Friday, April 22, 2011

The Archaeology of Home with Katharine Greider

Next Thursday, April 28th, Tenement Talks will welcome Katharine Greider, who'll discuss her book The Archeology of Home: An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side. One of our stellar interns, Patricia Pforte, recently interviewed the author by phone.

Tenement Museum: Your story starts when you were told to leave your house [on East 7th Street in Manhattan] or risk it falling down. Do you remember that day?

Katharine Greider: It was a surreal experience. There were darkening clouds for a few years and they burst one evening. There had been troubling signs along the way - the roof would leak, there were sinking places in the basement, and cracks in and outside the building. Bad things were happening. We and our co-owners hired an architect and he was going to tell us how to fix it. Instead he called and said we needed to get out ASAP. Although we knew there were problems we never thought it would be that bad. And we had no idea if we were going to come back or how long we would be away. Our kids were small; it was a time in our lives when we were focused on establishing a home.

As part owner of a building that's in a state of decay, of course, you're responsible. The Red Cross doesn't show up with coffee and sandwiches. Instead a buildings inspector comes and gives you a ticket.

Tenement Museum: Have you always wanted to write a book like this?

Katharine Greider: I was actually sort of reluctant to write my own story. But I was fascinated with the history and ideas of home and I knew I would need to bring in my own voice and share the experience or the rest of the story would seem disembodied. It is not traditional history, it is about ordinary people chosen by a kind of lottery--people who happened to have lived at this spot. It actually exalts ordinary people, which we all are. In any memoir I think the writer hopes that people will recognize their own humanity in the writing. That's true of most literature.

Tenement Museum: Your story is sort of like the private home version of what the Tenement Museum is about. We all uncover the layers of stories, histories, lives beneath the surface to gain insights to the ways things were and how they are now. Do you agree?

Katharine Greider: I think it comes from a similar impulse as the Tenement Museum. There's a place in the book when I talk about the museum and the feeling in those rooms that the walls are closing in. You wonder how people found a sanctuary for the body there or space for the self.

The other message that comes out of the Tenement Museum is about being a newcomer, especially a poor newcomer. That may be a hardship, but it is not a disgrace. That's a key lesson of New York City's history. It teaches that of course a Bronx housing project can produce a Sonia Sotomayor. New York and the Lower East Side in particular represent that idea for America.

Tenement Museum: Your discussions of home are deeply moving. Do you have a different sense of home now, and how do you feel about the fact that a new apartment building now exists where yours did?

Katharine Greider: The building on 7th Street was the first ever built on that spot. But I know that spot has to be used by people, and the building as it was just couldn't serve that purpose any longer. It was at the end of its useful life. As I started to see some of the stories that unwound there, I felt that so much was passing away with the building. I wanted to make a vessel that could hold some of those memories.

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