How does a storefront Chinese temple light incense for ceremonies without violating fire codes?
Why does a church purposely mount its cross in front of a Star of David adorning its one time synagogue?
Why does the Star of David on another church look like a camera lens?
How do small corner stores adapt to changing demographics in the neighborhood?
Most of us walking from point A to point B in the Lower East Side of New York, would probably not stop to consider these and similar questions. Tenement Museum’s THEN & NOW WALKING TOUR seems designed to get you to tune in the history under your feet and in your midst as you walk the Lower East Side’s streets.
John Zhang, our Then & Now Walking Tour docent, first asked us to introduce ourselves to each other, the first of many questions in this interactive tour.
These questions polled our pre-knowledge of New York’s Lower East Side, gentrification, urban renewal, eminent domain, and even the genesis of fusion cuisines.
Our group fit the profile of the typical Tenement Museum visitors—which are said to break down about 1/3 international, 1/3 domestic US, and 1/3 the tri-state area. We came from Korea via Toronto, Denmark, London, Detroit, Chicago and New York City. We ranged in age from college students to 70-something. You too may come to feel that the way in which the Tenement Museum’s walking tour cobbles together an interactive program that can be meaningful to such a wide audience is perhaps even more remarkable than the history you discover or re-discover with your guide.
Unlike the information-heavy history tours of the tenements per se through one or another immigrant/refugee lens, this Tenement Museum tour is relatively data light and interactive heavy. There may be details of air rights to newly consider as you look at the area’s skyline or pause to hear the history of how a new mixed commercial/residential space has been tied up in controversy since 1965, or how FDR’s mother really didn’t like the local park being named for her and other factoids. The main takeaway is how the Lower East Side is a microcosm of our shared American story. On the upside you learn of how one after another immigrant group came here to make their mark and way in the new land. But at the same time the ever more harsh class divide is on painful display, not only in today’s exorbitant rental rates but in learning about how the community has ever had to contend with bigger powers and forces getting their way.
If possible, our tip is to combine this tour with one of the information rich tours of the tenements per se. Together, you get a feel for how history is alive.
For more information on this and other Tenement Museum tours visit the Tenement Museum website.