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EDITORIAL: Unfortunate Tenement Timing

The story appeared in the New York Times early in June. 

The Tenement Museum on Manhattan's Lower East Side, like all institutions open to the public, was emerging from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. And, quite understandably, it was indicating a desire to come back, as they say, bigger and better than ever.

But the roots of that aspiration actually preceded Covid. As the Times reported: "In 2008, shortly after the opening of an apartment telling the story of Joseph Moore, an 19th-century immigrant Irish waiter, a museum educator noticed something interesting in an 1869 city directory. Right above Moore’s name was another Joseph Moore, also a waiter, living a few neighborhoods away. Same name, same profession. But there was an extra designation — 'Col’d,' or Colored.

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"The educator started inviting visitors to think about the two Joseph Moores. How would their lives have been similar, or different? As other educators picked up the story, a conversation grew about how to talk about 'the other Joseph Moore' — and about the museum’s broader omissions.

"Now, as the museum celebrates its reopening with a block party on June 12, it is leaning hard into the story of the Black Joseph Moore. It is researching an apartment recreation dedicated to him and his wife, Rachel — its first dedicated to a Black family. And it is introducing a neighborhood walking tour called 'Reclaiming Black Spaces,' which explores sites connected with nearly 400 years of African-American presence on the Lower East Side."

All well and good. New York City is a place where all racial, ethnic and religious communities can lay a claim. 

Back to the Times report: "Today, the eight restored spaces at 97 Orchard Street present the stories of German, Irish, Italian and Eastern European Jewish families. But the museum’s researchers never found any evidence that the more than 7,000 people who lived in the building over the years included any Black families.

"In 2017, the museum opened a second building just up the block, which allowed it to add stories of a Chinese immigrant and a Puerto Rican family, and extend the time line into the 1980s. But researchers also found no clearly documented Black residents, either immigrant or native-born, in that building. By then, some educators had started filling in the gaps with the 'other' Joseph Moore story.

"The Joseph and Rachel Moore apartment, on the fifth floor, won’t open until fall 2022. But starting in July, the existing Moore tour, called 'Irish Outsiders,' is being replaced with a hybrid tour discussing both Josephs, and offering a preview of the museum’s detective work."

It is that word, "hybrid," that has raised concerns among Irish Americans, not least the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which sees itself as the front line guardian of the Irish immigrant story in New York, not least in the peak tenement years of the 19th century.

So the AOH released a statement as the tenement story, half a year after the Times report, broke out into a wider realm.

Said that statement in part: "The Tenement Museum was established to tell the history of immigration through the lives of successive families who lived in the buildings that the museum now occupies. The museum currently documents the lives of Irish, Eastern European Jewish, and Italian Americans who lived in the museum's building throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The museum is to be commended for this unique concept which makes a very personal connection to history.

"However, multiple news sources have reported that the Tenement Museum has decided to now include programming focused on the story of an African American family even though it is not in keeping with the museum concept as the family were neither immigrants nor residents of the building.

"To accommodate this story, the current Irish programing, 'Irish Outsiders,' focused on the prejudices that Irish Americans faced in the age of Thomas Nast and 'No Irish Need Apply' is to be replaced with a 'hybrid story' of the Irish and African American families leveraging the coincidence that the families shared the same name and lived in New York at the same time.

"While the AOH respects and supports telling the stories of all heritages, it should not be a zero-sum game where telling the story of one heritage comes at the price of eliminating another. The history of anti-Irish Catholic bigotry in the U.S. is little told; the Museum proposal to eliminate it in favor of a 'hybrid program' only furthers the trend of airbrushing it from American history. The AOH cannot help but be concerned that the compare and contrast format of a 'hybrid program' engenders, intentionally or not, a spirit of competition between the two stories."

The fears expressed in the AOH statement are valid. Whether they prove grounded is up to the Tenement Museum which, arguably, is a victim of poor timing.

The "hybrid" plan has emerged at a moment in time when the Irish story in New York City and around it has come under intense pressure, what with the threat of closure hanging over the Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, the proposed sale of the American Irish Historical Society in Manhattan and, as Adrian Flannelly, Irish Cultural Liaison to the Great Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, reminded this page, the ever present uncertainty over funding and maintenance of that memorial by the Hudson.