From the Days When New York Was Actually New
From the Days When New York Was Actually New
By SETH KUGEL - New York Times, 8/17/2008
IF you’re a regular visitor to New York, enjoying the shops and restaurants and art and theater and pure energy of the streets, you may have asked yourself: how did it get this way? (You also may have been so busy shopping and eating and looking that you haven’t, but play along.)
The long answer lies in lots of long, heavy books that you could spend a year reading; a shorter answer is yours for $44 in four museum visits that you can fit snugly into one weekend — and still slip in a historical walking tour.
Start Saturday near the less-visited uptown end of Museum Mile, where the Museum of the City of New York can start you off with a 22-minute multimedia history that begins with the city’s earliest development and goes through the World Trade Center attacks and into the present day.
Then start filling in a few details by visiting the museum’s exhibitions. The current exhibition “Catholics in New York,” running through Dec. 31, is a window into a once-persecuted minority group that became a powerful mainstay — a classic New York City story.
The permanent exhibitions are intriguing if occasionally musty. A whirlwind tour of maritime New York starts from the earliest days of European exploration: the guy the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was named for comes through in 1524, followed by the guy the Hudson River was named for in 1609. The model of New Amsterdam in 1660 may not be Google Maps-impressive, but it’s fascinating to see a time when people in lower Manhattan had houses and suburban-size plots of land (though no S.U.V.’s). Model sloops, schooners and clipper ships show what filled New York ports in the days of what might be called lower-case New York: South Street Seaport was actually a seaport, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard was a working naval yard.
The New-York Historical Society is often overlooked as well, lying in the shadow of its neighbor, the bigger, flashier and hyphen-free American Museum of Natural History. The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture has several intriguing displays of city artifacts as well as a few more special exhibitions (including “Plague in Gotham!” if you care to see what late-stage cholera victims looked like in the 19th century, for example). There’s the surprisingly comfy-looking armchair used by George Washington during his inauguration in Federal Hall, and the wooden leg of New York native and founding father Gouverneur Morris, which doesn’t seem comfy at all.
There’s the tail of the horse King George III rode on the statue famously torn down on Bowling Green on July 9, 1776, and a draft lottery wheel from the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Handwritten cards that were found inside the wheel display the names, addresses and professions of New York men who, one assumes, were not picked. Too bad the Union army had to do without the professional skills of Isaac Solomon, 286 Ninth Street, maker of artificial flowers. Chilling objects recovered from the World Trade Center — like elevator door numbers, juxtaposed with the earlier artifacts, remind you that current events turn into history sooner or later.
On Sunday, rise early to avoid huge lines at the Statue of Liberty ferry. Skip the Statue of Liberty stop. (Summary: it’s big and green, just as it looks from the boat.) On Ellis Island, the entry point for millions of immigrants between 1892 and 1924, pick up the brilliantly done audio tour ($6 tacked on to the $12 ferry-and-entry fee), filled with the voices of Americans recalling their arrival there. “If I knew what a fairyland was supposed to look like,” says one man, describing his first glimpse of the urban skyline when he arrived, “I would say New York City looked like a fairyland. It was beyond anything I even could possibly conceive being in existence.”
Even without the audio tour you’ll see the documents and artifacts focus on the individual immigrant experience, from luggage and clothing to ship manifests to menus from the Ellis Island dining room, where stewed prunes said “Welcome to America.”
Chapter II of immigrant life in New York is on display in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a 19th-century tenement building that had been uninhabited since 1935. In 1988, the museum took it over, researching the families who used to live there and recreating their apartments for tour groups.
The newest tour (all are $17) is of the family apartment of the Moores, Irish immigrants who, at the time of the 1869 recreation, were mourning the loss of their 5-month-old baby, Agnes. The guides focus on public health issues and compare that family with the Katz family, who lived there in the 1930s. Crowded immigrant apartments, you realize, are not a thing of the past, but the days of contaminated, unpasteurized milk and of garbage collection that relied on thousands of hungry, wandering pigs thankfully are.
Try to fit in an outdoor walking tour as well; among the companies that do them, Big Onion distinguishes itself by hiring mostly doctoral students as tour guides. The “Financial District” tour is the obvious choice — that’s where European (and, as you may have learned in the New-York Historical Society’s fascinating “Slavery in New York” video, African) settlement began.
There are plenty of other institutions: the borough historical societies, restored historic houses like the Merchant’s House Museum and the Morris-Jumel Mansion.
Other museums take their own theme-driven paths through history; the Transit Museum is housed in a defunct subway station built in the 1930s. That’s pretty cool, although visitors from cities with more modern mass transit systems might find the museum’s existence ironic: after all, New York offers 24-hour-a-day tours of a rickety, outdated subway system for the cost of a MetroCard swipe.
THE WAY IT WAS
Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street; (212) 534-1672
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets; (212) 873-3400
Ellis Island, New York Harbor, (212) 363-3200 - Ferry information: (877) 523-9823
Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street (meet for tour at 108 Orchard Street); (212) 431-0233
New York Transit Museum, Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn; (718) 694-1600
Bronx Historical Society
Brooklyn Historical Society
Queens Historical Society
Staten Island Historical Society.