Our Grandparents were Entrepreneurs Too!

Orchard Street Facade, Photograph by Keiko Niwa

Anyone who believes that the entrepreneurial spirit is bred in the business school or the boardroom should visit “Shop Life,” a new permanent exhibit that opened recently at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. The Tenement Museum tells the story of the immigrant families that lived at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan from 1863, when the apartment building was constructed, to the 1930’s. In that small window of time, in these tiny tenement rooms, the daily lives of early urban immigrants vividly unfolds. Now, at street level, a different story is told–the story of the businesses these tenement dwellers created when they came to the United States. As Morris Vogel, the Museum’s Director aptly put it recently during a special reception celebrating the new exhibit, the tenement apartments portray how new immigrants got by; Shop Life shows how they got ahead.

In one of two store-front areas the Museum has reconstructed the saloon that occupied the space from 1864 until 1886. The saloon was owned by John and Caroline Schneider, two German immigrants who sought to attract a growing German immigrant community that had formed an enclave in the Lower East Side. More than just a spot to find good German lager beer, the Schneiders’ saloon was the heart and soul of the community; a place for Sunday family gatherings, music-making, job and apartment-hunting and business transactions. It was a hub where Germans from various provinces gathered and felt connected to each other in a way that prefigured the eventual mid-century unification of Germany. But it was also a place where German immigrants began to develop connections to their newly adopted homeland, engaging in political discussions and preparing to enter American cultural and political life.

In the other street-level storefront, the Museum offers a delightfully 21st century interactive exploration of the other businesses that sprang up in the tenement –a kosher butcher shop, an auction house and a 1970’s underwear store. In this space there are also video interviews with today’s Lower East Side shopkeepers, linking past to present.

Schneider Kitchen, Photograph by Keiko Niwa

Shop Life opens at a particularly significant moment in our ongoing national dialogue about immigration reform. The exhibit is not simply about immigrant mom-and-pop businesses; it is representative of all immigrants who decide to rely on their own ingenuity, creativity and connections to make a life here–very often establishing a livelihood for others and a thriving community around their enterprises–whether it is a social community such as the one that grew up around the Schneiders’ saloon, or a commercial community such as the one that envelops an immigrant-founded business like Ebay. At a time when increasing numbers of legislators, policy makers and thought leaders are recognizing that the United States must find ways to open its doors more widely and affirmatively to foreign nationals with ideas and initiative, Shop Life is an important reminder that the immigrant entrepreneurial spirit is not something new, but is a vibrant part of the fabric of our immigrant heritage that has contributed substantially to our success as a nation.

Written by Eleanor Pelta, AILA Immediate Past President

by Eleanor Pelta