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BRIDGING THE GAP

If you don’t often drive between Brooklyn and Staten Island, your recollection of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge may stem from the starting point of the New York Marathon or from its role in The Avengers, when Iron Man flies over and under it while intercepting a nuclear missile. But for many who remember the tremendous building project that changed the face of New York City and resulted in the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time, the 50th Anniversary of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is cause for both reflection and celebration. One of these people is author Gay Talese, who observed and wrote about many aspects of the bridge project, from the politics to the workers who actually built it, including three men who died on the job. His 1964 book, The Bridge, bestowed a legacy of the many ways a man-made structure can change our lives. Join Talese and New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman to commemorate the bridge’s 50th birthday tonight.

Thu., Nov. 20, 6:30 p.m., 2014

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Best Museum

Nestled on a quiet(er) stretch of Fifth Avenue, where Museum Mile tapers off into East Harlem, the Museum of the City of New York is a tiny institution that of late has housed some very big ideas. MCNY’s photo exhibition on Sandy and its aftermath was sensitively done, intelligently paced, and visually stunning, while the “Activist New York” exhibit is a buoyant and celebratory look at the movements that defined the various decades of city life. This is not a large museum, which is part of the charm: You can do the whole place in an afternoon and still make time for coffee at the surprisingly lovely café upstairs. This isn’t a museum for tourists; it’s a place for New Yorkers to consider how we live, and to learn about what has shaped this city we call home. It’s also worth a visit solely to see the charmingly weird Stettheimer Dollhouse, filled with miniature works by some of the great artists of the 20th century.

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DISCO CHIC

In 1977, the New York Times called Stephen Burrows the “brightest star of American fashion,” and, even today, his clothes are still turning heads (Michelle Obama was spotted in one of his jersey pantsuits). The first African-American designer to achieve international acclaim, Burrows rose to prominence during the groovy days of disco, the focus of the exhibit “Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced” at the Museum of the City of New York. Through photos, sketches, and original garments, the show looks back on his innovative cuts and liberal use of bright colors and metallic fabrics that drew a starry clientele (Cher, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross) who wanted to shine brighter than the mirror ball at Studio 54.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: July 2. Continues through July 28, 2013

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REBEL REBEL

This month marks the one-year anniversary in which hundreds of citizens overtook Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to voice the injustices of the 1 percent and catapulted a global movement. But what does the 99 percent have planned next? Find out tonight, when the Museum of the City of New York, in conjunction with its exhibition “Activist New York,” hosts Occupy Wall Street: The Next Iteration?, a political and economic discussion about OWS with journalist and sociologist Todd Gitlin (author of Occupy Nation) and writer Nathan Schneider (Harper’s), among others.

Thu., Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m., 2012

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KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

Although Occupy Wall Street is the most recent protest in New York City to garner huge turnouts and make news around the world, it’s hardly the first. From union workers to outraged citizens demanding civil action, New Yorkers have been protesting and voicing their concerns about everything since, well, forever. Activist New York, an exhibition featuring artifacts, photographs, and audiovisual presentations, takes a look at the history of social activism in all five boroughs from the 17th century to the present. And you can be involved in this interactive exhibition as well. The Museum of the City of New York invites you to visit activistnewyorktoday.mcny.org and upload your images of New Yorkers who are involved in social activism.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: May 4. Continues through Dec. 3, 2012

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STILL PROUD

Just because Pride Month is long over doesn’t mean touting our gay history has to stop. Museum of the City of New York keeps the good vibes going with Gay Rights in the 1960s and Today, a panel discussion linking the Stonewall Riots with the inequalities felt by gays under Mayor John V. Lindsay. One of the stars of the panel is Dick Leitsch, president of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society at the time of its famous “sip-in”—the protest that changed the law against gays drinking together in bars. Also on the panel is famed historian David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, the book that inspired the new documentary, Stonewall Uprising.

Tue., Aug. 3, 6:30 p.m., 2010

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Gilt-Free Shopping for the Coming Depression

How come it’s so crowded at the Museum of the City of New York’s Paris/New York exhibit? It’s a Tuesday, and I’m here because it’s my job, but who are all these other people? Then it dawns on me: Maybe they’re unemployed, and instead of scanning the help-wanteds, they decided they’d rather watch a 1920s film of Josephine Baker, the notoriously foxy African-American expat chanteuse, perform a naughty dance wearing nothing but a skirt made out of bananas.

I love Paris/New York, which examines the symbiotic relationship between these two design capitals and offers a treasure trove of Herman Miller furniture, Mainbocher frocks, and oddments like a vintage menu from New York’s Le Pavillon (foie de veau l’Anglaise, $3.50).

The majority of stuff on display is from the 1930s, when the world was in the throes of the Great Depression—you know, the one before this one. Did people spend a lot time in museums 75 years ago, too? I’ve never been much of a gallery-goer, but these days, wandering aimlessly around department stores—my previous consuming passion—has become desperately melancholy. What could be sadder than an empty shop on a bright Saturday in October, where happy customers once waved credit cards over piles of overpriced ensembles?

Instead, I’m ogling a silver-plated Art Deco Christofle vegetable tureen made for the dining rooms of the S.S. Normandie, which was launched by the French in 1934 and featured gilded lacquer panels, Lalique chandeliers, a promenade inspired by Rockefeller Center, and other spectacular flourishes. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. seized the Normandie, which had been languishing in New York harbor since the beginning of the war, intending to outfit it as troop ship. (The ship, as if to protest this ignominious fate, burned down.)

Luckily, the Yaeger family wasn’t still in Europe in the 1930s; we had left the inhospitable old country decades before, and it wasn’t, you can be sure, on a ship featuring gilt panels and chandeliers. Nor were my forebears, cute as they were, garbed in anything like the 1939 tricolor embroidered-silk organdy Chanel dress on proud display here. Want to know why this was Coco’s last collection until 1954? Because she closed up shop when the Germans occupied Paris, though hardly out of any laudable political convictions. In fact, Chanel spent the war holed up at the Ritz canoodling with a German officer and only narrowly escaped being branded as a collaborator and having her head shaved when the Allies won the war.

As it turns out, any attempt to substitute museum visiting for compulsive shopping is, at least in my case, in vain. I no sooner see a Paris/New York showcase featuring a diamond and emerald Van Cleef & Arpels brooch or a 1939 New York World’s Fair compact than I think: I should sink my negligible disposable income into pins and powder tins! After all, if a Balenciaga coat is virtually worthless as soon as you get it out of Barneys, the same cannot be said for a Van Cleef bauble—no matter how tough times are, jewelry invariably retains at least some of its value. (I myself recently bought a ring on 47th Street that spells out “1934” in tiny diamonds—I know, I’ll buy anything—proof that even in the depths of the last Depression, some people had money.)

With this new philosophy in mind—buying collectibles is way smarter than giving my money to Barneys or Smith Barney—I begin to look forward with rabid enthusiasm to the 500-plus deal Pier Antiques Show coming up November 15 and 16 at the passenger piers on Twelfth Avenue and 55th Street. (If you have ever, for one second, craved a 1930s Art Deco vegetable tureen, the Pier show is where you will find it.)

The Pier show comes along only twice a year (there’s another one in March), but some New Yorkers feel the need to go antiquing every weekend. For years, this meant strolling over to Sixth Avenue in the 20s, an area that used to be known as the Chelsea Antiques District. Now, many of the parking lots where these markets flourished have been replaced by apartment towers—the “district” has dwindled to one lot, a few swanky indoor centers, and the wonderful Garage, still extant on 25th Street.

So you can just imagine how upsetting it was when the rumors began swirling months ago: “The Garage is closing in a few weeks!” “No, it’ll be here ’til Christmas!” “No, it definitely sleeps with the fishes!” In search of the straight story, I phone up Alan Boss, the guy who singlehandedly invented the Chelsea Antiques District decades ago, and who also runs the Garage.

Boss confirms that the Extell Corporation bought the Garage for an impressive $47.2 million, and in July ’07, they notified him that the jig was up. “I mean, $47.2 million—why would I have anything to say?” Boss tells me. “But then, this September, they called and said, ‘We want you to stay for awhile.’ ” Now that the bubble has burst, plans to erect yet another glass-and-steel behemoth in Chelsea may well have been put on hold. (Who says a Depression is all bad?) So, how much longer have we got, Alan? “As it stands right now, it could be three months, or it could be 10 years. Between you, me, and the lamppost, I would say it looks to me like a good year and a half, two years.”

Since I have him on the phone, I ask him something I’ve always wondered about: How did Boss become lord of the New York fleas? “I made a left when I should have made a right,” he laughs. “I used to live in a loft across the street from the first outdoor market, the one people called the ‘free lot.’ I opened the free lot with 10 vendors and 11 customers in 1976.” Shortly thereafter, he took over the parking lot across the street, known as the “Dollar Market” because of its admission charge. “It took two years of work until I made any money. But at one time, we had four parking lots and the Garage—600, 700 dealers a weekend, and a waiting list.” The highly regarded Dollar Market closed in September ’05, a victim, Boss thinks, not just of the real estate situation but of the advent of eBay and what he refers to as “generational changes,” by which I assume he means that the vast pool of hippies and boomers, once so entranced with Mickey Mouse watches and cookie jars, is rapidly dwindling.

Boss also runs the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market on Ninth Avenue and 39th Street, a venue I have never warmed to, though he claims that “whatever remnant there is of Sixth Avenue exists at 39th Street now. We’re working on some new ideas for it.” (Can these new ideas mean tents? Heat? Bathrooms?)

When I ask him if he collects anything himself, his voice rises. “I got no more room! I won’t buy anything! My wife and I have many, many boxes from when we last moved, usually marked ‘Fragile,’ ‘Very Fragile,’ ‘Extremely Fragile.’ We’re gonna sell the vast majority of it! These things require care, storage, responsibility. As I get older, I don’t want any of it! I’m through. I’m over it!”

How can you say this? You’re the guy who started it all. “I know. My friends said, ‘You created a Frankenstein monster.’ But I never had time to look at it.”

lyaeger@villagevoice.com

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Razed

As a young photographer, Danny Lyon found himself living below Canal Street in the middle of massive “urban renewal”: the razing of some 60 acres of 19th-century buildings. His resulting book, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan (1969), has just been reissued by Powerhouse Books, and an exhibition of his photographs runs through September 18 at the Museum of the City of New York. The following are excerpts from a conversation with Lyon that took place in late June:

I seem to have started in the year 1966. If you look at the contact sheets, you’ll see pages of pictures of the Lower East Side, then there’ll be buildings, then subways. That’s typically how I got into the subject. You don’t know if you’re going to do these things. At some point, you wake up.

It was a huge story in New York City at the time. (I’m from Queens, and when you’re from Queens, you really admire Manhattan . . . and this was the most historic part of Manhattan. The oldest part of Manhattan was vanishing.) And it was an ignored story at the time, or I wouldn’t have done it. Part of how I saw myself, as a journalist, was finding the truth and delivering it to the American people. To put it in a really crude way.

I had a topo map of Lower Manhattan. It was so detailed that it had the block, and each building was designated. So Beekman Street would be, like, two inches long, and you’d see a line for every single building. I would follow this map and could shade it out when something was obliterated. ‘Cause these lines were replaced with brick dust. . . .

You have to understand that I was—and still am, although I’ve aged and mellowed— I was obsessed with the power of photography. I thought you could take a bike rider, Harley-Davidson, roaring along, and that this photography was so miraculous that you could somehow contain that power in
the negative. Unlike this guy who would go around the corner and die, or run out of gas, that the thing that you contained would be for all time. . . .

I had the power to use all of these buildings and preserve them for the future. And if anybody wanted to experience [the] Lower Manhattan that had stood there for 150 years, they would have to come to my photographs! Which would be washed and preserved and in the New York Public Library. . . .

I went out and purchased a small view camera, four by five inches, about which I knew nothing. A lot of those buildings had been condemned and were owned by the city. There was a key: an identical lock on all these buildings. They all had the same lock. And what those [maintenance] guys did for me is, they got me a copy of the key. That permitted me to get into any building on any block in vast areas of Manhattan. Once you got inside any building, you could go up on the roof, up through the skylight; you could then walk across the roofs and go down through the skylight into the next building. . . . And I remember going through someone’s loft and realizing it was still occupied. And I remember
my heart pumping, and thinking, “I’m in somebody’s place: There’s their clothing and there’s their stuff. This is like being a burglar. . . . ”

The interiors fascinated me, and the light in the interiors was perfect. It was natural light, and there was tons of it. [It] was really dangerous work. Because the buildings were falling apart; you weren’t allowed in them. I worked on weekends to avoid the demolition men. I wanted it [quiet]. So, Sunday morning was prime time for me. But had I fallen through a staircase, fallen and injured myself, no one would have found me till Monday. The demolished buildings were really dangerous. Staircases were hanging, half demolished. . . .

I understood that the way to deliver photography as news was to do books. That’s what I think the news should be: an individual’s statement about how he sees reality. Or as Ferlinghetti says, “The dog trots freely in the street and sees reality. . . . ”

The book’s about architecture. This country’s committing architectural suicide. It’s doing it right now, this moment. Not 37, 38 years ago. This is nothing, what they did down here: The 60 acres is nothing. We’re destroying 6 billion acres of America, and we’re doing it right now. We’re doing it because you can get a mortgage for 5 percent.

Anybody can do anything anywhere.

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Exhibit WTC

On the morning of September 11, the board of the Museum of the City of New York was meeting at its future home, the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street. Museum director Robert R. Macdonald was just about to unveil the renovation plans for the new center, scheduled to open in 2004, when he was interrupted. “We heard this thunderclap, and someone joked, ‘Boy, that’s an exclamation point!’ ” he recalls. A few minutes later, a security guard asked them to clear the building. On the street, the group witnessed people racing up Broadway, running from the clouds of smoke coming from the site of the World Trade Center.

Macdonald and his staff are trained to look at history, but not necessarily as eyewitnesses. They immediately realized the challenge and opportunities that the WTC disaster presented for a museum with MCNY’s particular mandate. On October 4 the museum, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, convened a meeting of representatives from 33 history museums, now loosely called “The 9-11 Consortium.” The collective includes many New York City institutions, from the New-York Historical Society to the little-known Skyscraper Museum; it also covers historical societies from New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Their immediate concern was how to cut through the mind-boggling bureaucracy—federal, state, and local—to gain access to material of historic importance.

A crushed ambulance, a pair of muddy boots, respirators and masks, dust from the window-sills of Battery Park City, even the clothes worn by Mayor Giuliani—these are among the 9-11 ephemera now being collected by history museums in anticipation of exhibitions commemorating the World Trade Center tragedy. The memorials left at Union Square are held in storage by the Parks Department, and the “Wall of Prayer” assembled outside Bellevue Hospital has already been donated to MCNY. According to Macdonald, the museums are playing a key role in coordinating preservation efforts by working closely with government agencies directly in charge of clean-up at ground zero and around the city, including the Department of Design and Construction, the Port Authority, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Parks Department, and the Fire Department. “We are trying to assure that there is coordination and that museums have an opportunity to see that the culture of the attack and the aftermath is preserved,” says Macdonald. “The challenge being that much of the materials are ephemeral and there is such an enormous amount of material that it is almost impossible to make judgments about what should be saved.”

What curators are looking for is the American equivalent of Shigeru’s Lunchbox, the melted tin box found with the body of a Japanese schoolboy after the A-bomb was dropped, now the quintessential icon of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “We are choosing objects that tell the human story, objects that speak eloquently through their presence,” explains Dr. Sarah Henry, vice president for programs at MCNY. “It is easy to see its power in retrospect, but it takes serendipity or enormous foresight to see the power of the object as events are unfolding.”

In general, MCNY has tried to take a judicious approach to exhibiting any 9-11 material in the near future, and has, in fact, gone out of its way to avoid controversy. One exhibition scheduled to open in November—”A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City”—was postponed until spring 2002, due to concern about response to the show in the overheated emotional climate in the nation this fall. Instead, the museum is rapidly assembling a replacement exhibition, “Manhattan Skylines,” tracing the history of Manhattan’s vista from 1850 to the present. Museum curator Bob Shamis has chosen to include images of the World Trade Center but not the attack itself. “We did not want to simply duplicate the journalistic documentary work that is already being widely shown,” says Shamis, hoping to place the event in a broader historic context. Henry is taking a similarly careful approach to “Brotherhood,” a January exhibition about the New York City Fire Department organized in conjunction with the publication of a book of the same title. “We want to exhibit some of the material from the firehouse memorials,” says Henry, who is currently consulting with the NYFD. But the museum is not planning to address 9-11 itself until September 11, 2002, the anniversary of the attacks. “Everyone, in all walks of life, is trying to get a perspective on this event, and we are trying to take our time to see what feels appropriate,” she explains.

This is in stark contrast to the approach at the New-York Historical Society, which has already opened a three-year-long series of public programs titled “The History Responds Project.” The first exhibition in the series, which continues through February 25, is “New York September 11,” featuring Magnum photographers’ extensive documentation of that day. It will be followed by “Monument: The World Trade Center,” an exhibition originally conceived by the Skyscraper Museum prior to September 11 as a commemoration of the WTC’s 30th anniversary, which has been specifically updated to include documentation of the destruction of the Twin Towers. And in March, the society will open “Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning,” which will include an abundance of memorial material and missing posters from the streets of New York.

“We are not the World Trade Center museum, but we do feel there is a strong public need to connect to the evidence of this event,” explains Jan Ramirez, vice president of the NYHS. Ramirez points out that her institution has been especially careful with the memorial material, not putting anything on view without permission from the immediate family. “For some, it has been helpful to have their loved ones commemorated in a broader historic context,” she says. “For others, it is way too soon.”

As macabre as this rush to make history from a national tragedy may seem, Jim Gardner, associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, notes that much of this effort is part of business as usual at history museums. “There are people who felt strongly about not moving too quickly—that we need more perspective,” he acknowledges. “On the other hand, we were concerned about material disappearing if we don’t act quickly.” The Smithsonian regularly collects contemporaneously with political events, scientific breakthroughs, and natural catastrophes. The Department of Defense even has its own staff of curators to bring home artifacts from the front lines of military battles. And, Gardner points out, there are precedents for collecting memorials. The National Parks Service has gathered over 55,000 items from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of shrines left at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. The scale of the WTC tragedy is unprecedented, he explains, but not the role of curators and historians.

Despite apparent differences in timing and approach, all of the institutions involved are working closely to coordinate collecting and preservation efforts. “We are absolutely not in competitive collecting modes,” asserts Macdonald. Meanwhile, Ramirez boasts that NYHS has already received donations of over 125 artifacts and 200 pieces of ephemera. “We live in a city whose citizens are so sophisticated and media savvy that within five hours of the attack, we received our first artifact—one of the dust masks handed out to Battery Park City residents.”

Macdonald, however, is concerned that, like a car wreck, these artifacts can attract attention for all the wrong reasons. It is appropriate, then, that MCNY has already engaged Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as its exhibition designer for the Tweed Courthouse. “He has tremendous skill and experience at using objects eloquently to tell a story,” says Henry. “We don’t know what those exhibitions are going to be ultimately, but I don’t think it is a day that anyone is ever going to forget.”