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Down These Mean Streets Brings El Museo’s Residents to Life

Published on
September 27

I recently found some time to sneak away from Morningside Heights and venture across Central Park and into East Harlem. Also known as El Barrio, this neighborhood holds one of the richest Latinx cultural institutions: El Museo.

A longtime Passport to Museums partner, El Museo just recently opened up a new exhibit: Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography (on view September 13, 2018 – January 6, 2019) and Other Situations (on view September 13, 2018 – January 27, 2019). 

Personally, I was itching to get a look at Down These Mean Streets, which got its name from the memoir of El Barrio native, Piri Thomas. The exhibition explores the changes to American cities after World War II and the economic and social disintegration of Black and Latinx working class communities. Predominantly highlighting ten Latinx photographers (many of whom were raised in urban neighborhoods), the exhibit aims to challenge perceptions of “slums” and their residents across the United States. Many of the pieces focus on the ideas of infringement and marginalization of urban residents of places ranging from Oceanside to Harlem.

While there were many captivating photographs by astounding artists, what struck me the most was the use of the museum space as art itself. It became very clear to me that the museum space was an act of resistance. For instance, each didactic was written in both English and Spanish. Every single staff member I met spoke Spanish. And at the end of the exhibit, there was an open notebook with reflection questions, again, both in English and Spanish. The questions allowed members of the community an opportunity to express and represent themselves. Many questions asked for similarities and differences between the exhibit’s interpretation of gentrification and in one’s own experience of urban transformation. Many answers were written in Spanish, and took the form of narrative stories –– bringing the photographs on the walls to life and making the inhabitants of El Barrio the subjects of the exhibit.

​With public space and urbanism at the core of the exhibit, I found El Museo itself to be an embodiment of the exhibit’s purpose. As a Latinx woman who grew up in urban West Palm Beach, Florida, I appreciated the way in which language and access play key roles in the museum. The ability to express oneself in one’s native tongue is a welcoming feeling, and most spaces lacking that opportunity can cause a further feeling of alienation for visitors who are already on the margins.