New York City comes to life through offbeat haunts

Tenement Museum -historical interpreter 1

Photo: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

 

 

By Victor Block

Standing on a half-acre of bog land and heather that encircles a dilapidated 19th century stone cottage, my mind wandered back to a recent visit to Ireland. The vegetation and even rocks scattered about the site were identical to those I recalled. Then the sight of skyscrapers surrounding the setting, and sound of honking automobile horns rather than bleating of sheep, startled me back to reality.

Irish Hunger Memorial

That was my introduction to the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York City. In that compact space, it provides a moving recollection of the Great Irish Potato Famine, which, between 1845 and 1852, resulted more than one million deaths and forced millions more to emigrate to the United States.

Irish Hunger Memorial

Irish Hunger Memorial

A family whose ancestors had occupied it over six generations since the 1830s donated the tiny cottage. The entrance into the memorial includes over 100 moving quotations from letters, poems, parliamentary documents and other sources, which recall that grim history.

According to one telling passage, “We lived on snow. It took the place of bread.” Another describes a diet of “grass, leaves, tree bark, roots and wild plants.” According to an especially moving report, after all other members of a family had perished, the last survivor “laid himself down to die.”

The Irish Hunger Memorial, wedged between the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the Hudson River at the southern tip of Manhattan, is but one of many smaller, often-overlooked museums that visitors to New York City may miss. They present chapters of American history, which are as varied as they are intriguing.

 Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The lives of other immigrants come to life in a non-descript five-story brick building that from 1863 to 1936, served as home to more than 7,000 people. Detailed research enables historical interpreters to dramatize and humanize their stories at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Tenement Museum historical interpreter

Tenement Museum historical interpreter

Hallways are dank and dark, with peeling wallpaper and cracked plaster. Stepping into a tiny 325-square-foot apartment, I learned that when the German-Jewish Gumpertz family lived there in the late 19th century — Natalie, her shoemaker husband and four children — it lacked heat, running water and bathroom facilities. By the time Adolfo and Rosario Baldizzi from Palermo, Italy, moved into the building decades later, running cold water and a sink, which doubled as a tub for weekly family baths, must have seemed like a luxury.

Museum of Chinese in America

Museum of Chinese in America: Opera Costume

Museum of Chinese in America: Opera Costume

A very different culture is explored at the Museum of Chinese in America. It describes the influx of Chinese into the United States, which coincided with the flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many early members of “the Asian invasion” were men who came to help build the transcontinental railroad and toil at other sweat-inducing jobs. Along with a collection of artifacts, newspapers, photographs and other items, the story is told by means of oral histories, walking tours and film festivals.

 

Museum of the American Indian

The tale of the true Native Americans comes to life at the National Museum of the American Indian. Exhibits present the culture and traditions of Native Peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere, from their earliest history to the present. Among the more treasured items are an exquisite Olmec jade head believed to have been carved as early as 900 B.C. and a magnificent Crow warrior’s robe.

More intriguing to a group of middle-school students who were sharing my time at the museum was a description of the use of animal intestines and bladders to store liquids. “Yuck” and “gross” were among their more polite reactions.

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Intrepid - Flight Deck

Intrepid – Flight Deck

While hardly of gourmet quality, food that was served to crewmembers aboard a World War II aircraft carrier probably received a more welcome response. The story of the challenge of feeding 3,000 sailors is told aboard the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier.

Docked at a pier on the Hudson River, the massive ship is the centerpiece of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Nearly two dozen aircraft are parked on the flight deck, and interactive exhibits offer opportunities to experience a flight simulator and clamber aboard a helicopter. Most dramatic is the “Kamikaze” multimedia experience that includes smoke and flame effects that bring to realistic life the day when the Intrepid was struck by two Japanese suicide planes.

Skyscraper Museum

At the opposite end of the size scale is a museum that is closely associated with what many people picture when they think of New York City. At the compact Skyscraper Museum, scale models of what are billed as the three tallest buildings in the world — in Dubai, Taiwan and Shanghai — are impressive beyond their size. Also intriguing are two hand-carved miniature wooden models of downtown and midtown Manhattan. Imagine a 4.7-inch tall Empire State Building and 10 Lilliputian-size city blocks that can fit in the palm of your hand. My conclusion: When it comes to museums in New York, even little things can make a big impression.

 

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