldron of hate and resentment. Annie Polland, a Jew and author of books on Jewish history, is the president of the Tenement museum and seems to be in the former category. She seems to be the driving force behind the museum’s new and unfortunate direction. The museum’s website has much about race and little about immigrants (although there are some blog postings about them). One page lists recommends books about race. Would you be surprised to learn that the first book listed is “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and the second is “How To Be An Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi? I was not able to find a reading list of books about immigrant life on the lower east side of New York.

    The Woke movement is typical of one that starts out relatively moderate, over time becomes more radical, and its original purpose for coming into existence seems to be forgotten. In my estimation, this movement is doomed to failure. In contrast to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Wokeism is alienating a significant portion of the White population and apparently many Latinos as well. The strength of Martin Luther King’s leadership was that he knew how to unite people of different races in a common cause. The Woke understand little of this. Thus, many potential White allies are drifting towards non-involvement in political matters or, even worse, become Trumpists.

    We do not know what will be the end result of this political turmoil and today’s Trumpist assault on democracy. We may know in four or five years. However, it is likely that when future historians write the history of this era, they will identify Wokeism as a significant component in explaining why American democracy teetered.

    1. The website statement suggests that the Museum’s directors wish it were the Museum of African-American History rather than the Tenement Museum. Statements in a similar vein, from
      academic departments to bird-watching societies, suggest that they all pine for a similar transformation.
      Alas, they cannot really change identities, but they can at least issue statements.

    2. The Woke movement is typical of one that starts out relatively moderate, over time becomes more radical, and its original purpose for coming into existence seems to be forgotten.

      My impression is that the Women’s March has undergone a similar transformation in a shorter period of time. It began as a powerful protest against misogyny and violence against women, only to be transformed in a very short time into the personal political instrument of the four women leaders, thus almost completely losing its original intention.

  10. I’m pleased to know that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture are on your list. I highly recommend them and suggest that you allow two days for each. One of our friends had told us to allow a lot of time for the Holocaust Museum. We thought 8 hours would be enough, but we were wrong and went back for a second day. We went to the National African-American Museum a year after it opened and it was still very difficult to get tickets (the tickets are free, but timed-entry passes are currently being used to avoid overcrowding). I hope you’re able to cross these items off your bucket list in the near future. Bring tissues — I thought I was prepared, but both are pretty overwhelming.

    1. If people start pushing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to include the history of American Blacks, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

  11. Jerry said: “my grandmother, Salie Mermelstein, came from Hungary in 1901 as an infant.”

    Jerry’s grandmother travelled with the Red Star Line from Antwerp to the US. The Red Star Line chartered the ship “Kensington” for several trips to the US.

    I just happen to live a ten minutes walk from the Red Star Line offices (now the Red Star Museum) in Antwerp. The company went bust in 1936 (I believe) after having moved millions of people to the US, of which a large number were Jews fleeing persecution in Germany and Eastern European countries. Einstein visited the US travelling the Red Star Line. several times. In 1933 he returned to Europe from one of these visits, and while residing in Belgium he learned that his house in the South of Berlin was ransacked by the Gestapo. So he took the next ship returning to the US during spring 1933, accompanied by his wife and his secretary, Helen Dukas (whom I met in Princeton at the Institute of Advanced Studies in 1980).

    The Red Star Line Museum displays a series of photographs. one of them is a “mystery girl” who travelled to the US in 1905:

    However, if you got to the following Wikipedia site you will be surprised:

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