Commerce has been the purpose of New York since its founding a mere 400 years ago. Because of its vast wealth, the world has settled within the city. In some cases pieces of the world have been purchased to reside in New York – from Egyptian temples to Chicago staircases. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tenement Museum bookcase the spectrum of forces that shape this world metropolis.
The MET was co-founded in 1870 by four men whose backgrounds were as varied as the city. John Taylor Johnston, from a prominent New York family, made a fortune in railroads, was an avid art collector and fulfilled a life-long dream in creating the MET. Eastman Johnston was an acclaimed artist from well-connected New England stock. George Palmer Putnam, founder of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, was a leading publisher of art books. All three men were intellectually curious and well-traveled.
Yet I personally find it fascinating that an Italian military officer, immigrant, American Civil War hero and diplomat, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, served as the Museum’s first director (1879-1904). Not only had General di Cesnola a noted military career both in Europe and America, but as a “gentleman archeologist” – the only type in the 19th century – he had amassed a stunning collection of ancient Mediterranean art and artifacts. His collection became the genesis of the Met, and during his 25 year tenure the MET achieved international patronage and stature. Like all great art institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is meant to be absorbed in stages through many visits as its collection span the ages.
A shorter, but no less significant, spectrum of life is represented in the unique New York City Tenement Museum on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Without the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants between 1870 and the 1930’s, the American economic engine would have been severely hampered. Yet these seekers of a better life lived, worked and loved in small, dark rooms in row upon row of brick walk-ups built on narrow streets and created the 20th century.
Well-trained, professional tour guides immerse the visitor in the everyday life of actual tenants who lived in the buildings on Orchard Street that comprise the museum. You’re in their cramped quarters. You see, or rather don’t see, how these families from Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, could accomplish their piece-work in the dim light of a gray winter afternoon, no less work 18 hours a day. From the memories of family members, we understand that many of the dreams of these immigrants were realized by future generations.
Perhaps some in the current post-immigrant generation are now exercising in that health club off Orchard Street above the Duane Reade drug store and living in renovated $1,400/month 3 room “tenement” apartments now renting on the Lower East Side!
The ancestors certainly didn’t have lunch at Giant (stay tuned).