Sandwiched between the hubbub of Chinatown and the vibrant nightlife of the East Village are the remnants of the historic Lower East Side, once the teeming center of immigrant Jewish life and now an area under the grip of gentrification.
For the past 20 years, one woman has championed the movement to preserve the neighborhood’s deep-rooted history and culture. Ruth Abram, 62, a social activist and historian, founded the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in 1988, transforming what was initially an empty storefront into a lively National Historic Site.
She retired last week, and will be starting a new project in the fall (one that she declined to discuss).
By establishing the museum, Abram aimed to forge a relationship between descendants of former immigrants and the immigrants of today. With her colleague Anita Jacobson, Abram looked for two years before finding a suitable Lower East Side residence built prior to the Tenement House Act of 1901— when builders had to adhere to drastically stricter building regulations. Initially, Abram and Jacobson operated their tiny museum out of a storefront, waiting five years before the building’s owner would sell them the entire property.
“One by one we gave tours of an empty tenement,” Abram said.
Eventually, that empty building became the museum it is today, a showcase of true-life apartments, recreating the stories of families who lived there and retelling how they struggled to survive financially and assimilate into American culture.
During her own childhood, Abram faced similar problems fitting into her environment. Growing up in 1950s Atlanta, she felt a pervasive discrimination against Jews beginning around adolescence. The girls whom she had played with growing up suddenly informed her that she would not be invited to their cotillions. Eventually, her parents decided to leave the South, when her father became general counsel to the Peace Corps.
After high school Abram stayed in the Northeast to study history and anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College. After graduation, she spent some time organizing rent strikes in Mount Vernon and soon went on to pursue graduate study in social welfare, policy and planning at Brandeis University.
Among the groups Abram has worked for are the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Foundation and the Women’s Action Alliance. She was also a founding member of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and served as the president of the New Israel Fund. Although Abram found all of these social action ventures fulfilling, she wasn’t making the impact she desired.
“I began to feel that history was a powerful tool for social change and that is where I would make a contribution,” she said.
After completing a master’s degree in history, Abram devised a way to combine her social work skills and knowledge of history to bring a diverse nation together around its common past.
“It’s been pretty amazing from when I started to think that we’ve grown to become known throughout the world and that Ruth’s drive pushed this fledgling idea to such an incredible success,” said Renee Epps, who has worked with Abram for the past 16 years and currently serves as the museum’s executive vice president.
In contrast to other museums, the Tenement Museum has a social agenda: to promote tolerance and dispel the idea that today’s immigrants are not as “good” as those of centuries past, Abram said. Five years ago, the museum launched free English classes and partnered with The New York Times to create an immigrant guidebook, which is now printed in English, Spanish and Chinese.
Although Abram now observes huge influxes of Chinese, Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants, the Lower East Side was initially a portal for working-class German Jewish settlers. In fact, according to Abram, three quarters of today’s American Jews can trace their beginnings back to the Lower East Side. Etched on the doorpost of nearly every apartment in the tenement are the rusted remnants of mezuzot that survived through generations of immigrant families, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
But only two weeks ago, The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Lower East Side one of the 11 most endangered places in America.
“New owners with hip stores and hip restaurants are moving in,” Abram said, acknowledging the ever-present development in the neighborhood. “The Lower East Side has always been about change, and it’s also been about immigrants.”
As she leaves the museum, Abram hopes that the Landmarks Preservation Committee will soon designate parts of the Lower East Side as historical property, permanently preserving the character of the neighborhood.
“That will preserve the façade of buildings that millions remember as their first place of residence in America,” she said.