Archive for the ‘general’ Category

Imagine yourself drinking beer in 1870

Saturday, January 19th, 2013
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Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a new tour: Shop Life, which includes the re-creation of an 1870s German saloon along with stories and pictures from other retail businesses that have been part of 97 Orchard Street over the decades.

The saloon is a beautiful warm space, although dimly lit—and, our guide Claudia told us, in the days of kerosene lanterns it probably would have been dimmer still. Besides a fine wooden bar and nice furniture, there’s a table in the corner laid out with the same food you find in Germany today—sausage, eggs, bread. (Unfortunately the repast was only a model—while it would be wonderful to have a live experience in the saloon, with food and drink and music, that would be too much to ask of the museum. But you can find Germans drinking beer at Der Schwarze Kölner in Fort Greene.) Beyond the saloon is a little office room, then a tiny kitchen, then a well-furnished small bedroom. 

Claudia raised some good points about the importance of the wife’s unpaid labor (a great book about female lives & labor back in the day, if you’re interested, is Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her) and the controversy about New York’s blue laws, which forbade alcohol sales on Sunday—in German culture, the day the families liked to enjoy a few beers together after church.

The last room features an interactive exhibit that offers a variety of information and stories to read and listen to. I would have liked to meet the 15-year-old girl who mastered the new typewriter model in 1900, opening up her career horizons. The onward pace of the generations comes through in this exhibit; by the 1930s, many of the Lower East Side shopkeepers no longer lived in a room behind their business, but in Brooklyn or elsewhere. In many cases, America was indeed a springboard to the middle class.

As with the other tours at the museum, it’s about putting yourself in a space and hearing stories to help you imagine. The guides are good about reminding us of things affecting life for nineteenth-century immigrants that might never occur to us today.

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We had a great time at Shop Life, and then went for soup in Chinatown.

 

 

 

They came, they built, they persevered

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Time for a long-belated report on the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which I visited in October 2010. The museum, which was created in 1980 but expanded a few years ago at 215 Centre Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, offers a fresh perspective for those who are used to thinking about 19th- and 20th-century immigration as an Ellis Island–based experience involving Europeans coming to New York.

Among other things, the museum’s permanent exhibition “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America” tells how immigrants came to America to earn money for their families in the California Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad. A poem from the 1840s tells of someone going to America “to fight my family’s hunger. / To make them proud.” As is typically the case with new immigrants, Chinese laborers encountered a fair amount of hatred here, especially when they were hired as strikebreakers in the 1870s.

General store, Museum of Chinese in America

General store, Museum of Chinese in America

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 essentially banned immigration except for merchants, diplomats, and students, and led to the creation of a “bachelor society,” as any laborers who did get into the Land of Liberty, or were already here, were forbidden to bring wives or marry white women. This was particularly cruel for a culture where family is everything. In the meantime, as illustrated by the re-creation of a Chinese general store (above), merchants served as a post office for laborers and a tie to the traditions of their homeland, some of which were maintained in this setting even after they had died out in China. 

The act was finally repealed in 1943, when the war with Japan created a powerful incentive to befriend China. It’s jarring to see a Life magazine page from December 1941 with instructions on “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese”—a public service to keep Chinese people from being attacked by Japanese haters. (Life calls this “a distressing ignorance,” but as far as I could tell, it didn’t protest the assault of Japanese Americans.)

I don’t want to give the impression that the museum is a rebuke to Americans. The Chinese immigrants’ experience was similar, in many ways, to those of the ancestors of most Americans today. The degree of unwelcome was much worse because of the undeniable component of racism. But the sense that I got while touring the museum by myself is that it was created by Americans of Chinese descent who are proud to tell the story of how they came to be part of this country, helping to build it in the process. Becoming an American is still an aspiration, but, significantly, it is not one that requires, or should require, giving up your cultural heritage. We are all enriched by this.

The museum also enlightened me on historical matters of which I was shamefully ignorant: for instance, the Opium Wars. (I had never before seen John Jacob Astor referred to as a “fur and opium millionaire.”) China was a booming exporter in the mid-19th century, interested only in collecting silver in return, and the British Empire became frustrated with the trade imbalance. (This may sound familiar.) The Opium Wars were fought because Britain was trying to force opium into China to create a market for something they could supply. China, not unreasonably, objected.

This is not an immigration issue, but it is illustrative of how much of world history we don’t know about if we don’t seek it out. Seeking it out at MOCA is definitely worth the trip.

We’re all Irish today?

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

I’ve been thinking about St. Patrick’s Day and wondering why it’s such a big observance in the United States, and I found this piece by Peter Behrens in the New York Times to be interesting. He reviews the unwelcome faced by Irish immigrants in the 1840s—one of the first groups considered dark and unworthy of this great country, yet now a part of America that is not only embraced but embraced with a big beery hug. “This March 17,” he writes, “on this side of the water, we ought to be celebrating immigration, not Irishness.”

Immigrant Heritage Week 2011

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

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Photo by Steve Bonilla

Immigrant Heritage Week is April 11–17 this year, and the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs is joining forces with StoryCorps in a project to give immigrants an opportunity to tell their stories. The festivities will also include the announcement of the winners of the American Dreamer Awards, “created to celebrate the significant accomplishments and contributions made by an individual or organization to better the lives of immigrants and immigrant communities in New York City,” according to the mayor’s office website.

In addition, a survey of immigrant entrepreneurs and small business owners is being taken in an effort to improve services.

In the past, Immigrant Heritage Week has included a wide array of activities at sites across the city. There doesn’t seem to be a calendar of events this year—budget cuts? Insufficient attendance in previous years? There is, at least, an event called “The Culture of Joy & Resilience” at 2 pm Saturday, April 16, at the St. George Library on Staten Island. It’s the kickoff of a project that will tour libraries across the borough, bringing “a series of four exhibit panels, each profiling a community-based folk art expression, to rotate among several neighborhood library branches.”

Just a word about that Islamic center

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Let’s try to calm down and remember a few things:

  • No one is proposing to build a mosque “on top of Ground Zero.” The actual World Trade Center site belongs, emotionally, to the American public and would not be an appropriate place for a mosque—or for a church of any denomination.  But exactly how many blocks away is it no longer hallowed ground?
  • The organizers of the group who want to build the Park51 Islamic center and mosque did not choose the site for its proximity to Ground Zero. They chose it for its proximity to the people they are serving, who happen to be Islamic New Yorkers. The neighborhood is already their home.
  • Some Americans may see 9/11 as the event that defines Muslims, but most Muslims do not see 9/11 as their defining event. So for those who take the plans as a slap in their face, it wasn’t meant that way.

If you’re a Christian, you have reason to have faith in the power of love, or I’ve been completely misled about the New Testament. So let’s love our neighbors a little bit, for Christ’s sake.

American identity, past & present

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Map showing the majority immigrant ancestry per state; green is German. Source: German Emigration Center, Bremerhaven, Germany.

Map showing significant immigrant ancestry per state; green is German. Source: German Emigration Center, Bremerhaven, Germany.

As we celebrate our nation’s 234th birthday, I’m thinking about American identity—not that I could even begin to define that. All the same, I spent the spring researching the influence of German immigrants on its formation.

From 1820 to 1985, more immigrants came from German territory than from any other country (7,031,370). Even in the eighteenth century, there were enough of them to make Benjamin Franklin worry that German would overtake English as America’s tongue. Yet these people did not carry some monolithic characteristic to impart on the New World. They brought diversity. The modern nation of Germany is younger than the United States (1871), and the immigrants came from many regions: they saw themselves as Badeners, Hessians, Palatines, rather than Germans. What’s more, their influences here are determined by place of origin, religion, political views, time of migration, reasons for migration, region of settlement, and whether they were urban or rural, scattered among a larger population or dominant in the area. Consequently, there can be no simple “German” influence.

And yet, there may be one in this very diversity. Steven Nolt, in his book Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), shows that this population (Pennsylvania Germans, 1790–1848) maintained its Old World ways and spoke a German dialect, yet considered themselves definitive Americans for that very reason. America was the land of liberty, and they were practicing it. What kind of liberty would force them to abandon everything they knew, force them to conform to a particular religion or way of life, force them to be someone different?

German particularism—the idea that each regional and religious group should maintain its community and its traditions, even while adapting them to the New World—was widespread. German Americans participated in the country’s economic and political life, and some Germans quickly assimilated, but according to the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, “until about the middle of the twentieth century, German was the most widely taught modern foreign language in U.S. schools and colleges.” These are our forefathers.

They were not, of course, the only Americans who believed in particularism, or localism, or states’ rights. But by preserving their language and culture, they lived this choice, and they did not consider themselves any less American for doing so.

Today, Americans have the same belief in local control: we don’t want Washington telling us how to live in Mississippi, Arizona, Vermont, or New York. Why, then, is there a simultaneous view that immigrants should conform or get out?

“American,” after all, is not really an ethnicity, except for Native Americans. It is a nationality, and more than any other, perhaps, it is an identity that people may choose. Let’s hope they keep doing so. In the vast openness of our self-definition may lie our greatest freedom.

World Cup celebration

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

I’m too busy watching the Cup (among other things) to do a proper post, but the Times has plenty of coverage on where to watch the matches among fans rooting for any team (except perhaps North Korea)–including an interactive map.

Immigrant Heritage Week is upon us again!

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

A few quick notes that have been piling up:

Immigrant Heritage Week will be celebrated from April 15 to 21 this year. Wish I had time to say more about it.

Photojournalist Dave Sanders has been documenting Kensington’s community of immigrants from Darfur, Sudan, for over a year. See the Times for more info.

Like the local Haitian community, New York Chileans also had reason to seek each other out after the February 27 earthquake in Chile, but they are relatively few (15,000) and scattered around the region. Read more about it in the March 5 Times.