Museum of Bronx History

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Not long ago I went to the Museum of Bronx History for the first time. Located in the Valentine-Varian House, the Museum is part of the Bronx Historical Society. The house was originally built in 1758, making it more than 250 years old, and is the second oldest house still standing in the Bronx.

Although the museum is small, the exhibits are very informative, and the staff is knowledgeable and engaging. Originally built as a farmhouse, the Valentine-Varian House was occupied by both sides at various times during the American Revolution. You can learn more about the house’s history during a visit, including how the building was moved to its current location during the 1960s.

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The other exhibits relate to the long and complex history of the Bronx. I must admit I didn’t know as much about Bronx history as I do about other boroughs, and I learned a lot from my visit. The Bronx’s rich history goes back to Dutch times, and has maintained rich and diverse cultural traditions over the centuries.

Part of that history is represented by this wooden malt shovel, used in a Bronx brewery prior to Prohibition. I didn’t know until I toured the museum that there was strong brewery tradition in the Bronx, primary created by German immigrants who settled there in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The industry grew to 19 breweries before it was disrupted by Prohibition in the 1920s.

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One of the most fascinating parts of the museum’s exhibits, at least to me, was the part that traced the economic decline of the South Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in the decimation of the population in that area and arson-related property destruction. The exhibit then explores efforts to rebuild the South Bronx – efforts that have complex ramifications, both positive and negative. The museum does a good job exploring this recent part of Bronx history, and I engaged in an informative and thought-provoking discussion with the museum staffer who was working on that Saturday afternoon.

There is also one other thing to see while you’re at the museum, located on the museum’s grounds – the statue of the Bronx River Soldier. The granite statue was created by sculptor John Grignola in the late 1890s to commemorate Bronx soldiers who served in the Civil War.

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Although the Museum of Bronx History is small, I really enjoyed it. The exhibits are not extensive, and it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to tour the museum, but my conversation with the museum staffer greatly enriched the experience. And I learned that the Bronx Historical Society also offers popular walking tours of various Bronx neighborhoods – something that I will definitely have to do in the future!

If you’re traveling to the Museum of Bronx History by subway, you can take the 4 Train to Mosholu Parkway, or the D to the Norwood-205th Street station.

NYC’s Underground Railroad

I love to visit museums, but it’s easy to forget that there is often more to a museum than the exhibits–many museums also have specials events that relate to each museum’s specific theme. Some of these programs have an additional cost, but others are offered free to members or even all visitors. One of my new favorite museums is the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), which offers a lot of additional programming for visitors. (I’ll talk more about the museum’s exhibits in another post.) MCNY has a regular event called My City Book Club. At each My City Book Club event, the museum hosts a discussion of a book about New York City–basically a conversation between the book’s author and another expert on the topic, with opportunities for audience members to also ask questions. You don’t have to read the book to enjoy the event, but these books will increase your knowledge of New York City. And, if you buy the book, the author will sign it for you after the official presentation has ended.

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I went to my first My City Book Club event a few weeks ago. Columbia University history professor, Eric Foner, discussed his new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, with NYU Professor Martha Hodes. Professor Foner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an engaging speaker. Gateway to Freedom explores the history of the Underground Railroad, the journey taken by African Americans seeking to escape slavery in the American South prior to the Civil War. The book specifically focuses on the Underground Railroad in New York City.

So what did I learn from attending this event? New York City had a complex relationship with slavery and abolitionism prior to the Civil War. There was a lot that modern New Yorkers will not be proud of. Many businesses in New York City had significant economic ties with the South, making them reluctant to speak out against slavery or help escaped slaves. City officials during that era were also less likely to support African Americans than Southern slave owners searching for escaped slaves. I also learned about the essential roles that African Americans already living in New York City had in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.

This particular event has also inspired me to go out and find any remaining sites associated with New York City’s part in the Underground Railroad. Professor Foner warned the audience that most of the sites mentioned in his book no longer exist, as New Yorkers regularly tear down old buildings to build newer and bigger structures. But there are still a handful of places that have survived. Perhaps you will explore them with me in a future blog post!

Interested in finding out what other special events are offered at the Museum of the City of New York? You can find a complete schedule of upcoming programs on the museum’s “Calendar and Events” page.