‘This Is New York’ Compresses a Century of the City’s Sprawling Cultural History Into One Vivid Hour

Best to nibble these uptown selections with pen and notebook in hand, scribbling notes on what to explore later.

Brad Farwell
'Destination NYC,' part of 'This Is New York: 100 Years of the City in Art and Pop Culture' at the Museum of the City of New York. Brad Farwell

This Is New York: 100 Years of the City in Art and Pop Culture
Through June 21, 2024
Museum of the City of New York

One century of New York’s cultural life in one hour. For the time-stressed, accustomed to a New York minute, that is the challenge — and the success — of “This Is New York: 100 Years of the City in Art and Pop Culture,” a show marking 100 years of the Museum of the City of New York.

Spread over the top floor of the museum on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, the ambitious show looks at America’s biggest city through art, television, film, fashion, music, theater, and literature. With such a mandate, this show can only offer a smorgasbord, or perhaps a tasting menu. Best to nibble with pen and notebook in hand, scribbling notes on books, movies, and artists to explore later.

On leaving the elevator and walking counterclockwise, one finds the show begins on a lugubrious note. Focusing on the metaphorical worm in the Big Apple, posters highlight crime movies of the noir variety from the 1950s. They may be 70 years old, but with crime unabating, the topic is all too timely.

More upbeat is the next room — a 16-screen “immersive film experience highlighting the sights, sounds, and significance of the city in cinema.” Sitting on plush stools, visitors are surrounded by a 20-minute-long kaleidoscope of scenes from some of the city’s best filmmakers — Spike Lee, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese. 

'Salsa Sundays at Orchard Beach' by Cheyenne Julien, 2023.
‘Salsa Sundays at Orchard Beach,’ Cheyenne Julien, 2023.
Via the artist, Chapter NY, and Museum of the City of New York

Film clips are harvested from such classics as: “An Affair to Remember” (1957), “Black Swan” (2010), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Fame” (1980), “The French Connection” (1971), “Ghostbusters” (1984), King Kong (1933), “Love Story” (1970), “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), “Shaft” (1971), “Taxi Driver” (1976), and “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984).

“Around the world, billions of people have an idea of what New York City is because they have learned about the city through movies, television, music, literature, photography, and more,” the museum’s interim director, Sarah Henry, says. “The city is an object of perpetual fascination that is interpreted and reinterpreted and continues to inspire creators across different genres.”

Another room, “Songs of New York,” is devoted to music. In a tip of the hat to all five boroughs, a visitor stands on  a borough outlined on the parquet floor and triggers a snippet from more than 100 songs from the 1920s to the 2020s. 

Imagination is the key to “Private Refuges.” My favorite is Faith Ringgold’s “Tar Beach.” This story quilt imagines a Harlem rooftop as a family gathering place. Here, the 8-year-old protagonist lies on her back and imagines flying up and over the glittering lights of the George Washington Bridge.

Fashion is a key to New York City life, from streets to soirees. Carrie Bradshaw’s pink top and white tutu from “Sex and the City” conveys the idea of the city as a runway and a playground. A black and white hand-beaded skyline cape features the silhouettes of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

Spanning a century, the museum exhibit moves to bright colors from black and white. “Tempo of the City I,” a photo by Berenice Abbott, freezes office employees marching to their offices under the diktat of a looming clock tower. Also in black and white is a creepy Charles Adams drawing showing a middle-aged man startled by a massive finger beckoning him down into the subway.

Berenice Abbott. ‘Tempo of the City I,’ 1938. Museum of the City of New York.
Purchased with funds from the Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund

On the bright side, William Low’s 1997 “Chinatown Apartment Painting” captures late afternoon light glowing on the yellow façade of a Chinese grocery, with crimson characters and multi-colored pennants. Cheyenne Julien’s 2023 “Salsa Sundays at Orchard Beach” uses orange, red, and green to capture the vibrancy and sensuality of outdoor Latin dancing.

If one has out-of-town visitors, “This Is New York” is a great day-one introduction to a great city. For New Yorkers, it is chock full of reminders for follow-ups: classic movies to watch, city nooks to visit, and cultural enclaves to savor.

The New York Sun

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