Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Over spring break, I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Manhattan (on the same day I stumbled across the Storefront for Art and Architecture), it's a pretty amazing place (Here's their Flickr page, I took all the images for this post from there).

The LESTM is part living museum and part public health campaign. They offer a set of guided tours throughout the various tenements they have on display, offering narratives that are both compelling and insightful. I love that someone has taken the thought and effort to preserve (and in some cases, recreate) an important social and architectural institution that has been forgotten, despite its contemporary relevance.

This was an interesting experience, because going into the tour, I was expecting a more architecture-centric experience, but instead, the tour was presented with an emphasis on the oppressed humanity of the tenement and on the immigrant experience so intimately related to this housing type. This discussion led to a broader discussion on not only issues of social justice, but of American and immigrant culture, in general, and how all of these various and disparate topics are still incredibly relevent to contemporary American issues with identity, housing, and immigration.

One interesting realization that I made at the Tenement Museum related to something that's probably pretty mundane: detail. I was stunned by the exquisite level of detail these tenements possessed in terms of their decoration. Although they were the cramped, dark, and damp homes for many impoverished and maligned families, the walls, floors, and ceilings of every room were covered in a sumptuous and incredible level of detail: floral motifs, imprinted patterns, geometric shapes, colors abound! While I understand that much of this has to do with the aesthetic culture of the day, it is still fascinating to see that a place for the downtrodden contained a certain richness that has altogether been forgotten and lost. The Tenement Museum does an excellent job of showcasing this sort of everyday-life level of detail.

This isn't something you can get from books or images, you have to see it, smell it. In order to really know how these people lived, one must squint through the humidity, breathe in the musk of poverty, caress the frayed edges of a marginalized society. The closer we come to understanding how the past subjugated its poor, the better able we will be to prevent contemporaneous tragedies.

After all, that's the point of the past, isn't it? To learn.

Upcycle, please

Antonio Pacheco

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