Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours at the Museum of the City of New York seeing the temporary exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, which runs through April 15. I’m really glad I got down to New York for this show, because it reinforces a lot of the concepts I’ve been exploring on this blog, and in my research on city museums in general.

I got there around 1:00 pm, and the museum was a lot busier than it had been the last time I visited in July 2011, when the main temporary exhibition was about colonial revival architecture. I had to wait in a line 20 people deep at the admission desk, and it was a good thing I arrived when I did. By the time I left at 3:00 not only had the admission line gotten longer but there was also a separate line for The Greatest Grid; the exhibition was so popular that the gallery housing it reached fire code capacity. I talked to a security guard who said it had been that crowded every weekend since the exhibition opened. At one point the exhibition curator, Hilary Ballon, showed up to do a gallery talk and had to use a microphone to be heard amidst a sea of attentive visitors.

Blockbuster exhibitions happen all the time at art museums, and at a lot of science museums too, but they are rare at city history museums. Why is The Greatest Grid so popular? From what I observed during my visit, I would say that MCNY struck a chord with New Yorkers. The museum could’ve presented a fairly standard urban planning exhibition, filled with historic maps, and gotten a reasonable turnout. But instead a decision was made to structure the exhibition around the concept of the Manhattan street grid—why and how it was developed, and what effect it has had on the city over time. That’s a concept that New Yorkers can really sink their teeth into.

Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan contends with the grid on a daily basis (click here to see an excerpt from 12×155, a video installation by artist Neil Goldberg, included in the exhibition, that illustrates this point quite effectively). Not only (says the gal from Boston) is it a particularly easy system to navigate—because of the grid you always know which way is north, and how long it will take to get from one place to another—but it also has a lot to do with what makes New York, New York. For example, the 19th-century real estate boom set in motion by the introduction of the grid is one of the big reasons NYC became such a financial powerhouse. And because the grid doesn’t really allow for inner courtyards, it constantly pushes Manhattanites out on the streets, ratcheting up the energy to that frenetic level we all associate with NYC.

Consequently, what I observed at the exhibition was a gallery packed full of locals in small social groups, spending a very long time pointing and talking about this grid and what it means to them. Often they were trying to find themselves—their home—on the historic maps, but just as often they were pointing out all the interesting things they noticed about how other parts of the city had changed. Here’s my slide show of all the pointers:

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Anyone who follows Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog knows that museums have a new imperative to craft social experiences that compel visitors to engage with one another while learning. The Greatest Grid is very effective on this level.

Another thing the exhibition team did really well was to develop a small companion exhibition, The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan, installed upstairs from the main gallery. It features the eight winners of a call for ideas sponsored by MCNY and the Architectural League of New York that asked architects and urban planners to envision ways of improving the grid for the 21st-century. These proposals are quite creative, and pull in visitors even further by asking them to consider whether the grid actually works in its current form. They also reinforce a theme introduced by the main exhibition, that the grid was not inevitable but exists because of—and will continue to be shaped by—a series of urban planning decisions. I’ve written before about the need for city museums to address not just the past but also the present and future of their cities. Therefore I was glad to see The Unfinished Grid help visitors extend the historical timeline to include both contemporary urban life as well as hopes and dreams for a New York still to come.

But the exhibition team missed an opportunity to address another new imperative that Nina Simon regularly writes about: creating experiences where visitors actively participate in making meaning, alongside the curators. If I were a New Yorker visiting this exhibition, filled with excitement and new knowledge about something that feels very personal and real in my daily life, I would want to express it beyond my own social group. I would want to stick comments on a giant map of Manhattan, or photograph myself sharing the most interesting thing I learned, or vote on my favorite avenue. And doing so would help me see beyond my own experience, to the collective life on the street that all New Yorkers share.

New Yorkers, get thee to MCNY to see this exhibition, and then tell me what you think. Do you find it compelling? Did it make you want to share your own experience of the grid? What did you point at?

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Have you heard about the City Reliquery in Brooklyn, NYC? It’s a special place. It began in 2002 when artist Dave Herman started displaying things in the window of his ground-floor apartment, things he had collected over the years, little bits of the city. Other Brooklynites started to notice and encourage the window exhibition, and gradually the collection grew. In 2006 the City Reliquery moved into its own building on Metropolitan Avenue, where it hosts a robust lineup of temporary exhibitions and community events. For more background on the Reliquery you might want to listen to this NPR piece by Diantha Parker.

I visited this summer and was impressed by how vibrant and imaginative the City Reliquery felt, even as a small space on a shoestring budget. Here’s a photo of the entryway:

And here are a couple of photos of the main gallery, showing the kinds of relics the Reliquery collects:

Temporary exhibitions are mounted in the back gallery; when I was there it was the work of Colin the Slice Harvester. Colin is trying to eat a slice of pizza at every pizzeria in NYC; he rates and photographs as he goes:

And lastly, here’s the back courtyard, where City Reliquery hosts both a film and a concert series, show-and-tell nights, craft nights, and other community events:

City Reliquery Courtyard

This is a completely different kind of space than the local historical society one typically finds in communities across the country, which makes sense because Brooklyn is so different from most communitiesit has become the artist/writer/hipster capital of the United States (and in fact the NPR piece referenced above raises the issue of the City Reliquery’s conflicted role in Brooklyn’s gentrification). So here’s my question to all of you: do those traditional local historical societies need a dose of the City Reliquery? Do the traditional local historical societies merely reflect more traditional local communities, or instead are they staying the same while their communities’ interests and tastes are changing?

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Is the one from April 18, 2011, with the “Journeys” theme. Fittingly, this is the issue I happened to grab for my trip to Europe last month, and I read it slowly, on a train in northern Scotland, in a small town in southern Italy, during the white nights of Helsinki’s midsummer. Under the heading “Coming to America,” it has one-page reminiscences from six different writers about their experiences immigrating to the United States. I was particularly struck by Lore Segal’s piece, “Spry for Frying,” in which she talks about her memories of moving to New York City from Austria, by way of Dominican Republic. She writes at the end:

“The refugee in me still feels displaced when I leave New York. It’s not in America, not in the United States, that I’ve put down roots. It is in Manhattan.”

This quote reminded me of a point Jette Sandahl, the director of the Museum of Copenhagen, made in a talk she gave at Harvard back in April. She said that one either is or isn’t a Dane—this is determined by where you are born—but one can choose or not choose to be a Copenhagener:

“In the city we are more interested in where we are going than where we came from.”

Sandahl went on to say that city museums have a duty to emphasize diversity and teach tolerance, because part of the experience of living in a city means learning to share the same apartment building, or subway car, or park bench with the many different kinds of people who have also chosen that city to put down roots.

In my own way I am an immigrant in Boston. It’s true that I was born an American, but I come from a part of the US that’s quite different culturally from this New England city. I have chosen to be a Bostonian, and I love my city all the more for the ways it reveals itself to me slowly over time. I like the idea of a city museum that has room for me and all the people I see on my block and in the subway and the park. So how do we make that happen? The Museum of Copenhagen is taking on these issues this year in an exhibition, Becoming a Copenhagener. I look forward to seeing it this fall.

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Map of the City of Brooklyn, 1855, NYPL Collection

Like old maps? Have a little time on your hands? Maybe you want to participate in the New York Public Library’s Map Rectifier project. NYPL put its collection of historic maps online, and is asking the public to help align all the old maps against a more precise contemporary map. The rectification process not only allows everyone to compare then and now, but it also helps resolve inaccuracies in the old maps. The contemporary map NYPL is using for this project is Open Street Map, which is sort of Wikipedia for cartography. By tagging “control points,” specific coordinates that are constant for both maps, the historic one is brought into alignment with Open Street Map. At the NYPL site, in addition to actually doing the rectifying, members of the public can browse all the historic maps and also view the rectified ones in Google Earth. A video tutorial on the NYPL website, using an 1860 map of Central Park as an example, makes the process seem easy enough for anyone with basic computer skills. This project is an interesting example of crowdsourcing, and a great way to get to know a city better.

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Daniela Kostova and Olivia Robinson's Anxiety Map via Flickr/kthread

I’m a fan of the urban planner Charles Landry and his concept of the creative city. I just started his book The Art of City Making and came across this passage:

Our sensory landscape is shrinking precisely at the moment when it should be broadening. Sensory manipulation is distancing us from our cities and we are losing our visceral knowledge of them. We have forgotten how to understand the smells of the city, to listen to its noises, to grasp the messages its look sends out and to be aware of its materials.

I was reminded of Landry when I came across a link to a contemporary art exhibition currently showing at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in NYC. It’s called You Are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York City. (more…)

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Hester Street, Lower East Side, 1902, Library of Congress

The other day I stumbled upon a great little program called Food(ography), hosted by the delightful Mo Rocca. The particular episode I was watching (still airing a handful of times on the Cooking Channel throughout September) was about street food, and it investigated various carts/trucks in cities throughout the US. I’m something of a foodie, and I love Mo Rocca, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to watch this show. But I wasn’t expecting it to have anything to do with my work until suddenly culinary historian Jane Ziegelman pops on the screen, on location at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC. (more…)

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