People About Our Cause!
Immigration Museum Called Bad Neighbor In Expansion Battle
By LISA KEYS
When the Lower East Side Tenement Museum opened in 1988 on Orchard Street in
Manhattan, next-door neighbor Lou Holtzman, a sound engineer, volunteered to
provide a soundtrack. Using tapes from his vaults, Mr. Holtzman compiled an
exciting montage of sounds: the clopping of horse hooves, the cries of street
vendors and the singing of his father, a Cantor who had lived on Orchard Street
his entire life.
Nowadays, however, Mr. Holtzman's relationship with the museum is hitting a sour
The Tenement Museum, which displays recreations of five historic tenement
apartment, is seeking to acquire The property next door - a five-story building
owned by Mr. Holtzman - through eminent domain, which enables the government to
force a sale if it is deemed for the public good. The museum hopes to expand
into the building, 99 Orchard Street, even though Mr. Holtzman and the 14 other
families living there would be displaced. The expansion is part of a plan to
secure a partnership with the National Parks Service-administered- Statue of
Liberty and Ellis Island, bringing thousands more people to the museum But Mr.
Holtzman wiII not be budged.
"They're make-believe history," said Mr. Holtzman, motioning to the
museum next door. "We are history."
Now, Mr.Holtzman said, Lower East Side history is being threatened by the very
people who purport to preserve it.
"Ask anybody if Louie Holtzman is a part of this neighborhood," Mr.
Holtzman told the Forward. "My dad did Yiddish theater as a kid. Down the
street, my parents Shtupped and fell in love at the Loews Delancey. My
grandfather owned a dairy restaurant where the OTB is today. My son, now 24,
went to the same public school as his grandmother did, P.S. 42."
According to the museum, which sees some 90,000 visitors each year, the
partnership with the National Parks Service would bring 200,000 to 250,000 more
visitors annually to the museum, which is already at capacity. "We turn
people away everyday," said museum founder and president Ruth Abram.
"People come here and are touched by the experience. It's the majority
In its current state, the Tenement Museum also is unable to comply with
Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. With the purchase of Mr. Holtzman's
building, "We can build an elevator next door," said museum
spokeswoman Robin Marcato, adding that the access will benefit the "huge
amount of senior groups who won't walk up but will walk down."
The museum's plans for 99 Orchard Street include creating classroom space and a
series of "dotouch" apartments, enabling children to interact with the
"Eminent domain happens all the time - without it we wouldn't have the
Seward Park Library, Lincoln Center and Rockefeller Center,", Ms. Marcato
said. "Eminent domain is never fully supported, even if it is for a
Eminent domain does not sit well with Mr. Holtzman, who occupies an apartment in
the building with his wife. "You use eminent domain for things like
aqueducts and subways," said Mr. Holtzman, who owns the building with a
partner, Peter Liang. "A museum? It's outrageous."
Although Ms. Abram said that the museum is a "local enterprise,"
hiring "local, multi-lingual guides" and enticing visitors to spend
money on the block, Mr. Holtzman scoffs. "People from Jockstrap, Neb.,
don't give a damn about the neighborhood," he said. "They come here
In 1999, when the museum first began exploring its partnership with the National
Parks Service, Mr. Holtzman spurned an offer of $725,000 for his building from
Tenement Museum board secretary John Samuelson. He also refused the museum's
second offer of $1 million in cash. Mr. Holtzman countered by asking for $6
million for his building, the museum said.
Further complicating the issue is that last July Mr. Holtzman completed - at an
undisclosed cost - extensive renovations to his building, which houses a large
Chinese restaurant, Congee Village, and 15 renovated apartments renting for
about $1,600 a month.
The renovations have added another layer in the drama: The museum charges that
Mr. Holtzman's construction altered the retaining wall of the museum, causing
the building to shift. In a tour of the museum, Ms. Marcato showed the Forward
cracks in walls and floors and windows that no longer fit properly - damage she
said occurred during the past 14 months.
"It's amazing. This building survived so many years in perfect condition
and it took modern times to do this," she said. Although Ms. Marcato said
damage is not structural, "every time we patch the ,walls we take something
away from" the museum, she said. "You'd think they'd see that, but
Mr. Holtzman vehemently denies that his renovations have anything to do with the
damage next door, pointing to slopes and cracks in the museum's structure that
he said had been around before the museum, when 97 Orchard Street was merely an
The museum has prepared a thick packet of documents challenging Mr. Holtzman's
claims to the property on a variety of other fronts. These include a challenge
to Mr. Holtzman's claim that members of his family have occupied the building
for four generations, and that he violated regulations by creating in 1993 a
commercial studio space in the building without a permit.
Mr. Holtzman denies the challenges, responding only to the 1993
charge, saying the complaint about commercial space was filed by a mentally ill
brother of his recording studio partner.
Still, with the Empire State Development Corporation, a state sponsored economic
development agency, backing the Tenement Museum, many believe the museum's
acquisition of 99 Orchard Street is all but inevitable. A period to lodge
objections with the development agency ends February 8, after which it will
issue its decision. The dispute has divided residents of the Lower East Side,
with both ty activists, local merchants and neighbors. The Housing Committee of
Community Board 3, representing the Lower East Side neighborhood, has taken Mr.
Holtzman's side. The full board recently passed a resolution stating that the
museum's plans do not warrant use of eminent domain.
Mr. Holtzman and his wife, Mimi, consider the museum a Sort of
Johnny-come-lately to the historic fabric of Orchard Street. "The museum
can't be historic," Mr. Holtzman said. ,You go to the Merchant House - it's
historic, it's preserved as it was- That building - the old, rotting apartments
- is historic? My parents never lived like that."
Ms. Marcato disputed his assertion. "There are buildings dedicated to the
rich, the famous and the not-so-famous," she said. "There are many
buildings dedicated to the pioneers out west. There's one building dedicated to
urban pioneers and it's very sad that people don't see it as the treasure it