This blog post was researched and written by two interns at the Museum at Eldridge Street: John Hanson and Eliana Schechter.
Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist-activist, has undertaken arguably the most extensive public art project in New York City’s history. Titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”, and sponsored by the Public Art Fund, the project is centered on the contemporary global refugee crisis. It is the culmination of Weiwei’s travels to global refugee camps, where he interviewed some of the millions fleeing violence and war. They confronted borders at every moment in their journey the subsequent borders they encounter.
Spread throughout the five boroughs, the exhibition features over 300 installations, including lamppost banners of refugees photographed by Weiwei as well as sculptures and steel barriers (or “interventions”) designed to confront those with the reality of increasingly restricted borders and mass humanitarian migration.
Three of the larger installations are in Eldridge Street’s own Lower East Side, including Chrystie Street Fence at 189 Chrystie Street, Bowery Fence at 248 Bowery, and Exodus at the Essex Street Market. Chrystie Street Fence and Bowery Fence are both rooftop fence installations that span the rooftops between buildings, while Exodus, at the Essex Street Market, is a narrative series of black and white banners hung across flagpoles in the market. These banners depict refugees’ mentally and physically arduous travels in the hopes of reaching safety, and stress that fleeing violence and devastation inflicts on such groups. In the artist’s notes for all three sites, Weiwei highlights the Lower East Side’s long legacy as an immigrant enclave.
Many of the themes at play in Weiwei’s exhibition relate to the stories we tell everyday at Eldridge. Fears about the volume in new immigrants entering countries is nothing new – after years of essentially open borders in the US, 1924 saw the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act. This law limited the number of immigrants from any country to 2 percent of the number of people from that country already in the US (determined by the numbers recorded in the 1890 census). Immigrants from a number of Asian countries, including Japan, China, and the Philippines, were barred from entering the US entirely. This halted a major wave of immigration that had, during the last decades of the 19th century, ushered in 2.5 million Eastern European Jews. Many of those immigrants flooded the streets of the Lower East Side, transforming it into the legendary neighborhood it is today. In many cases, these Eastern Europeans were like refugees, escaping religious persecution and political disenfranchisement. This is certainly true of the immigrants who would eventually establish the Eldridge Street Synagogue – establishing in their new home a symbol of their identity and freedom. It could not have been easy to uproot their lives, their families lives, and begin again in such a foreign place. But the opportunities that the US afforded them at the time – to immigrate, to start businesses, to become a part of the national fabric – was worth the cost.
At the Museum at Eldridge Street, it is our happy task to tell the myriad stories of the immigrants who shaped the Lower East Side and worked so hard to establish their new lives. And our building’s location, which has shifted from a Jewish neighborhood to a Chinese one, is its own testament to the enduring legacy of immigrant cultures in our city. Like the refugees Weiwei’s interventions recall, these immigrants had left behind what they knew in hope of a safer and more prosperous life – hoping to enter before more borders closed around them. Every day in our landmark building, we tell the stories of arduous journeys, ambitions, resilient lives, and broken borders.
And the exhibition is doing that, too – not only with the pieces themselves but with an interactive website. A city-wide map allows you to browse the installations and read notes on each one. But the most interesting element is the stories section. Here, you can read stories from New Yorkers who have come from someplace else. Many people tell of harrowing journeys. There’s even an opportunity to submit your own story. The stories are a wake-up call – many people are in New York after surviving incredible hardship, and you never know what the person next to you on the subway has gone through. Good Fences Make Good Neighborhoods reminds us all that immigrant stories have been embedded in our city for ages, that the city has often been a much-needed safe haven, and these stories are as relevant as ever.
Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is on view until February 11th, 2018.
John is a student in the Bachelors-Masters Cohort at Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. He is sophomore studying art history, architecture, and design.
Eliana recently graduated from Grinnell College with a degree in Religious Studies, and works in development when she isn’t at the Museum at Eldridge Street.