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New York at its Core

Published on
December 13

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from New York at its Core, the Museum of the City of New York’s new landmark permanent exhibit. Was it just going to be a bunch of artifacts? What was I going to see and learn? Upon arrival at MCNY, I was told by the very friendly man at the Information Desk that the New York at its Core exhibit took up the whole first floor and was composed of three galleries centered on three different themes and time periods: "Port City, 1609-1898;" "World City, 1898-2012;" and the "Future City Lab." I realized that this was not going to be a normal exhibit.

I went in chronological order, beginning in the “Port City” gallery. The first thing that caught my eye as I entered was the giant screen (I guess I am a millennial) where a digital map of the city is displayed, showing how the city has changed over time, in terms of density, population, industry, etc. (This was also a feature of the next gallery.) Having read about the importance of the Erie Canal for Chicago and New York City, I was particularly struck by the fact that New York was still so small in terms of square mileage when the canal was built; it didn’t even take up half the island of Manhattan when the landmark waterway was constructed in the early 19th century. As I progressed through the gallery, which is chronologically organized with different nooks examining different time periods, I felt my understanding of the city’s history becoming more nuanced. Detailed informational placards did the bulk of the story-telling, stringing together the meaning of the different objects displayed, which ranged from old circumcision kits and maps of the city to a colorful firefighting bucket and even included the cane of Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall fame.

I was particularly excited to see the manuscript of the “New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that was inscribed at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty. Her words “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” have always stood to me as a symbol of what New York City (and America) is about. I felt the gallery addressed the theme of this poem by examining the lives of different oppressed and minority groups throughout this period, examining life in Chinatown, slavery in New York City, and the lives of the Lenape, the Native Americans who used to live here. By the time I finished walking through the gallery, I felt I had an in-depth and surprisingly comprehensive story about New York City in its early stages, particularly how money and trade, diversity, and density played an important role in this city’s history.

Image: “The New Colossus,” 1883. Manuscript by Emma Lazarus. Museum of the City of New York; Gift of George S. Hellman, 36.319.

The “World City, 1898-2012” gallery offered a more multimedia experience. In addition to tall glass cases full of objects grouped by theme and time period, there were opportunities to watch videos and listen to important historic speeches; I watched a clip of the Reverend Jesse Jackson on Sesame Street teaching children to assert “I Am Somebody.” Among the objects on display, the artistic representations of life in the city tended to draw my eye. Some of them were beautiful and evocative. Bruno Lucchesi’s sculpture Subway #1 presented an image of a white, blank slate of a subway car marked solely by the vibrant colors of graffiti, giving me a sense of just how prominent this sort of tagging was in New York in the 1970s. I came away from “World City” feeling I had gotten a glimpse into the creative core of the city and a taste of its changing demographic diversity.

Image: Subway #1, 1984-85. Terra cotta and glass; sculpture by Bruno Lucchesi. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of the Artist, 94.80.1.

When I walked into the last gallery, the “Future City Lab,” I was shocked by how different it was from the two previous ones. The space was well-lit, airy and open, in comparison to the past two, which had been relatively dark. To me, this different atmosphere evoked a sense of positivity about the future of the city. This optimism persisted throughout the Future City Lab, which presented statistics and images about different aspects of the city, from housing to education and diversity, and potential innovations to improve them. Interactive screens allow visitors to design their own housing, streets, and parks. Meters showed how environmentally beneficial, safe, and accessible they would be as well as the cost of putting these things in place.

As an Urban Studies major, I’ve studied New York City quite a bit. I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about the city already, but this exhibit showed me just how much more there was to learn about New York. As part of my coursework, I have read a lot about the challenges facing cities today – gentrification, housing affordability, etc. – so it was inspiring to read the “Future City Lab’s” innovative and creative solutions to potentially address some of these issues. My experience walking through New York at its Core left me feeling that I both knew more about this city and felt even more interested in its challenges and excited for its future.