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When the Sky Falls: The Lower East Side Tenement Museum Responds to September 11th 

12-09-2015 17:35

A man came upon a little bird, on its back with its feet stretched high in the air. The man asked, "Why are you lying upside down with your feet in the air? The bird replied, "The sky is falling, and I`m holding it up with my feet." The man said, "That`s ridiculous. You`rejust a little bird. You can`t hold up the sky with your feet." "I do what I can," said the bird.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Phil Cohen, the program director of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, arrived at the Museum`s Visitor`s Center to find the staff listening to the radio. Stunned by the news, they walked to the corner of Allen and Broome Street where they could count on a direct view of the World Trade Center`s twin towers. They saw people walking toward them "covered in ash and concrete dust," Jennifer DiPiazza, program associate, recounted. Soon, what had been a trickle of people swelled into a steady stream. Faced with this ever larger surge of dazed and dusty people, Phil decided to open the Museum to provide shelter. "Co-workers," said Phil, "immediately fell in to help." Meredith Taubkin, the Museum`s scheduling coordinator rushed to the store to buy bread, peanut butter, and jelly, and started making sandwiches. Mark Shikuma, director of retail operations, got the first aid kit ready. I scrawled "Restrooms & Water" on a piece of paper and started barking out our offer to the initially suspicious passersby. Describing the WTC refugees, Phil said, "They were of every race and class - older men in suits, young people in Krispy Kreme uniforms, all fleeing lower Manhattan, some having lost co-workers, maybe family, not knowing where they were…and they are thanking us for opening a door and letting them use the bathroom!" Liz Sevcenko, vice president for programs, recalled, "People called us saints, tried to make donations to the Museum, shook our hands, gave us hugs." Renee Epps, the museum`s senior vice president, added, "One man asked me, `Are you a social service agency?` which made me proud. I understood that to him our actions appeared to be outside what was normally expected of a museum." "Many," Liz explained, "shared stories of what they had just experienced. Some had seen people jumping out of the buildings; some had body parts fall on them. One mentioned a rain of office papers. But for the most part, people sat in circles, dazed, too weak and stunned to speak and stared at their useless cell phones." The Museum`s phones were made available to people desperate to tell loved ones they were alive and to find out if others were. The next few hours passed very quickly. "We continued to let people in until about 2 p.m.," said Phil, "fighting back tears with every `God Bless You,` or `This is so nice of you.`" Renee added, "Several people said, `People are good; people are good,` as if our small acts of help could ease the pain of the day."

Seeking a Fitting Response: The Urban Pioneer Project

[Three days later, when the Museum reopened, staff members came together to discuss their experiences and reactions.] And then we decided to act. Our question that day was as it has been many times - what can this institution do to improve the world? How can we use the history of immigration past to address contemporary issues? Comparing notes on our experiences over the past several days, it became evident that many of us had overheard anti-immigrant statements. We decided to focus our resources on combating the anti-immigrant, Arab and Muslim sentiments and actions that both the bombings and the nation`s own response to the disaster have and may continue to exacerbate. We draw strength from the courage and persistence of the immigrant and migrant people we present and interpret at the Tenement Museum every day. We are keenly aware that the urban pioneers who lived in our 19th-century tenement and neighborhood successfully faced down innumerable and seemingly insurmountable difficulties. We can offer their examples as an encouragement to others. America celebrates itself as a "nation of immigrants." Our diversity remains a source of national pride. We vowed to build on this sense of self and work to insure that people of Arab descent and/or Muslim practitioners would be understood as part of the immigrant experience we so value. Through the Urban Pioneer Project, the Tenement Museum will mount an aggressive drive to articulate Arab and Muslim Americans as integral to the family of American immigrants, so vital to our national identity.

Reaching Out

September 11th found us in the midst of an extensive community outreach drive. By the time The Sweatshop, the Museum`s next permanent installation, opens, we will have invited scores of community groups and educators to see and comment upon our interpretation of a l9th-century garment shop and our effort to link that to the contemporary situation. This outreach effort, which includes a focused attempt to reach and greet members of the Pakistani and Bangladesh communities in our area as well as Muslim and/or Arab teacher associations, took on a new urgency. Beyond The Sweatshop out-reach, the Museum`s marketing department will invite members and leaders of Arab and Muslim-American groups and associations to visit the Museum and to see its programs.

Promoting Tolerance Through the Written Word

Tenement Tidbits, our monthly e-mail newsletter, will feature profiles of Arab and Muslim immigrants, comparing and contrasting their experiences with those of the 19th-century immigrants who lived in the Museum`s landmarked tenement building. It will chronicle the ways in which entire immigrant groups in the past were slandered for actual or alleged acts by individuals from their groups. Tidbits will carry the Museum`s statement about the importance of promoting tolerance in the wake of the attack. The next issue of Tenement Times, our popular publication, will look at contemporary immigrants and immigration in a historical context.

Education Program

Focusing particularly on teenagers, and using the NYC Board of Education`s Tolerance Curriculum, we will continue to afford young people opportunities to explore cultural differences and similarities and to work on projects with other teens from different backgrounds.

Dialogue Program

We will initiate a series of dialogues that consciously integrate Arabs and Muslims in conversations about immigrants and prejudice. Professionally led, they will engage museum audiences.

  • St. Augustine`s Slave Gallery - Established in l828, St. Augustine`s Episcopal Church is the only NYC church to feature a slave gallery. For the past two years, the Museum has worked with the congregants and scores of community groups to research the history of the slave gallery and to preserve it. The planned dialogue on prejudice among community people will include representatives of the Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan living in our neighborhood.
  • Mourning Ritual Program - At a moment when the entire world is in mourning, we will launch a program that compares and contrasts Jewish, Buddhist, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Muslim mourning rituals to establish a common ground. We will initiate a dialogue program on religious diversity and tolerance as part of this ongoing program.
  • Immigrant Theater: Plays By Muslim Women Playwrights - In collaboration with the Immigrant Theater Project directed by Marci Arlin, the Museum will feature a series of plays written by Arab and Muslim women. To open in January, these plays will be followed by a discussion, including talks by Arab American artists about their experience developing art in the face of prejudice.

Artistic Response

  • Mural - The Museum will commission a leading artist to work with students at Seward Park High School to paint a mural outside the Museum`s Visitor`s Center. Our Urban Pioneer theme provides an opportunity both to depict the extraordinary past and present diversity of the immigrant residents of our area and to assist youth to find common cause across ethnic, racial and religious divides.
  • Windows - We will issue a request for proposal to Arab and Muslim American artists, inviting them to submit proposals which connect their experience to that of the 19th- and early 20th-century immigrants chronicled in our tenement building.
  • o Digital Artist in Residence Program - The next Request for Proposal will call for proposals that interpret the Arab and Muslim immigrant experience.

Role of Museums in Troubled Times

As the sky appears to be falling on life as we have known it, the cultural community has a vital role to play. Just after the attack, people reported visiting museums just to see something beautiful, to have their faith in beauty reaffirmed. They went also, they said, to be in places with other people. Museums, historic sites, and cultural centers of every sort can reaffirm beauty; we can ask hard questions; we can stimulate discussion; we can set contemporary events in perspective; we can bring people together to find comfort and common cause; we can serve as a touchstone of what is good and worth preserving in our culture. We can do these things and more. And we should. At times, in the face of an overwhelming evil, in the face of a world turned topsy turvy, our efforts may appear futile or of peripheral importance. That is precisely the time to heed the little bird`s example…and do what we can.

Publication Date: November/December 2001



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Author(s):Ruth J. Abram
Volume:8
Issue:2