Oral Histories: Stories Old and New
by Hannah Gottlieb, Summer Intern
If you have visited the Museum at Eldridge Street you can attest to the fact that our building has become the “odd-one-out” in the neighborhood, as it is nestled among storefronts with advertisements written in Chinese and a Buddhist pagoda two doors down. Our visitors aren’t alone in this observation—Hanna Griff-Sleven’s oral history students at the New School noticed this change as well. In the past, her class has focused on the stories of Eastern European Jews as they struggled to adapt to life in the bustling city. Hanna has her students read Anzia Yezierska’s realistic fiction Bread Givers and David Laskin’s The Family, a novelistic oral history. The class culminates with the students collecting an oral history from a Jewish family business on the Lower East Side. While still an integral part of New York City history, the Jewish Lower East Side is now more mythologized than real. Other groups of immigrants have moved in, and they have important stories to tell as well. Part of my job as a Summer 2015 Intern has been to research oral histories of Chinese and Italian immigrants who have called the Lower East Side their home.
While finding oral histories may seem like an intimidating feat, but there are actually an abundance of resources. Two sources in particular have been immensely helpful so far: the Sunset Park Oral History Project (located at the Brooklyn Historical Society, but free clips are available in podcast form on iTunes), and a database called North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories. The first focuses on Chinese immigrant stories in Brooklyn, while the second contains primary source materials from immigrants of nearly every nationality imaginable. Museums in our neighborhood serve as another great resource–if you’re interested in learning more definitely visit the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) and The Tenement Museum, both a short walk from the Museum at Eldridge Street.
What have struck me so far from my research are the parallel experiences shared by Jewish and Chinese immigrants. As I listened to interviews with Chinese American immigrants speaking about their expectations before coming to New York City, the prejudices they’ve encountered, and the support systems they’ve formed here, I was reminded of the characters in Bread Givers, as well as the stories we tell here at Eldridge Street. David Chan, a man who grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the U.S. in 1975, commented on what he imagined New York City to be like before he arrived. “I’m surprised,” he said. “Before I came to United States, ok, I believe United States is a very modern country. Everything is new…by the TV and by the movie, I only can see the good side…the tall buildings, the people dressed nice, very polite, or something like that. I feel a little disappointed. Especially when I get in the apartment because it’s an old building…more than 100 years old” (From the Living and Learning Podcast). His observations resonate with a 19th century Lower East Side proverb we share at the Museum at Eldridge Street: “Before I came to America, I thought the streets were paved with gold. When I arrived, I learned three things. First, the streets were not paved with gold. Second, they are not paved at all. Finally, I am expected to pave them.” Speaking hundreds of years apart, these immigrants share similar hopes and let-downs.
When thinking about how to connect the themes of these different immigrant stories we must be careful not to sugarcoat them as grand, identical narratives of triumph over hardship. Collecting oral histories helps us acknowledges accomplishments without glazing over the failures. Each story has nuance, threads that distinguish them while still adding to the greater narrative. I hope that my summer research will not only help Hanna’s class, but also enrich our understanding of the cyclical histories on the Lower East Side.