SOC101-Museum Visit

Sociology 101: Introduction to Sociology 

Response Paper: Museum Visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

      Immigrants seeking refuge or better opportunities and the promise of success flock to New York City to start their new lives. Often, they carry with them the mindset that limitless possibilities are at one’s fingertips if one works hard enough to strive for their goals. The two immigrant Jewish families that were featured on the “Piecing It Together” tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Rogarshevskys and the Levines, thought that they might find success by investing their livelihoods in the garment industry. Before legislation was passed to regulate housing and working conditions, these immigrants had to endure cramped, dark spaces and fire-hazards in the tiny apartments that served as both their living quarters and workplace. Yet, even today when unions act to protect workers’ rights and as more immigrants arrive and find work, the same quality of life issues persist including crowded apartments, long hours of labor with little to no benefits, poverty, sexism, and racism.

      Many immigrants during the great wave of immigration (late nineteenth to early twentieth century) came from eastern European countries in search of refuge. They were mainly Jews escaping from pogroms, riots and uprisings meant to discriminate their group. These pogroms were mob riots meant to discriminate against their group; these anti-Semitic riots often became so violent that several casualties resulted from the fray. Their ascribed statuses as Jews made life in Russia particularly difficult, and this impeded any chance for them to move upwards socially, let alone survive the tumultuous atmosphere whenever riots broke out. A better life for one’s self and an even brighter future for one’s family was often the reason a family immigrated to the United States.

      The apartments that the Rogarshevskys and the Levines occupied consisted of three small rooms – a bedroom, a kitchen, and a windowed parlor area that served as a family room. Although the apartments at 97 Orchard Street were not originally designed for large families to inhabit, both the Rogarshevskys and the Levines had at least five or six children living with them. In addition to their families, there would also most likely be a few boarders living with the family. Sleeping space was so limited that the baby’s crib or a bed that the children would share was often located in the kitchen, directly adjacent to the cast iron stove to provide warmth during the cold winter months. This often presented a fire hazard, since sparks from the coals used to heat the stove may shoot off and damage the furniture, or worse, harm the children.

      The health and safety issues carried over to the workplace, especially since the families used the apartments as both a home and a garment factory. Ventilation and circulation of air in the tiny apartments were only accessible through two windows located in the parlor area. The windows and the gas lamps barely provided enough lighting, especially for a business in which sharp eyes and precise hand coordination movements were required to effectively sew and embroider the clothing being created for clients. Children were often used to complete these tasks, especially since their eyesight had not yet degenerated and their fingers were still small and nimble enough to handle the sewing machines or to thread needles and stitch the fabrics. Usually, the eldest daughter would stay behind to assist her parents in running the garment factory while her younger siblings were given the chance to complete their education. Also, due to the lack of space and the number of workers moving back and forth between rooms, there would have most likely been issues of lack of privacy or even sexual harassment by the male workers against the female workers.

      Gender discrimination was another prevalent issue connected to workers’ rights during the early twentieth century, especially in the garment industry. The tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a prime example. A vast majority of the Triangle Waist Company’s employees were women and young girls, often of poor immigrant backgrounds, who worked for low wages operating sewing machines. The managers and owners of the factory would often lock these female workers inside for long hours to prevent them from taking a break and leaving the premises. In March 1911, however, a fire had broken out. The factory workers were trapped inside the blaze while the managers and owners of the factory safely evaded the fire. Out of desperation for survival, many of the female workers jumped out of the windows to escape the flames. More than a hundred people were either injured or dead as a result of the fire – most of the victims were the young, immigrant women workers.

      These same social problems perpetuate even as journalist Jacob Riis and his successors exposed the harsh living and working conditions that immigrants faced on a daily basis. Today, for instance, sweatshops are still prevalent as globalization and expansion of corporations open more factories that employ people in other countries such as Mexico and Indonesia. These sweatshop workers are usually women and children who work for less than the minimum wage and receive little to no health benefits. It is because of this cheap labor that prices are kept low in stores across the United States.

      Yet even in the United States, workers – a majority of them immigrants and single mothers – still hold jobs that leave much to be desired. One retailer chain that comes to mind is Walmart, which has been the target of criticism in recent years, as featured in the documentary film “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price.” Despite its success as a bargain store, Walmart had left its employees without medical insurance and often demanded that each employee worked overtime. A woman in the documentary who sought a promotion to a management position and was a loyal, qualified employee was denied the job due to her identity as an African-American woman. Questions of equality, ethics, and fair treatment of workers arise frequently when analyzing and critiquing the business practices of major companies and corporations regarding their workers. It seems that as long as there is the intent to increase profits and make more money, those who tend to fall under the lower socioeconomic statuses – such as illegal immigrants and single mothers – usually pay the cost of hard work through their exploitation.