Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

American exceptionalism

After my flurry of article writing, blogging and fisking over the last few days, I need to turn my attention to actual remunerative work. I'll almost certainly blog today, but mininally. So I thought I'd start my day with a question for you. First, a little background: Have any of you ever been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York? It is, in my opinion, the best museum New York has to offer. All the other museums -- the Met, the Museum of Natural History, MOMA, etc. -- are sort of generic. That is, they're great museums, but you can find their like in every major world city. The Tenement museum, though, is unique and wonderful. It's a building in the Lower East Side that was built in 1867 and that was continuously inhabited through the early 1930s. It was then sealed up, where it remained as an unlikely time capsule to be explored decades later. This is the Lower East Side through which hundreds of thousands of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe streamed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The museum is a staggering testament to the human ability to adapt and survive. Each apartment in the building is roughly the shape and size of a bus (although slightly shorter and wider). Each unit was divided into three parts, with a window only in the front room, a pass-thru between front room and kitchen (which was installed only in the 1890s), and then a door between kitchen and back bedroom. I was there during the summer and the heat was paralyzing. There were four units to a floor. Initially, there was no plumbing, but eventually, each floor got a single toilet. Did I mention that these teeny units usually housed an average family of six or eight, or that they were used as clothing sweat shops with up to twelve people working in each unit per day? That means a potential daily toilet load of forty-eight people. It helps to remember that, at the time about which I'm writing, the Lower East Side was more densely packed than Calcutta. Anyway, I'm not doing justice to describing how they lived. Barbara Tuchman actually gives a very good sense of these lives:

They came from the warrens of the poor, where hunger and dirt were king, where consumptives coughed and the air was thick with the smell of latrines, boiling cabbage and stale beer, where babies wailed and couples screamed in sudden quarrels, where roofs leaked and unmended windows let in the cold blasts of winter, where privacy was unimaginable, where men, women, grandparents and children lived together, eating, sleeping, fornicating, defecating, sickening and dying in one room, where a teakettle served as a wash boiler between meals, old boxes served as chairs, heaps of foul straw as beds, and boards propped across two crates as tables, where sometimes not all the children in a family could go out at one time because there were not enough clothes to go round, where decent families lived among drunkards, wife-beaters, thieves and prostitutes, where life was a seesaw of unemployment and endless toil, where a cigar-maker and his wife earning 13 cents an hour worked seventeen hours a day seven days a week to support themselves and three children, where death was the only exit and the only extravagance and the scraped savings of a lifetime would be squandered on a funeral coach with flowers and a parade of mourners to ensure against the anonymity and last ignominy of Potter's Field. [Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower (1962)
One of the things that the tenement museum did, using census information, was to trace what happened to those immigrants and their descendents. As I understand it, almost without exception, the tenement was a one generation thing, with the families moving further and further into success and the suburbs. So my question or rather, my series of questions: What was it about America that enabled people to pass through this Hell in a single generation? Was it that time in history? Was it America itself? Was it that particular group of immigrants? As you think about it, think about the current problems in Europe, such as the French riots or the German honor killings, which seem to occur in housing complexes where immigrants have lived in isolation for generations. Also, think about the fact that, despite the Great Society, many African-Americans have remained mired in poverty and have also spent generations living in depressing, violent squalor (New Orleans is a good example). Last, if you have information on the subjects, you might bring to the table thoughts about today's immigrants (Hispanic, East Asian, etc.). I have my own ideas about the answers to my questions, but I'm much more interested in hearing what others have to say. I find the collective wisdom that comes to my blog inspiring and enlightening. Feel free to leave comments here. Or, if you take this over to your own blog, be sure to let me know so I can read your thoughts. Talking to Technorati: , ,