This post is written by Sara Stroman and in conjunction with her work with the 14-week miLES doTANK; Sara worked with a team to design an exhibit on immigration in America on behalf of the Tenement Museum in the heart of the LES.

I. Reconciling personal history

New York is the city of many. No matter our experiences, background, or ancestral heritage, the city of dreams and opportunity remind us that our experiences are similar and keep us connected even as we individuals grow and flourish.

I was born in America and therefore, am an American. My blood runs as red, white, and blue, as the next America-born. I am what people call “first-generation” and as such, am no stranger to the immigrant narrative. I was born in 1980 to a woman whose country of origin is Honduras and to a man who was born to an African-American father and a French mother in France. My paternal grandfather was a soldier stationed in France when he met my grandmother, married and had my dad and one of my three aunts. I grew up with an acute awareness of my ethnic heritage while still brandishing strong American pride. To a large extent, I lived the American dream: My parents did everything in their power to raise us well and with the belief that with hard work and effort, we’d, my brothers and I, accomplish anything, and I went to school and attended a great University.

Photo by Sara Stroman

The term “immigrant” is defined by Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary as: One who leaves one country to settle in another. Some have suggested that New York in particular is a city of immigrants, historically and even if you adjust the term to include those with “American” backgrounds who move within States, eventually ending up in New York City, perhaps as aspiring actors, singers, art dealers, chefs, artists, students, you name it. This can be a touchy subject, as you learn when discussing the immigration debate, and for some, the term “transient” is preferred. But at its core, to move around seeking opportunity is an immigrant experience.

Hard work and toil under ardous conditions is the common denominator in all immigrant (American) experiences – Embarking on the miLES Do Tank tackling “borders and immigration”, my team project has forced me to recognize my own immigration story, or rather that of my family, as well as learn about the roles immigrants have played and continue to play in American life and history.

II. Sweatshops = opportunity?

As part of my research, I had the opportunity to tour at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street about “sweatshop workers.”

Walking the tour, I realized that while the idea of a sweatshop has changed over time, the work of a sweatshop persists. We were introduced to two families on Orchard Street: both lived in the same building at different times, but both worked in a sweatshop. The first family, worked in a room within their small apartment sewing dresses for elite New York women. In one room, there would be five or six individuals putting dresses together, working in different stations – ironing, sewing, final stitching, etc. The apartment also served as the home for the shop owner, and his wife and children would be in either the kitchen or bedroom attending to every day life needs.

Photo c/o the Tenement Museum

The second family, however, existed at a time when sweatshops were no longer allowed in the home. Instead, young women of different immigrant and ethnic backgrounds worked in large factory-style buildings, and the two young daughters of the family were sent to work in the factory earn primary income to support the family as their father could not find work as a presser.

III. Embodied History

It is incredible how smells, tastes, and artifacts can transport you in time.

As I walked through the lives of these two families, I choked up and immediately went back in time to my six-year-old-self. I saw the basement of the house our apartment in East New York, filled with sewing machines and 80s-styled bridal dresses hanging on a rack. My mother, a seamstress, following in the footsteps of her own mother, would receive a delivery of fabrics and patterns to sew dresses for a woman named Carole. Every week, the same person who delivered the fabric would return to pick up the completed dresses.


Photo by Sara Stroman

Photo by Sara Stroman

Though my mother’s story, my family’s story, occurs in East New York, I can only imagine what kind of conditions the Lower East Side workers would endure. Regardless of where they end up working, immigrant sweatshop workers would face similar experiences, regardless of race, ethnicity, or status.

Thinking about current day New York and new migrants to New York seeking opportunity, I found myself drawing many parallels to my own life. As an editor and manager of a blog showcasing the collection of handmade artists in New York City that are Etsy Sellers, I recently edited a post written by the husband of a jewelry artist. In his description of their work studio, he mentioned that his wife has two or three helpers who do various tasks in making the jewelry and getting them ready to ship to customers. The couple live in a two-bedroom apartment and have two children and a rapidly growing business. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It sounds much like the first family that lived in 97 Orchard Street.

It reminded me of myself – I am an artist. I make stationery and sometimes paper. I do this work from my apartment. I have the main living space of my apartment as a working studio and it is where I design, make, craft, assemble and package for shipping. In some ways, my current work life resembles early immigrants whose lives I peeked into that Saturday afternoon — seeking new work opportunities, a better life, and traveled, and continue to travel, to an unknown land for this very promise. My mother and her mother, both immigrants did the same, and now, countless people continue this cycle all around New York City, but especially in one of the main hubs of immigration, the Lower East Side. The history of the struggle to live every day life is as relevant to the Lower East Side as it is to all of New York.

Writer’s note: Please do take some time to check out the various tours organized by the Tenement Museum! From touring within the museum, meeting the ‘residents’, or touring the historic Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum has an amazing wealth of resources for you to uncover the history of immigration in the neighborhood and provides a great opportunity for you to connect & shape America’s evolving national identity at large.

About Sara Stroman
Sara has over 10 years of experience in writing, communication, design, and social media. She prefers the titles communicator, writer, stationer, artist, and storyteller. She owns a stationery company, properly named S2 Stationery and Design, which focuses on providing unique, eco-friendly, and love inspired missives for her clients. She is originally from East New York, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, but considers the world her home. She returned after years away from NYC in 2006 and finds the LES one of her favorite places to explore. She recently spent 14-weeks working with a team to design an exhibit on immigration in America on behalf of the Tenement Museum in the heart of the LES.