The Exhibition

The Lung Block exhibition was on view at the Municipal Archives Gallery (31 Chambers Street) between April 26 and August, 2019, with a satellite show at The Graduate Center, CUNY (365 Fifth Avenue). The exhibit drew upon recent scholarship on the subject: Stefano Morello’s yet unpublished dissertation “The Lung Block, a New York City Slum and Its Forgotten Italian-American Community.” Morello’s work analyzes the progressive narrative of the Lung Block as the slum-epicenter of disease, contrasting it with the lived experience of the majority Italian immigrant tenement dwellers living in the area, thus redressing a glaring omission in the historical record. The discourse surrounding the Lung Block illustrates a typical pattern of slum-making and gentrification, and in many ways typified the plight and perceived perils of the Lower East Side immigrant in the popular imagination.

At this time—when anti-immigrant sentiment has been brought to the fore on the political stage; the very real connection between health and housing continues to be explored; and affordable housing and gentrification remain among the most contentious topics in local debate— the Lung Block story has many parallels in the present. The exhibition explored themes that expand this important history to discuss:

  • The Lower East Side slum as a historical, social and architectural construct;
  • The emergent field of public health and its response to disease;
  • The progressive reform movement and its conflicted role in reinforcing and alleviating slum conditions;
  • The immigrant experience of the Lung Block, from the personal to the political, including the stories of residents during the early twentieth century, ninety percent of whom were Italian immigrants;
  • Architectural and policy responses to poverty, disease, and reform.

The exhibition brought to light historical documents, maps, journals, photographs, and other artifacts, supplemented by infographics based on historical statistics that disprove the commonly accepted narrative of the Lung Block as the worst slum in New York. A 3D model of the block illustrated the physical conditions that helped mark this block at the City’s most congested.

A series of events, including talks and scholarly panels accompanied the exhibition. The curators are currently at work on a book.