Jacob Riis Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York

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I’ve been fascinated with the photography of Jacob A. Riis since I was first introduced to it as a college student. When I heard that the Museum of the City of New York was hosting an exhibition of his photographs, papers, and other items, I had to visit immediately. I’ve since been back several times, and each time I discover something different than what I’ve noticed before.

Riis was a journalist, photographer, and social reformer who lived and worked in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His black and white photography was published in contemporary newspapers and magazines, as well as in best-selling books such as How the Other Half Lives (1890). Through his photography, writing, and public speaking, Riis brought public attention to the plight of New York City’s urban poor. A visit to the exhibition is a must for those who would like to learn more about the history of the city, including immigrants and others who lived in poverty at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s also a draw for fans of vintage photography, as the exhibition contains incredible photographs.

Here are a few examples of the photographs that you will see in the exhibition. (All of Riis’s original photographs are protected by glass, of course, making it difficult to photograph the exhibit, but they will still give you a glimpse of the exhibition’s power.) This first one is titled “Five Cents a Spot,” 1889-1890. As the exhibition explains, Riis took this photograph during the raid of an illegal lodging house, where workers could pay five cents a night to sleep on the floor.

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This second one, titled “Little Susie,” 1892, documented the life of a working child. Susie completed piecework at home to help support her family. (In piecework, a worker is paid a very small amount for each completed item rather than being paid an hourly wage.) Susie and her family lived in a tenement building called Gotham Court, which lacked plumbing, ventilation, or natural light.

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This final photograph is titled “Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street,” 1888-1889. This single windowless room was the family’s entire apartment, and all of their possessions are visible as well.

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One of the things I really enjoyed was this map of Manhattan that was placed in the middle of the exhibition. The map shows where some of the photographs had been taken, allowing the visitor to compare conditions during Riis’s time with what those areas of the city look like today.

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The final part of the exhibition was also really interesting. One thing that Riis did to focus attention on the conditions of people living in poverty was public speaking engagements, where he showed lantern slide versions of his photographs. You can experience what it was like to attend one of those presentations by watching a narrated lantern slide show of the photographs yourself. I found the overall experience powerful and moving. This particular slide shows some of the nefarious “Dock Rats,” who were known for their illegal activity, including violent robberies.

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The exhibition ends on March 20, 2016, so there is only about a month to see it here in New York City before it’s over. After the exhibition leaves the Museum of the City of New York, it will be traveling to Washington, DC, and Denmark, so keep your eyes open for it if you live in or will be traveling to those locations. (Riis was an immigrant from Denmark, explaining why his work will be exhibited there.)

How can you get to the Museum of the City of New York by public transportation? To travel by subway, take the 6 train to the 103rd Street Station. You can also get there by bus – just take the M1, M3, or M4 to Madison Avenue and 104th Street, and then walk one block west to Fifth Avenue. The museum is across Fifth Avenue from the northern end of Central Park, so if you have the time after your visit to the museum, take the opportunity to explore the park as well.

“Daze” Exhibit at Museum of the City of New York

Looking for art that is quintessential New York City? Look no further than the art of Chris “Daze” Ellis, currently on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. Daze’s work is a marriage of street and studio art, drawing upon his subway graffiti art experience as a teenager in the 1970s. The City Museum’s exhibition spans Daze’s career in includes a range of his work throughout the years. Called The City is My Muse, the exhibit really demonstrates how an artist can draw inspiration from New York City life in all its manifestations.

There were several paintings inspired by Coney Island, and those paintings spanned different time periods in Daze’s art as well. Here’s one titled “Cyclone Drop,” painted in 2011. This painting shows the spray painting technique more prevalent in street art, as well as the detailed oil and acrylic work more commonly done in the studio. The result: as I looked at the painting, I felt like I was almost on the roller coaster myself.

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Some of Daze’s paintings portray aspects of the character of Times Square, with its feelings of frenetic energy and bright colors. “The Duel,” painted in 2012, is one example of those works. The painting features two things I most associate with Times Square – yellow taxis and neon billboards.

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Other paintings seem to draw from Daze’s past as a street artist, such as this one with a subway station setting, titled “Whitlock Avenue” (2010). I particularly liked the technique used on the man’s body, where the paint ran down the canvas.

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These are just a few of the pieces that you can see if you visit the exhibit. If you have the chance, I definitely recommend that you visit the Museum of the City of New York before The City is My Muse ends on May 1, 2016. (There are also some other great exhibitions at the museum, all with a New York City connection.)

How can you get to the City Museum by public transportation? To travel by subway, take the 6 train to the 103rd Street Station. You can also get there by bus – just take the M1, M3, or M4 to Madison Avenue and 104th Street, and then walk one block west to Fifth Avenue. While you are in the area, check out the nearby El Museo del Barrio as well. You get tickets to both museums with your entrance price, and El Museo de Barrio has some really good exhibits as well.

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.