A passion for New York history led this Wisconsin native to the Tenement Museum.
Thu Mar 26 2009
A reconstructed mosaic greets museum visitors upon entering
Photographs: David Rosenzweig
Imagine arriving at work each day to be greeted by an “office” filled with pots, elaborate candleholders, jarred herbs, a rummy set and a vintage copy of The Saddle Boys of Mexican Trails by Capt. James Carson. And imagine the sunlight that hits said office is filtered through an early-20th-century window that protects you from tuberculosis. This is the scene that Annie Polland, 36, encounters every day at work, in her role as vice president of education at the Tenement Museum (97 Orchard St between Broome and Delancey Sts; 212-431-0233, tenement.org). Polland’s daily life balances past and present: She’s a bubbly New Yorker who captivates everyone she meets with historical tales, and she has an enviable position at the museum that plants one of her feet in New York City’s vibrant history and the other in contemporary education.
Born in Milwaukee in 1973, Polland received a B.A. in political science and Hebrew studies from the University of Wisconsin--Madison. “I was born reading,” she says. “I was a total nerd. I read a lot about New York and yet I never visited. We didn’t have family in New York and there was no reason to.” It remained a lifelong dream to live in the city, and after gaining admission to a doctorate program in Jewish-American studies at Columbia, she was able to fulfill her wish.
Polland quickly became fascinated by New York’s rundown streets and buildings. “The city is a text,” she says. “The Lower East Side is one of the best neighborhoods to use as a source, because you have so many buildings from the past.” Her interest in the LES and her immersion in Jewish history led her to the otherworldly splendor of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. “Part of the Jewish East Side tours I started leading in grad school would take people into the synagogue on Eldridge Street. It was amazing to actually bring people in off the street, sit them down and have them be in something that is quite literally a time capsule. They weren’t distracted by cars anymore. Six years later, I started working there.”
Polland’s first book, Landmark of the Spirit, an exceptional photo essay and literary tour of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, was published at the end of 2008. In January 2009, she transitioned to the Tenement Museum, which provided the opportunity to put her Jewish-American expertise in the context of other immigrant plights. The museum currently offers four different tours that explore how a single building can teach you about real people and, by extension, their cultures’ historical contributions. On these tours you see hyperresearched replicas of family life around the turn of the 20th century; you see apartments with nearly 20 layers of wallpaper or linoleum—a palimpsest of the long and evolving history of Lower East Side immigrants; you befriend former tenants and walk in their shoes. It’s pretty chilling.
Polland is currently laboring over expansion plans that will open up a new tenement on the corner of Delancey and Orchard Streets. “This will allow us to look at the Dominican, Puerto Rican and Chinese communities a lot more,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity, because 97 Orchard is specific to its address and doesn’t allow us to present the full swath of immigrant history in the neighborhood.”
There are also plans to open a museum version of Schneider’s, the rowdy, populist saloon that was a primary meeting place for generations of tenants living above the landmark at 97 Orchard. “We’re opening the saloon 18 months from now, while also introducing two new walking tours this year,” she says, and then opens her planner and shakes her head.
It’s a busy time for Annie Polland, and although she can reflect on the past, the future waits for no one.
Polland’s top three books about New York City history
The Promised City: New York Jews 1870--1914 by Moses Rischin “This is the classic work on Jews and New York.”
Out of the Shadow by Rose Cohen “A 1918 autobiography that shows how Cohen left Russia at the age of 12 and journeyed to New York, which wasn’t exactly the Promised Land, but more a world of cramped sweatshops and tenements.”
A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York “Tony Michels’s brilliant history takes the reader to the cafs, newspapers, and lecture halls of the Eastern-European Jews, showing how socialism was experienced by the immigrants.”
Polland’s career timeline
- Born in Milwaukee, WI
- Graduated from the University of Wisconsin--Madison
- Started giving walking tours with Big Onion
- Had her daughter, Lily
- Received her Ph.D. in Jewish-American studies from Columbia
- Started working at the Eldridge Street Synagogue
- Became VP of education at the Tenement Museum
See more Making it
More ways to Make money/save money