Getting By: an American Tradition
Today, I heard the story of a mother with four young children, living in New York City. Natalie and her husband, Julius, had a small apartment. Julius worked and Natalie stayed home with the kids, took care of the house. Until one day when Julius never came home.
Natalie got a job, balancing taking care of a family with supporting them. A few months later, her youngest son died. It was a hard few years, but Natalie and her daughters worked hard and eventually moved to a better neighborhood.
It’s a story you could find in any neighborhood, in any city these days.
But Natalie and her husband lived in New York in the 1870s.
Their stories are highlighted by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a former apartment building restored that serves to educate its visitors on the age of tenements in New York and the many immigrant families who suffered and struggled to build a new life in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The tour is called, “Getting By,” one of the many tours offered by the museum, and it’s about just that: what families do when they can’t seem to make ends meet.
Those families aren’t very different from families today. Sure, they didn’t have electricity or running water or modern plumbing. They didn’t have the housing standards we do today, nor the resources for public aid.
But they had dignity, pride and perseverance. Their stories show the resilience of humanity, the unflinching desire to make life better for your children.
Some people wonder why there’s a museum about things as tragic as tenements or public housing. But these museums highlight a different kind of art. The art of making do, creating a life out of nothing and keeping going when you’re sure it’s impossible.
These past few years, we’ve had to take up that art of making do. It’s been tough on us all, but in doing so, we’re connecting with the generations before us who sacrificed, made do and found joy and hope while they did it.
It’s still alive today. Here in New York, at home in Chicago, and all around our great nation. It’s an American tradition we can all be proud of.