The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is located at 97 Orchard Street. From the outside, it appears to be no different than any of the other buildings on the street, save for a plaque proclaiming it to be a National Historic Landmark. On the inside, it is a different story. Through painstaking research of the former inhabitants of the tenement, the Museum has managed to restore several of the apartments to the way they would have appeared roughly a century ago. One apartment was the home of Jewish family, another of an Italian. Tours are regularly given of these 150 square-foot apartments which, on average, were occupied by six people living without heat, electricity, running water, toilets, and very very little natural light and ventilation. The tour guides are adept at explaining the unique architecture of the apartments and the improvements that were or were not made throughout the nearly seventy-five years of the building’s life. Indeed, it was a 1935 law that required toilets to be installed in every apartment that caused the owner to abandon the building altogether. The building illustrates the reality of the immigrant experience much more than the sanitized celebration going on at Ellis Island. Most people living in the United States today are descendants of immigrants who at some point lived in a tenement. As the tour guides are fond of saying, “America’s national building isn’t the log cabin. It’s the tenement.”
Not too long ago I received a phone call from an acquaintance at the Museum who asked me if I would come speak at a community board meeting that evening regarding the Tenement Museum’s proposal to take over the adjacent building at 99 Orchard Street. Apparently the Museum shares a wall with the neighboring building and the landlord’s improvements of that building had compromised the Museum’s structure. The whole thing was suddenly in danger of collapse. The landlord was intransigent and refused to undo what had been done, so the Museum had decided to solve the problem by simply taking over the entire building. A decision that New York State had agreed with, ruling that the Museum had eminent domain. For reasons that I couldn’t quite get straight, the matter had to be taken up with the community board.
“The landlord has made the claim that we’re trying to Disneyfy the area,” my acquaintance said. “And we were hoping that you could talk tonight about the Museum as a living institution and how it’s been active in your playwriting career.”
Despite having no idea what a community board was or what eminent domain meant, (when I looked up the word in the dictionary, I spelled it “imminent”), the Museum had been gracious enough to produce one of my plays. Besides, I was flattered at being asked and I suddenly fancied myself an artist that champions public spaces and grass roots causes. It was short notice, but they needed me. I agreed to speak.
At 6 PM that evening I rode my bicycle to P.S. 20 at 166 Essex Street. I had jotted down some rather vague notes about my own immigrant experience and how the Museum had allowed me to express that experience. “As the son of a Jewish mother and an Iranian father,” I planned to say, “I am here tonight to counter the notion that the Museum is a ‘fossilizing’ institution.” At the end of my two minutes the naysayers would be humbled.
The meeting was held in the school auditorium and by the time I arrived it was already filled with about two hundred people. As I entered I was immediately transported back to every auditorium I had ever been in as a child. It was much smaller and drabber than the ones I remembered, but it still held that same bored, disappointed aura that engulfed you when you realized that listening to the principal intone was not a great alternative to listening to your teacher intone.
The first announcement made was that there were thirty speakers on both sides of the issue and that in the interest of time we would have to pare it down to six speakers, with the rest being able to speak only if time allowed. Everyone reassembled in the lobby where things were confused and disorganized. Several clusters of people formed. No one looked familiar and I had no idea which cluster was which. I feared introducing myself to the opposing side, and being humiliated by them when they realized who I was. “Look, I’m only here to talk about how the Museum has helped me,” I would say. “I don’t have any ill will towards anyone.”
“Are you Saïd?” a woman asked. I was rescued. “I thought I recognized you,” she said. I was flattered at being recognized by someone I didn’t recognize. “Saïd is here,” she announced to another woman I didn’t know, and who was busy making a list of who was to speak.
“Oh, great! Saïd’s here!” The woman making the list said. “Great! Thanks for coming, Saïd!” I was feeling much better. She scratched off a name on her list and wrote mine at the top.
“We might not get to you,” she said. “But if you could stick around just in case, we’d really appreciate it.”
Not get to me? What about my speech “countering the notion of fossilization”?
A few minutes later we were back in the auditorium. There was a Hispanic man standing up front addressing the audience heatedly about a matter unrelated to the Museum. I felt rather sorry for him. He had obviously been wronged by someone and he now held up the documentation to prove he had been wronged. It was a very dramatic gesture, the type seen on television dramas that take place in court rooms, and I believed him despite the fact that I was sitting fifteen rows back and couldn’t make out what the documentation was. And then for the grand finale he flipped through his papers to present one last bit of evidence that would nail the whole thing, but he couldn’t find it. Time ticked down. Back and forth through his papers he flipped, to no avail. A very heavy man sitting at a folding table at the front of the stage jingled a little bell to indicate that the two minutes were up. The Hispanic man sat down. In my mind I chastised him for not using his two minutes to the fullest.
Now it was time for the Museum’s business. I looked around the auditorium trying to discern who was on my side and who wasn’t. A few rows in front of me was a very good-looking woman in her late twenties sitting next to a very good-looking man in his late twenties. He was busy looking through some papers and she was busy looking around. She was wearing a funky, wool hat and I immediately assumed that someone as hip as her would never align herself with anything as unglamorous as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Our eyes met. She looked at me suspiciously. She’s against me, I concluded. I felt alone. She hated me, it was obvious. So I hated her.
A man and his teenaged son sat down in the aisle seats beside me. They were dressed plainly, khakis and sneakers. The man looked like he had just come from his job at a small not-for-profit organization. He probably leads some of the Museum’s tours on the weekends, I thought. His son’s been helping out there since he was eight, stuffing envelopes, that sort of thing. They’re both history buffs. I liked them. They liked me.
The first person to speak was a woman on the Museum’s side. I listened carefully to what she was saying to absorb as much information about the conflict as possible. She had a slightly smug way of talking, a bit patronizing—I tried to ignore this. She reminded me of my tenth-grade English teacher, Dr. Hill, the kind of person who thinks they’re right and, even if they aren’t, knows they’re still going to get their way. She didn’t sound much like an underdog. And I was a bit unnerved by the fact that her argument wasn’t very convincing. She said the Museum needed 99 Orchard Street so it could install elevators for handicap access. “It’s the only way,” she said. I wasn’t sure why it was the only way, but when the bell rang almost everyone in the auditorium loudly applauded her. It must be a strong argument, I thought. I applauded, too.
The next person to speak was an architect hired by 99 Orchard Street. He was fat and wore an ill-fitting suit. A shyster-architect, no doubt. I hated him. He said some nonsense about the building being in good shape, about not seeing any cracks in the masonry. I wasn’t sure what any of this had to do with anything. In any case, they were obviously all lies, half-truths, distortions. An objective architect could discredit everything he said. The bell rang. People cheered. I was taken aback by the sound of it. I tried to gauge which side’s cheering had been louder.
A woman in the front row asked the shyster-architect why he had decided to examine the building on a Saturday. He seemed confused by the question. I assumed it was a very pointed question and that he was hiding something. The head of the community board said that questions would be saved for later. He sat down.
The next person to speak was a very gentle Chinese man whose connection to the Museum I couldn’t quite figure out. He wore a suit and tie and he spoke eloquently about several things including how the Museum had helped him get in touch with his roots. It sounded similar to what I had planned on saying. People in the audience grew restless, the man continued speaking. I realized, with trepidation, two things from listening to his speech: 1.) my argument is not that sound; 2.) two minutes is a lot longer than I had originally thought.
The bell rang.
“Would it be OK if I went a little longer?” he asked the heavy bell-ringer. “There’s a bit more I wanted to say on this topic.”
“NO!” was the audience’s immediate response. The raised, indignant voices drowned the auditorium. It seemed as if everyone was in agreement. Could it be that the cons were in the majority?
With great consternation I noticed that the man beside me, the one who worked at the not-for-profit organization, was also shouting angrily.
“Two minutes for everyone!” he shouted.
I was sitting next to the enemy. The Chinese man was overruled and he sat down. I applauded him meekly and self-consciously.
The next speaker was a Jewish man who spoke about his Orchard Street business of fifty years. He had a thick accent and I lost a lot of what was said. It didn’t matter, I hated him.
“99 Orchard Street already belongs to someone! How can the government take someone else’s property?” he asked rhetorically. “This is the United States of America!”
It was a shrewd, patriotic move on his behalf, in effect rallying the entire country and its history behind his cause. The crowd went wild. I was definitely outnumbered.
I thought about how awkward it would be if I got called to the stage and had to excuse myself past the not-for-profit man and his son in the aisle seats. I would give my speech in favor of having them evicted and then have to have them stand up for me as I returned to my seat. “Excuse me. Thanks.” The thought of having this interaction haunted me. I considered getting up now and trying to casually sit nearer to the Pro contingent. But I assumed if I did this everyone would know that’s what I was up to and jeer me for being a coward.
The next person to speak was an artist from South America. Besides having an accent, she was immensely soft-spoken.
“Hello, my name is,” she began quietly.
“Speak up!” Someone shouted, a bit impolitely.
She said it again.
“We can’t hear a word you’re saying!”
A black woman in the front row said gently and with a touch of genuine concern, “Honey, I’m sitting three feet away from you and even I can’t hear you.”
“I can’t speak any louder,” she said, looking around at a loss.
“Well, then don’t speak at all,” a Chinese woman in a business suit a few rows behind me said, and the auditorium roared with laughter.
“OK, just do the best you can,” the bell-ringer said.
She began again. I caught about five words of it. She sat down well before the bell rang. I didn’t applaud for fear of antagonizing the not-for-profit man.
The next person to speak was a Chinese man who spoke in defense of the Chinese restaurant, Congee Village, that would have to move if the Museum got its way. I rationalized his entire speech away by the simple fact that there are many Chinese restaurants in New York City, but only one Tenement Museum. We really don’t need another Chinese restaurant.
The speaker said that he had just gotten off the phone from the head of a Chinese-American organization who had agreed to back their cause.
“This organization has seventy thousand members,” he said.
It was a threat and a good one. I didn’t like the idea of being hated by seventy thousand people. I thought briefly about switching sides.
Then there was another artist with an accent whose speech in favor of the Museum would have made me vote against it. She also sat down before the bell jingled. I tried desperately to figure out another angle if I ended up being called.
The next speaker was a man who actually lived at 99 Orchard Street. I was afraid this might happen. He was about my age, looked a little underweight, and wore a slightly shabby, unstylish sweater. He described how nice it was living at 99 Orchard Street.
“When my parents came from England to visit me, Lou met them and showed them around. How many landlords would do that?” I wanted to hate him for kissing his landlord’s ass, but found the going tough. I wondered how hard it would be for him to find another apartment.
He pointed out what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Museum. “What are they going to tell the tourists of 99 Orchard Street? ‘This is the history of the people who lived here before we evicted them?’”
The auditorium laughed and laughed.
I decided that if I was called I would point out that I was here to talk about one specific aspect. “I just want to talk about how the Museum has helped my career,” I would say as gently as possible, my voice filled with reconciliation.
“Who cares about your stupid playwriting career? We’re talking about the place where I live!”
I’d have no rebuttal. My face would flush. My museum acquaintance would regret having ever invited me in the first place. The good-looking woman would snicker at my ineptitude. I’d sit down with a minute and a half still to speak, having to make my way past the father and his son.
Then the landlord spoke. I had imagined him as a fat cat, and that his argument would be so transparent it would be unable to disguise his naked greed, his never ending pursuit of wealth and his disdain for public property and humanity. But he was dressed in simple slacks and a sweater and he read with great speed from a prepared speech that described his childhood at 99 Orchard Street. He seemed tired and nervous and in need of getting everyone of his well-planned words out before two minutes were up. I felt sad for him.
I suddenly envisioned myself getting up and talking about how I had planned to come and speak on the side of the Museum, but that now I had been won over by 99 Orchard Street. “Save 99 Orchard Street! Save 99 Orchard Street!” The crowd would go crazy and slap me on my back. I would be a hero. The good-looking woman would be into me.
The six speakers on either side were done and the board moved on to other business. I took the opportunity to go to the bathroom and once there I was painfully reminded of every bathroom that I had ever had to endure as a student. There were no mirrors, no toilet paper, no stall doors, and as if to wage a silent protest against these inhumane conditions, the students had not flushed any of the toilets.
When I returned to the auditorium the good-looking man who had been sitting next to the good-looking woman and whom I had thought was against the Museum, was talking about a liquor license he hoped to receive.
“I’ve been working in restaurants for fifteen years,” he said. “It has always been a dream of mine to open my own”
He seemed fairly persuasive and I wanted him to get his liquor license despite being jealous of his good looks and the amount of money that he apparently had to open up a restaurant.
He was countered by an older man who pointed out that there were already something like 28 restaurants with liquor licenses in a one block radius. This also seemed fairly persuasive. The man talked about how the outside seating area was going to be enclosed with a plastic material that would not insulate the sound as well as glass.
“He’s only using plastic because it’s cheaper,” he said indignantly.
I marveled at the research that the older man had done on this matter, but I couldn’t decide which side to be on.
Next was a representative for the city councilwoman of the district. The representative was a very short white man in his early thirties. I had always assumed that representatives of city council members would be dressed in suits and ties and carry briefcases. But this one was wearing a striped turtle neck and looked like the kind of ordinary guy I might sit next to on the subway. He warmly wished everyone a happy February and reminded us that it was illegal to talk on your cell phones while driving.
“Not only is it unsafe, but it will cost you a hundred dollars.”
He also said that he had the schedule for alternate side of the street parking for 2003.
I stuck around a little longer listening to the various speakers until it became apparent that the Museum business had been finished for the evening and I wouldn’t have a chance to make my fossilization argument. Relief and disappointment came over me. Outside people milled about on the sidewalk discussing things, but I didn’t stick around to listen. I unlocked my bicycle and rode towards my home in the West Village.
For more information about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum you can go to www.tenement.org.