My favorite small museum is the Tenement Museum down in New York’s Lower East Side. It was built in the late 19th Century, housing a steady stream of immigrants until it was boarded up in the middle of the 20th. Different apartments in the building have been recreated as they might have been during different decades of the building’s history, and as it was left in 1935.
At first, the tenement housed Irish Catholics, then, European Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, and, finally, Italian Catholics. There is a list of the building’s tenants, and when I visited I found that the last names of all of my grandparents — the common Jewish names of Levy, Cohen, Greenberg and Jaffe — were all represented. There’s no evidence that any of my relations ever lived there, but the stories are familiar: escaping persecution in the old world and searching for success in the new one, a short stay in a tenement, before moving onto a more stable existence in an established immigrant community (for example, Pelham Parkway in the Bronx in my father’s parents case). And then, for their children, a move to the suburbs to raise the next generation — including me.
But the Tenement Museum has a larger presence than just its physical location. The immigrants haven’t stopped coming, and neither has the museum. It sponsors the Digital Artist in Residence Project (DARP). The wonderful and fun Folk Songs for the Five Points collects music and found sounds from the still-immigrant neighborhood and lets you mix and match the sounds to create contemporary folk songs, and soak yourself in the noises of the Lower East Side in 2007.