Tenement Museum’s ‘Immigrants Mean Business’ exhibit spotlights NYC entrepreneurs

NYC Department of Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop, left, and Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Bitta Mostofi observe a banner at the Tenement Museum's new exhibit. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Via photos and other vintage artifacts, the free exhibit centers on the businesses that “have become part of the city’s fabric.”

NYC Department of Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop, left, and Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Bitta Mostofi observe a banner at the Tenement Museum's new exhibit.
NYC Department of Small Business Services Commissioner Gregg Bishop, left, and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Bitta Mostofi observe a banner at the Tenement Museum’s new exhibit. Photo Credit: Jim McDonnell courtesy of Luna Park

Dominican barbers, Eastern European watchmakers and Indian dressmakers may come from different backgrounds, but they are tied together with the thread of New York City entrepreneurialism.

An art exhibit coordinated by the city and the Tenement Museum will highlight such immigrant entrepreneurs’ stories, and illustrate how small immigrant businesses shaped New York for the better.

"Immigrants Mean Business," which opens Saturday, was the result of a partnership among the city’s office of Small Business Services, the Mayor’s office of Immigrant Affairs and the museum. The entities pooled their resources to materialize the two-room exhibit that features current and archived photos, vintage artifacts from immigrant stores, and anecdotes from business owners.

Michelle Moon, the chief programs officer at the Tenement Museum, said she was thrilled when SBS approached the museum with their idea. She emphasized the importance of visitors reflecting on the mark that immigrant-owned mom-and-pop shops left on New York.

The exhibit's banners feature modern-day business owners at the top, and photographs of historic immigrant entrepreneurs on the bottom.
The exhibit’s banners feature modern-day business owners at the top, and photographs of historic immigrant entrepreneurs on the bottom. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

"When you think about New York, a lot of the iconic sites are immigrant-owned businesses," she said. "The delis, the bodegas, the clothing stores; they have become part of the city’s fabric."

The free exhibit will include 10 banners, each featuring two large photographs and accompanying captions. The top photographs — all taken by Tesfa Alexander — depict current-day immigrant business owners from all five boroughs; the photographs below, pulled from the museum’s collection or the city’s Department of Records, show immigrant business owners from decades past.

One of the banners tells the stories of both Atinuke Durojaiye — an African immigrant who runs a water bottling service in Staten Island — and Nat Hollander, who ran a pickle store in the 1970s.

Gregg Bishop, the SBS commissioner, said the theme that he and the exhibit’s researchers couldn’t ignore was that a lot of these business owners worked hard to support their families and their neighborhoods.

"Everyone came here for an opportunity," he said.

The exhibit also includes artifacts from a New York City of old.
The exhibit also includes artifacts from a New York City of old. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

The exhibit, which is open only on weekends until Sept. 8, includes several artifacts from the museum’s collection, including old store signs from immigrant businesses that were located in the Lower East Side, receipts, catalogs and wares.

Moon said particular businesses, such as the barbershops and restaurants, served as links to immigrants’ homes, offering places to meet, exchange news and interact with fellow expats.

"They were the first community centers and places of cultural refuge," she said. 

If You Go: Immigrants Mean Business will open to the public at the Tenement Museum on Sat. June 8 and close on Sept. 8. The exhibit is free for all museum visitors and only open on the weekends. 103 Orchard St., Manhattan. https://www.tenement.org/nycimmigrants/

Ivan Pereira