Have you ever wondered about the earliest days of New York City – before it was a city? Or how it became a global capital? The new exhibit New York at its Core at the Museum of the City of New York aims not so much to answer those questions, as analyze how the Big Apple came to be, examining the City’s development through four foundational lenses: money, diversity, density and creativity.
Divided into three parts, this $100 million dollar renovation of the first floor starts with the Port City, covering the years 1609 through 1898, from Henry Hudson’s arrival to the year when the city was consolidated into the metropolis we know today. You’ll find bays with historic artifacts organized around individual topics, such as the Lenape Indians, the arrival of the Europeans, religious pluralism… There are also interactive kiosks where you can find out about the people and important events and topics such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, slavery, oysters… On the back wall images of the modern day streetscape fade into a view of the same scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries, allowing you to really appreciate how the City changed and grew.
The second gallery, World City, covering 1898-2012, is about not only the development of the port, but also about the lively cultural scene that had developed, in part due to NYC’s diversity: between 1880 and 1898, there were over 1 million foreign-born people living in Manhattan and Brooklyn, who were served by papers in 13 languages. This era also witnessed the birth of the Bowery theatres and Coney Island, which were followed in the early 20th century by the rise of Broadway and the Harlem Renaissance. Other bays examine the decline of New York between 1960 and 1970, with the pressing issues of that period such as war, civil rights and de-industrialization. I’m happy to report that there’s also a display New York Comes Back, which examines how the City became the global capital we know today. On the back wall of the gallery, clear silhouettes parade against a background of city scenes. Each silhouette corresponds to one of 40 influential people; you can click on their image to learn their story.
The Future City Lab was the most amazing for me, as it allows you to imagine the city of the future through five challenges: housing, ecology, transportation, work, and diversity. You can explore each of these areas in detail at individual computer stations, and propose your own solutions – your chance to play urban planner! It’s a lot of fun, but it also makes you realize how hard it is to design a city. The stations will show you different neighborhoods and the current strategies for their development; you can design a street, a park or a building, and you can see how your proposals rate on various metrics such as affordability and sustainability. Your solution is then projected on a very large screen that you can step into. There are also display tables with general information on New York such as our religious composition, the age of the population, origin of our immigrants – 38% of New Yorkers were born abroad, and you can see how we stack up against other cities.
A little more “low tech” is the “What if” table, which contains blocks with questions and answers from knowledgeable New Yorkers; you can submit your own questions or solutions.
This has been a very, very brief overview of the wealth of information you’ll find in this exhibit, which is a permanent one – but don’t wait forever, get up and see it now; you’ll want to go back!