My first thought upon entering the tenements was how incredibly small they were. I've been living in New York for three years now, and I'm used to small living conditions - but I was quite astounded at how many people were living in those crammed apartments. I wondered how my sense of self would develop in those cramped conditions: never having privacy and constantly being seen and heard by those around me. Would I like the sense of community? Or would I be constantly exhausted because of it? It seems that the poorer you are, the more at the mercy of the elements you are - the more wealth, the more insulated and therefore the more removed. Being poor in those tenements meant being at the mercy of life and all its elements - you are forced to give up your boundaries: personal, spatial and emotional.
What worlds blossomed inside of them in reaction to the harsh working conditions, cramped living arrangements? I am sure it was a small sweet world hiding in the twenty layers of wallpaper, in the cracked floorboards and coal dusted windows, a world that when bent, when folded unto itself, meeting itself again in a warm embrace allows for possibility in the small places that bed and give permission.
The tour also made me realize how a riot could easily emerge from this cramped, tough existence - with over two thousand people living on a small city block, unrest would be commonplace and it probably wouldn't take much to incite people to action.
It also made me think about my great grandfather, Solomon Moses, who came to the States when he was 16 years old, completely alone and not speaking a word of English - how those tenements were populated by people just like him and how I am not that far removed from his story and ultimately all of those who lived in the tenements. I think it's important for all of us to remember that we are a country of immigrants and need to be more tolerant of those trying to seek a better life here in America.
This reminds me of the ending quote in Don Lee's wonderful book, Country of Origin:
As they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, Lisa imagined what her mother must have been feeling right then, seeing the United States for the very first time. A land where all was possible, where truth prevailed, goodness was rewarded, and beauty could be found in the meeting of outcasts. Oh, what a sight, Lisa marveled.We are orphans, all of us, she thought. And this is our home.
- Jennifer Moses, Cast Member