Mural exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum highlights immigrants


New York City is crawling with immigrants. My wife and I popped into town for a long Valentine’s Day weekend and let me tell you: foreigners everywhere. From the moment we hopped into a cab at the airport — “I’m a tall man!” the driver laughed, in a thick accent, as I tried to jam myself in the seat behind him — to our last breakfast Monday morning at an Italian bakery on Bleecker Street, the American values that our president lauds and his supporters venerate are corrupted by alien cultures. Thank God.

Our older son suggested we meed him at Jing Fong — Chinese, don’t you know. The first of 16 eating establishments visited over four days. Of those, 15 were ethnic — French, Jewish, Ukrainian, Georgian, Thai — a whirl of flavors and dishes, from pate to pig’s ears, fare likely to strike terror into certain sheltered red, white and blue hearts.

While the food at Jing Fong was excellent, the enormous dining room was almost empty. Maybe because it was 3 p.m. But Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns across the country are seeing a drop in business, due to fear of the coronavirus. A laughable concern, but far above most fears related to outsiders, since there actually is a coronavirus. Not a rational reason to avoid a Chinese restaurant, but then I’ve never heard rationality lauded as one of the cherished American ideals we are trying to recover in our return to greatness.

We slid over to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. In 1988, a pair of women looking for a building to showcase the torrent of immigrants into New York stumbled upon 97 Orchard Street, an 1863 tenement that had sat empty for more than 50 years; cited for fire code violations in 1935, the owner chose to evict rather than renovate.

We signed up for the “Hard Times” tour of rooms that belonged to the Gumpertz family, Jews who came here from Prussia in 1873, and the Baldizzis, immigrating from Italy in the 1920s. Neither family were what Donald Trump would call “the best people.” Both received public aid. But they lived and loved and struggled toward middle class comfort, symbolized by the faux broadloom rug in worn linoleum on the Baldizzi kitchen floor. Heartbreaking.

News came while we were here that ICE agents will be dispatched to 10 cities, including Chicago and New York, to harass immigrants, who are eternally unwelcome. Every slur Trump hurls at Mexicans and Muslims in 2020 was also thrown at Italians and Jews in 1920.

Having visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art on our previous trip, I suggested we find a different museum Friday. How about … the Whitney? The Whitney is a museum. I’d never been.

As we were buying tickets, I asked about the enormous sign promoting a new show: “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art 1925-1945.” Was admission extra? Alas, the clerk said, it opens Saturday. However, she added, perhaps noticing my pout, there’s a preview today. You have to be a member, but since we’re from out of town, we could become out-of-town members for the same price as regular admission.

A visitor at the Whitney Museum in New York contemplates a reproduction of “Man, Controller of the Universe,” by Diego Rivera. The show on how Mexican muralists influenced American art opened Saturday and runs until mid-May.Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Wow. Nothing like the social struggles of the past, rendered in huge, colorful murals, to remind us how bad things aren’t now, at least not yet. Democracy is not dead — it once permitted this. Despair is premature.

Chicagoans are well-represented in the show. Artists such as Edward Millman, who studied under Diego Rivera. His murals on women’s contributions to America at what was then the Lucy Flower Technical High School in East Garfield Park were deemed “subversive” in 1941 and whitewashed over for 50 years before being uncovered.

It was moving to see Philip Evergood’s “An American Tragedy,” depicting Chicago’s 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, where police fired into a crowd of steelworkers, killing 10.

Not to downplay our current crisis, but if Democrats are having cohesion and inspiration issues, they need to shed their own ignorance of exactly what kind of greatness — great wrong — was overcome in the past. I’m as bourgeois as they come, but an hour at the Whitney show, running through May 17, and I was ready to man the ramparts. Justice is a never-ending fight that began with the first humans banding together on some savanna and will continue into the future, forever, no matter who wins this November.

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