Saturday, July 13, 2019

ISO Otis Redding

                In Charleston tour guides point out the historic markers on antebellum homes.  In Macon, Georgia the emblems designate hippie crash pads and tour guides describe bands streaking naked through the neighborhood.  Macon thrusts its fist into the air and declares it’s “Where the South Rocks”.  Otis Redding is a local hero.  Little Richard’s “wop-bop- a-loo-bop” is almost an anthem.  The Allman Brothers, once the epitome of unwelcome hippie types, are now a tourist attraction with vans of fans shown where they “crashed”, wrote songs, hid out to escape the cops and photographed album covers   Throngs make the pilgrimage to Rose Hill Cemetery where they’re buried and leave mementos like little frogs, lighters and guitar picks. When my girlfriend Mary and I visited Macon recently rock n roll was a constant theme not only because of the city’s illustrious history but because of its dedication to nurturing the next Otis Redding.
                Macon’s musical legacy is the impetus for its future.  We wandered into the Tic Toc Room one morning and the new owner David Fullman stopped stocking the bar to tell us the club’s history.  The original owner “Miss Ann” Howard created the club as one of Macon’s first gay bars.  Little Richard, kicked out by his family while a teenager, slept upstairs, performed and washed dishes there.  David proudly held an iconic photograph of him as he described how he’s revitalizing the club 
                Capricorn Records, where rockers like Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, Wet Willie, Percy Sledge, Bonnie Bramlett and others recorded in the 1970’s is renovating its historic building and undertaking a large music education program in collaboration with Mercer College.  Their goal is to educate future music legends.                            
          At the Otis Redding Foundation, Mary and I spoke to Leila Regan-Porter, the executive assistant.  Fans come to the small museum to pay tribute to the influential soul singer including a guy from England who was so moved to arrive that he cried.  I’ve been all over the world and this is my favorite place.  I adore Macon,” she said.  Inspired by its namesake, the foundation empowers youth through music and arts education programs and partners to provide lessons as well as scholarships for continued studies at Mercer College.  “We all work together as part of our community to make things happen,” Leila says.  This year they have 75 kids in music camps and teachers from all over the world. 
          Macon is home to some of rock n roll’s most storied venues including the City Auditorium where we attended a rollicking concert by Gladys Knight.  Built in 1923, it has hosted decades of major acts including a gospel performance by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1946 that made music history.  Little Richard was selling soft drinks that night and was pulled up onto the stage to sing a duet, igniting his musical ambition.  Since her debut at the age of 7 when she was the first African American winner of the Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, Gladys Knight has earned her title as the Empress of Soul.  Ever the diva, she had the diverse crowd on their feet as she rocked the full house.   
                When Macon touts itself as the city “Where Soul Lives” it’s also paying respect to the roots of that sound:  the African American culture which comprises half of Macon’s population.  Accompanied by children playing djembes, we toured the Harriet Tubman African American Museum with education coordinator JacQuez Harris. Radiating youthful optimism and ambition, JacQuez  says he “tries to exemplify what a 21st century African American man should look like.”  He dresses professionally and devotes himself to mentoring youth.  “I don’t know what tomorrow holds but I know who holds tomorrow,” he told us as he passionately recounted Tubman and the museum’s stories. 
              H&H Restaurant, where the philosophy is “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”, was founded by two African American women Inez Hill and Louise Hudson. They fed the struggling Allman Brothers for free which earned “Mama Louise” (also known as “the most beloved woman in Macon”) a seat on their tour bus in 1972.  Menu items such as pork skins ‘n pimento cheese, fried okra, biscuits and gravy and the legendary fried chicken continue to lure scores of hungry customers.

         The Douglass Theatre, founded in 1921 by Macon’s first African American millionaire Charles Douglass, was recently renovated and continues to attract widely-varied audiences for concerts and events.  It has earned membership in the African American Historic Preservation Network. 
                The rock, blues and soul megahits that were birthed in Macon are the city’s treasured legacy but to Macon they are just the intro.  Investments and vision are nurturing the talent that will become our county’s future musical marvels.  Rock on Macon.  Rock on! 
If You Go:


Monday, June 17, 2019

Bragging Rights

Dawn on the island. Photo by Terese Przytakoski

                I had to restrain my impulse to boast.  As our boat bobbed in the Bull’s Bay estuary, dolphins leaped acrobatically on cue.  The woman beside me, who’d come from Michigan, grabbed my arm in excitement.  “Did you see that?” she yelled.  “I know,” I wanted to tell her.  “I actually get to live here.”  The other thirteen travelers had come from distant states and Canada to the exotic location of Bull’s Island.  I was the only local spending the weekend with Coastal Expeditions at the Dominick House.       

                These trips are only offered 8 times a year.  When registration opens, the spots usually fill within minutes.  After all, staying overnight on the island is a rare opportunity.  Camping is prohibited and Dominick House is only open to scientists and these few expeditions.  The historic house is nestled among live oak trees near the boat dock.  It was built in 1925 by New York banker Gayer Dominick and enjoyed as a winter residence for his family until they conveyed it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1936.  The accommodations are comfortable but simple. As a solo traveler, I stayed in a large room with 4 other women with an adjoining bath.  Small rooms were assigned to couples.  
We gathered each evening in a circle of upholstered office chairs surrounded by foraged artifacts and nature photographs.   Meals were a communal affair.
                Each day we were offered hikes and excursions led by College of Charleston-trained scientists Anna Atencio and Olivia DePue. Their expertise was impressive.  On the beach, they found an obscure animal track, a bobcat they surmised, and started following it to tell us what happened:  “See how he was running here?” Olivia pointed. “Then he crouched here, see?  Maybe he was stalking something.  Might have been that ghost crab from that hole there.  And look, then he started running….” These young women were never stumped by a question. They knew the names of all the flowers, birds and trees, the history of the island and its inhabitants and spoke authoritatively about the changing ecology due to climate change and nature.  They drove boats and trailers, cooked meals, led yoga and generally made me proud to be the parent of a CofC graduate. 
     Olivia and Anna’s reverence for the 5,000 acre island was apparent.  Throughout the weekend they told us things that made us go “wow”:  how some oysters can close their shells to entrap the legs of oyster-catcher birds; that osprey have an extra bone in their talon which allows them to hold fish they catch at a 90 degree angle to be more aerodynamic; how every single pine tree on the island died after being submerged during Hurricane Hugo; why those newborn alligators were lined up photogenicallly on their mother’s back.   The bird watchers in the group were giddy with excitement.  Hauling packs heavy with telescoping lenses and binoculars, they sparred over birds’ names and checked off life lists.  These self-described bird nerds were having the time of their lives in this paradise of birdland which is home to 293 species.  Not for the first time in my travel adventure career, I also found myself in a group fascinated by scat.  They gingerly picked apart balls of dung and postulated about the diet and identity of the animals that’d left these intriguing souvenirs.
                It was a well-paced itinerary with lots of walking.  “Papa Mo” made sure we were   With a flourish, he hoisted in a huge platter with an Instagram-worthy Low Country boil encircled by conch shells. An evening’s boat ride became a happy hour with his smoked trout and buffalo chicken dips laid out on the center console.  He even made a flaming dessert!  Throughout it all he was a jovial cheerleader, inspiring dozens of effusive comments in the guest book and grateful hugs upon departure. 
nourished for the adventure with ample, healthy meals spiced up with a few spectacular surprises.
                This trip is the epitome of a close-by adventure for those of us near Charleston.  It’s only three miles off our coast, departing from Moore’s Landing in Awendaw.  Bull’s island is the largest of 4 barrier islands within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge which itself is one of over 500 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.  The system’s mission is to manage lands and waters specifically for wildlife.  Bull’s Island’s habitat supports deer, otters, bobcats, black fox squirrels and the largest population of alligators outside of the Everglades.  Protecting this environment gives visitors like us the opportunity to live the words of William Wordsworth that are posted on the lodge’s wall:  “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”

If You Go:
Coastal Expeditions:   843-884-7584  Call them or follow the link on their website to be notified of upcoming trips. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Getting In on the Act

Compagnie Herve Koubi

                The pay is low and the hours are long but apprentices at Spoleto love the experience.  They rave about seeing their first opera, getting to personally know the performers, watching the festival ignite the city and being part of that magic.   Meanwhile, they’re getting a reality check on their career paths.  Gabriella Plyler is an Arts Management major at the College of Charleston and an apprentice this year in Media Relations where she hopes to get “insight into a world renowned arts festival beyond the classroom and online,” and “to learn more about how a festival is curated, what it is like behind the scenes of a performance.”
                 The Apprenticeship Program is a big part of what makes the festival run so smoothly. It offers short, hands-on experiences under the guidance of professional arts administrators and technicians in the areas of artist services, box office, development, accounting, media relations, orchestra management, production or operations. For college students, it’s a clarifying experience.  Olivia Anderson apprenticed at Spoleto a few years ago.  At the time she was a music education major and learned that “I wanted to be more involved in the performing arts/arts administration world versus the music education/teaching world.” She went on to complete three more apprenticeships and is now the festival’s assistant box office manager.  Apprenticeships also provide skills for the real work world. Nick Bragin apprenticed in 2013 in Box Office Operations while a grad student.  
2019 Official Poster art by Laura Owens
“Spoleto utilizes Tessitura software that is designed for ticketing, customer relationship management, development and marketing.  Tessitura is an industry standard and my time at Spoleto afforded me the opportunity to learn the ropes.”  Working under impressive leadership, he also acquired a perspective on effective management, lessons he brought to his current job as the fulltime Guest Services Manager at a large venue in Indiana where he manages 40 people.  As it did for Nick, working at Spoleto enhances resumes and often leads to permanent jobs.  When Allison Ross-Spang applied to be an apprentice she was graduating from the College of Charleston and “wondering what my next step would be.” Selling tickets, working will- call and troubleshooting occasional problems taught her a great deal about customer service.  “I think working in the Box Office helped make me a better employee and pushed me to work harder.”  She is now a department manager in Artist Services.  Rubbing shoulders with dedicated professionals teaches work habits too.  Caroline Hagood was an apprentice in 2013 in Artists Services. “I learned a lot about organization skills and time management… especially how to be open-minded to adapting to changes in plans and how to have a flexible schedule.”  Caroline has found these skills invaluable as she continues college. 
Shakespeare's Globe
Applicants are forewarned that the long hours include evenings and weekends and that the pay is minimal.  Depending on the department assignment, duties range from hospitality and transportation for artists to moving orchestra equipment and instruments.  Production assistants may build sets or assist electrical work.  Accounting personnel help with payroll and purchase orders.  Photo shoots and press releases often keep Media Relations apprentices busy.  Most positions take place during the festival   except production assistants who begin in April. Compensation includes a small living allowance and housing plus $50 in travel expenses for out of town applicants.  If they’re lucky and not too exhausted, they get to see some shows.  The applications, available each winter, ask applicants for their experience in a wide range of capacities including carpentry, craft work, sewing, tailoring, stage management, audio mixing, lighting and running shows.  Telephone interviews are required as well as letters of recommendation.  Media relations applicants have to submit writing samples.  It’s a very competitive process that requires ambition and passion, the kind that Gabriella Plyler displayed when she said, “I promised myself that I will always try my best to work in a place that represents the arts in any form…and have always wanted to work within this type of environment and organization.”  But those who have completed the experience encourage others to apply.  Allison Ross-Spang says, “…seeing the festival come together and being able to say I helped gave me a lot of confidence that I was in the right field.”   Carolina Hagood echoes that sentiment:  “I would definitely recommend this apprenticeship opportunity to applicants.  It is a phenomenal cultural experience and a window into how large scale, professional arts festivals function.” 
Shakespeare's Globe

Photo Credits:  
Compagnie Herve Koubi:  photo by Nathalie Stenalski
Spoleto Poster:  Featuring the work of Laura Owens courtesy the artists; Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York, Rome, Sadie Coles HQ London and Galeria Gisela Captain, Cologne.
 Shakespeare's Globe Courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Into the Swamp

                The sign along the canal pointed, “To Fargo and all points south (if you know how)”.  It was a wise-crack reminder that this place the Indians called “The Land of Trembling Earth” is an ever-changing, confusing landscape.  “It’s really easy to get disoriented out here…  People disappear.  You can get 100 feet away from a trail and get lost,” our guide Charlie warned as we motored down the Suwannee Canal in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.  This huge area, over 630 square miles, is actually a bog inside of a saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor.  A thick layer of peat, sometimes up to 30 feet deep, lies beneath the swamp covered by black reflective water. Sometimes lightening ignites the peat and the fires burn for weeks.  Pieces of peat often break off and float, turning into little islands.  Mother Nature at her wildest.
Upside down reflection on the canal. 
                As Sandhill cranes honk overhead and alligators sunned along the bank, another tourist asked Charlie the ubiquitous question:  “Have you ever been attacked by an alligator?”  “No,” he said, “but I’ve been close and I’ve got the scars to prove it.”  On cue, he pulled the boat beside a lolling gator that let out an unexpectedly loud hiss, causing us to bolt from our seats.  We were motoring down a canal that began construction in the late 1800’s to harvest Cypress trees. It was a doomed venture.  Poor engineering, mosquitoes, market conditions and convict labor caused the companies to go bankrupt after harvesting over one million cubic board feet of timber from old growth forests.  “All that mayhem and carnage was to produce chipped wood pellets to export to China for heating.  Paraquat was spread on everything to promote tree growth and harvesting,” Charlie explained.   He and another boat guide Melvin are fierce protectors of this unique environment.  With an accent like molasses punctuated by spits of tobacco into the water, Melvin celebrated the many renegades, outlaws and hermits that built remote homesteads in the swamp after the Seminoles were driven out.  During Prohibition, most of the liquor in New York and Chicago was made in stills here and it was a hub for drug importation in the 1970’s. In what Charlie called “A Second Trail of Tears”, these hardscrabble settlers were also driven out when harvesting began. “Folks out here don’t like the government.  We like privacy.” Charlie insisted.  Melvin delights in going to classrooms with beakers of methane gas collected from peat and lighting it on fire to explain the area’s ecology.  With a mischievous smile, he described the excitement:  “It smells like an elephant just walked into the room.”
Cabin at Laura Walker State Park
                This primeval beauty can be visited in several ways.  A main entrance near Folkston, GA is best for short visits. A visitor center and boat tours are available there. Stephen C. Foster State park near Fargo in the park’s west has boardwalks, boating and hiking trails, fishing, guided boat tours, motor boat and canoe rentals, camping and cabins.  Laura Walker State Park is near Waycross, close to the park’s northern entrance.  That park boasts an 18-hole golf course, modern cabins, camping, beach, boat ramps and fishing deck.  My husband and I have stayed in both state parks and enjoyed having our bicycles along.  We pedaled back to our cabin at Stephen Foster one day to find a mother bear and cubs scavenging in our back yard.  Our favorite bike ride was the Swamp Island Drive, a 7-mile loop (also open to cars) with numbered markers that pointed out historic and natural points of interest.  An interesting stop was Chesser Island Homestead built on a 592-acre island in the late 1800’s.  Family members lived there until 1958 in a largely self-sufficient lifestyle.  Remnants of their determination to carve a life from the harsh conditions include syrup shed, a smokehouse and the hand-built timber house.  You can also totally retreat from civilization by camping in the swamp for 2 to 5 days by permit.  Shelters and camping islands are provided but no motorized boats are permitted.  The park website warns of many considerations including: “Paddling can be slow-going and strenuous on shallow and/or narrow trails. You may have to get out of your canoe and push across peat blowups or shallow water.” Today, over one million visitors a year come to the Okefenokee, especially in the spring when thousands of blooming lily pads are intoxicating. It is the largest area in the Southeastern United States not intersected by roads, providing a rare opportunity for solitude and undisturbed recreation. Charlie calls it “a very spooky, metaphysical place. That’s what makes it exciting: it’s not our world.”

If You Go
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge:
Laura Walker State Park:
Stephen Foster State Park:

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Take A Government Subsidized Vacation

The Burnham House at General Coffee State Park in Georgia. 

            One of the best ways our tax money is spent is on the large network of state park cabins.  Nestled in scenic areas throughout the country, they offer a great way for an inexpensive family vacation.  The accommodations are basic but comfortable; they’re in beautiful natural areas and the prices can’t be beat.  Generally there are two or more bedrooms, private bathrooms, equipped kitchens, linens and towels, pull out sofas, picnic tables, fire pits and grills. There is also AC and heat. Right outside, are all the amenities the parks have to offer:  everything from swimming to guided boat rides. They were begun by the conservation minded president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works program that operated from 1933 to 1942. Three million men constructed trails, built lodges and facilities in remote areas that continue to provide recreation today. 
The cabin at Laura Walker State Park.
Our view at Laura Walker State Park.
            My husband and I just returned from a stay at Laura Walker State Park in Folkston, Georgia.    Walking trails around a picturesque lake started at our back door and the Okefenokee Swamp, just up the road, filled our days with exploration by bike and boat.  From the rockers on our large screen porch, all we could hear were woodpeckers.  It was so enjoyable we stayed a fifth day.  On another Okefenokee exploration, we stayed at a Stephen Foster State Park cabin near the swamp’s main entrance where a memorable encounter with bears at our picnic table surprised us. 
Our granddaughter's guest book entry
For a weekend with our kids and grand kids, we booked two cabins at Myrtle Beach State Park.  They call that park the “last stand on the Grand Strand” because it’s the only swath of nature amidst miles of cheesy fun:  a great combination for families.  The park is right on the beach and set up for crowds but during our off-season visit a few of us had the run of the place.
            A favorite family memory is our staycation at James Island County Park one December weekend.  Despite a relative in a wheelchair, the cabin accommodated us well.  Many of the state parks offer handicapped accessible cabins. How exciting to be there when the light show was going on!  Especially on Christmas Day when we had it all to ourselves.  It was magical.
            When our extended family vacationed in Georgia, we rented the historic Burnham House at General Coffee State Park.  This is not a rustic, basic cabin.  The 19th century house features chandeliers, Queen Anne furniture and four comfortable bedrooms set within a park known for its agricultural history displays and farm animals.  Three generations of family members fished, made bonfires, hiked and relaxed in a beautiful setting. 
            Another historic stay was at the fabulous Lodge at Walkulla Springs in Florida.  This meticulously restored 1930’s Spanish style inn sits amidst the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring surrounded by cypress swamps.  The rooms are small but the lodge is full of history.  As we walked along the park’s boardwalks, we were excited to spot several massive manatees lolling. 
The cozy indoor lounge at Len Foote Lodge. 
One of the Southeast’s greatest adventures is the Len Foote Inn.  It can only be reached by hiking about five miles through the foothills of northern Georgia near Dahlonega.  Before heading up the mountain, a stay at Amicalola Falls State Park is convenient. A couple of days enjoying the park’s paddle board courses, fly fishing classes and guided hikes will get you in the mood for the next phase of the adventure. The path to Len Foote starts nearby.  Backpacker Magazine called this trek one of the best hikes in America. Len Foote is a state park facility nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  Their mission is to make experiencing nature easy while protecting it through recreation and   It’s a pleasant, gently uphill walk through strands of mountain laurel and rhododendron, across streams and ridges.  It took us about three hours.  After we stashed our gear in a small private bunk room, we explored the wonderful common spaces including indoor and outdoor lounges and a dining hall where filling communal meals are served twice a day. Hot showers and Adirondack chairs with mountain views welcomed us after a day of hiking. Some visitors were planning to walk another 4 miles to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail and keep the adventure going for months! 

            When our family was in Myrtle Beach in March, the weather was cold.  Out our window we could see a few hardy campers in tents and RV’s shivering around meager campfires.  I was afraid we might be besieged by families begging for shelter in our warm, cozy cabin but we had it to ourselves.  We snuggled up and made a toast:  Thanks FDR.  

If You go:

Monday, November 12, 2018

Make your Trip Historic

The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. 

            If you’re ready to venture away from the predictability of chain hotels, curb your impulse to book a room on Expedia and click instead on the Historic Hotels of America website.  It’s a tempting selection of over 300 unique accommodations in 46 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that have been admitted to this official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  To become a member, the properties have to be faithfully authentic, possess a sense of place, have architectural integrity and be at least 50 years old.  Additionally, they are all designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or recognized as having historic significance by the National Register of Historic Places.  Those who appreciate architectural detail and craftsmanship will especially enjoy these locations and the care that has gone into maintaining them.                  
Bechtler Museum 
            When my husband and I stayed at The Dunhill Hotel in Charlotte, we had the best seats in the house for an epic bike race that sped through this prime location in the cultural district.   In 2017 the Dunhill was named Best Small Inn by Historic Hotels for its architecture inspired by Italian craftsmen.  We  appreciated being able to walk to museums, especially the jewel-box sized Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the nearby restaurants and nightlife. 
            Exit the interstate onto a private launch!   The Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island can only be reached by boat from St. Marys, Georgia. Guests disembark into an unmanicured forested island where wild horses share the rough paths leading to the beach, ruins of mansions and primitive campgrounds.  With only 16 rooms, the all-inclusive gourmet dinners are friendly affairs where you can share tales of island adventures like visiting the tiny rustic chapel where John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Bessette were married. 
            At the Martha Washington Inn and Spa in Abingdon, Virginia my two sisters and I spread out in our huge 3rd floor room.  General Robert Preston built the hotel in 1832 for his wife and nine children after his successes in the War of 1812.  Much of the original architecture has been meticulously preserved including the 9-foot tall Dutch baroque grandfather clock in the lobby which was brought from  England by one of the Preston daughters.  The hotel is close to the (almost all downhill) Virginia Creeper Trail which draws thousands of bicyclists.  While luxuriating in the cascading pools we spied a bride escaping her photo shoot to hide in the bushes and smoke a cigarette.  She invited us to crash her wedding which featured the macabre theme of Chicago Gangsters complete with plastic Tommy-gun toting groomsmen. 
            History surrounds you at these hotels.  At the Jekyll Island Club in Georgia you can sit in the room where the groundwork for the Federal Reserve was written, or where the president of AT&T placed the first intercontinental telephone call.  You can actually stay in one of the grand summer cottages of the rich industrialists.  Looking out my window I easily imagined myself as one of the country’s elite industrialist wives like Alma Rockefeller who vacationed here in the 1880’s.  She disembarked from her namesake yacht at the dock right outside followed by a parade of servants toting dozens of steamer trunks containing the ten changes of clothes required daily of Victorian women. It was like being in two centuries at once.
            Elsewhere on Georgia’s Golden Isle is the sprawling King and Prince Hotel where beach-side dances were held in 1935 before the hotel housed military in World War II.  Today its Mediterranean architecture and a variety of room styles welcomes guests to the homey community of St. Simons Island.

Grove Park Inn lobby
            After Edwin Wiley Grove became a millionaire by selling his malaria-fighting Tasteless Chill Tonic (it sold more bottles than Coca Cola in the 1890’s) he constructed Asheville’s Grove Park Inn.  Massive stone boulders were excavated and fitted together like puzzle pieces by Italian stone masons and local craftsmen.  The grand hall lobby includes the much-photographed 14-foot wide fireplaces.  Alongside the chimney shafts, surrounded by boulders weighing up to 5 tons, are the original Otis elevators.  Their unique design has been featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.  When the inn opened in 1913, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan proclaimed that the Grove Park Inn was “built for the ages.”  How true.  It has remained one of the Southeast’s premier destinations.
            Charleston has its own Historic Hotels:  the Wentworth Mansion and the Francis Marion.  These are iconic places that represent our city’s history and the passion our citizenry has from preservation.  Together, these hotels and their partner The National Trust for Historic Preservation inspire people to save places where history happened, connect Americans to diverse pasts and are a leading voice in preserving our nation’s culture. 

If you Go:

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free

            Numb from the ceaseless clamor of news about immigrant bans, terrorism, border walls and fear, my husband and I visited the Tenement Museum in New York hoping for some perspective. We are both second generation Americans; all of our grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.  Here they lived the epitome of the American Dream:  they arrived virtually penniless and left behind thriving Americanized families that have continued to excel. We came with the conviction that new immigration policies are an abrogation of American ideals.  We left with a much more complex understanding.

            The mission of the museum is to “tell stories of immigrants who started their lives anew on Manhattan’s Lower East Side between the 19th and 21st centuries through the recreated apartment and businesses of real families…”  Unlike museums that are housed in grand buildings, this one consists of two historic tenement apartments. When the founders, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson stumbled upon the buildings in 1988, they were like time capsules.  “It was like the people had just picked up and left,” Jacobson recalls.  Today 8 different tours take visitors into the buildings that are set up as if the occupants still lived and worked there.  One tour highlights sweatshops; Under One Roof shows the diverse lives of Jewish, Chinese and Hispanic neighbors; one highlights the Depression years; Irish Outsiders shows their struggle against prejudice; opportunities to extend the experiences include workshops, discussions and behind the scenes tours and even a tasting tour of the neighborhood.  Our tour, Shop Life, took us through the apartment and saloon of John and Caroline Schneider.  Interactive elements brought the experience alive.  Our guide, Raj Varma, gave us each a bio of someone who actually lived in the neighborhood and prompted us to stay in character and playact an evening in the neighborhood tavern which was once one of the 720 bars within the 15 block neighborhood.
      The immigrant experience, Raj stressed, is of equivalent importance to the Civil War in defining who we are as a nation. In the 1840’s, the Lower East Side of New York was the most densely populated place in the world.  It was the first area in the country where people spoke a different language, German.  It also housed the largest number of families with the worst amenities:  few windows and no running water or gas. Eighty percent of babies born in hospitals died. Immigrants who came to this crowded, smelly, noisy, dirty destination may have asked themselves, “Is this the America I was dreaming of?”                 

            Throughout the tour, Raj gave us examples of the disconnect in our country’s attitude towards immigrants.  On the one hand we celebrate and encourage them and on the other hand we pass laws to subjugate them.  “The American Dream is a narrative to make us feel good.” Raj said. “But it’s a narrative.”  The museum shows the lives of typical people who worked hard to build the factories and buildings only to die forgotten and poor while the lives of rich people are memorialized.  In fact “We’ve always been anti-immigration in this country,” he reasoned as he cited laws that barred certain “undesirables”, set unreasonable barriers or quotas and turned a blind eye to genocide.   I’d always taken the Statue of Liberty’s inscription as a shining example of our country’s fundamental truth but my perspective shifted.  “Every citizen of our country has to reconcile themselves to this duality,” Raj concluded.

            In today’s highly charged political climate, I was interested to learn that tours at the museum are often disrupted by controversy. In an article written by Sebastien Malo for Reuters, the museum’s director of education Miriam Bader says, “People will now share stronger opinions about whether or not they think immigrants are sort of bleeding the country, they’re taking too much that other people should have, or they’re taking our jobs.  You’ll hear … comments like ‘You know the immigrants of the past aren’t like those of today’.”  The museum has added training for its guides who have always encouraged interaction and discussion but are now frequently confronted by antagonistic opinions.  “The political climate has created a need for new skills or superpowers to facilitate the conversation,” Ms. Bader explained.             
            It was an eye-opening experience that left us with increased admiration for our grandparents who overcame immense obstacles: escaping murderous hordes, travelling across Europe alone as teenagers, arriving destitute in a country and then scraping together a livelihood amidst degrading conditions.  We felt gratitude for their fortitude and for this county that gave them opportunities.  But also, our disdain of recent immigration policy changes shifted.  As Raj stated, “People who criticize our president for immigration laws have never studied our immigration laws.  Our laws have never been about who is let in, they’re about who to exclude.”
If You Go: