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Wall Street Journal 1/9/02

Comment: Museums

Expanding Unreality

In the year's first and most misguided example of museum creep, the Tenement Museum wants to take over the building next door to expand its displays of tenement life on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The two buildings on Orchard Street share a common past, but one is devoted to nostalgically installed memorabilia meant to invoke the immigrant experience, while the other has real people living real lives in a real building that has been restored and recycled for the kind of continuity and vitality that make a real city. Guess which one is the real story of the American dream.

The plan has classic chutzpah. The Tenement Museum hopes to acquire the building through a public process and evict the owner and tenants to make more of the "re-created" interiors to accommodate the people who come to see the imitation. What is real would be destroyed for what is, documentation notwithstanding, not real at all. The idea of taking a building from its owners and forcing tenants out to create a facsimile of what might have been is a stunning perversion of reality. Talk about irony.

It becomes even more ironic if you consider that the owners of the functioning building are the descendants of those same immigrants commemorated next door, and that they have invested in the restoration of their building and its conversion into apartments, with the indispensable New York reality downstairs -- a Chinese restaurant. This is exactly the kind of economic and creative mixed use that keeps the city's heritage alive and real. You can argue that, in any event, you do not destroy housing in New York, but you certainly do not destroy it for potted history. That this should even be seriously considered defies sanity and common sense. But it also shows how far we have come in our misperceptions of the real and the artificial, and how seduced we are by the games "restorations" and "re-creations" play. Enough is enough already.

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