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Habtu, Naomi, The Big Apple at its Core


Naomi Habtu
Age: 17, Grade: 12

School Name: Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Bronx, NY
Educator: Amara Thomas

Category: Critical Essay

The Big Apple at its Core

For the past few centuries, the glamourous New York City has been home to some of America’s wealthiest and most successful citizens. New York also houses the most dignified centers for most disciplines such as Broadway’s Theater District, Wall Street, the United Nations headquarters Carnegie Hall, and museums of all varieties. Popular odes to the city describe it as a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” and the marker for success: “If [you] can make it there, [you] can make it anywhere.”^1 Although there have been countless of successful individuals in New York, in the end, we have a tendency to neglect the people backstage, the uncelebrated individuals who keep the gears of the city turning so it can continue to thrive. The Museum of the City of New York features two exhibits that tell its viewers different narratives. The “New York at Its Core” exhibit includes a portrait of J.P. Morgan, badges awarded to Robert Moses, and a photograph of former Mayor Ed Koch with President Reagan, which support the narrative that these prominent individuals have made New York City into the successful metropolis that it is today. The second exhibit, “A City for Corduroy” showcases Don Freeman’s artwork, which intentionally highlights and recognizes the people behind the scenes who are usually left in the shadows. The contrast between these two exhibits in the museum illustrate the different perspectives of who and what the success of New York City can be attributed to. 

While walking through the “New York at Its Core” exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice the familiar names and faces that I recognized for their social, political, and economic influence. They all tell a similar, one-sided story of individual success, which leaves out the contributions made by the rest of the people involved in the success. One artifact that supports this narrative is a portrait of J.P Morgan taken by the Pach Brothers. Morgan was one of the wealthiest and most influential bankers on Wall Street. The description of the photograph notes that he “spent lavishly” while also “support[ing] the city’s cultural institutions.”^2 The medium of this artifact itself (a portrait) forces you to focus on honoring an individual and celebrate the face of the man who built this financial empire. The museum also displays his monogrammed cigar from Cuba,^3 which shifts the focus from diligent New Yorkers to an object that undermines the work of other human beings behind the success. This single item, indicative of wealth, was intentionally chosen to be in the exhibition and took the place of something that could have attributed to the value of other humble New Yorkers. 

Other artifacts that support this narrative of individual success are two badges awarded to  Robert Moses: “Commissioner-Department of Parks-City of New York” and the other “Triborough Bridge Authority-Chairman.” As an urban planner, Moses designed and constructed highways, tunnels, and bridges. The badges reveal the narrative that only the ‘mastermind’ gets recognized to go down in history, not the construction workers who physically built these structures. I observed another photograph, one of “President Ronald Reagan applaud[ing] Mayor Koch’s budget cutting and tax breaks that kept big business from leaving the city.”^4 It depicts the man behind the deal, Ed Koch, as heroic which is affirmed by Reagan on a national level. The badge from a president, who was known for valuing  budget cuts and big business, speaks volumes about the kind of people who are exalted on both a local and national level as well as the types of policies that hold these values in place. Although New York City  is a haven for diversity, its sky-high rent and taxes reaffirm that it is undeniably a city for the elite, including those who praised Reagan because they could afford to live under such exclusionary policies. 

The “A City for Corduroy” exhibit, showcased Freeman’s artwork, which focused on ordinary New Yorkers going about their daily lives either on trains or rushing through bustling crowds. One painting that especially caught my eye was “Stage Hands” a painting featuring the people backstage during a show. The description of the painting read: “Stage workers fascinated Freeman. He called them “the unglamorous heroes and heroines of the theater who work the unsung wonders behind the scenes.”^5 Going backstage gave him the perspective of how all the workers created ‘magic of the theater.’ “Be it the workers “flying in” scenery, the women who cleaned the auditorium after the show, or the stage door man who guarded against the likes of freeloading artists like him, Freeman thought them all worthy of attention and recognition.”^6 Freeman appreciates the people working behind the scenes because he can clearly see that they are the ones who help string everything together. This perspective is very relevant to New York  because the city is filled with almost nine million people, each playing a role in making the city into what it is. However, the everyday New Yorkers are not always credited or celebrated. New York is a working class city and yet is famous for the lavishness of its one percent. Although the Museum of the City of New York includes Morgan’s cigar but not names of all the workers, it strives to strike a balance by highlighting pictures of the construction workers who risked their lives to build the Empire State Building, children working in sweatshops, and a hard hat worn by David Rice during the construction of the Twin Towers. 

The greatness of New York essentially comes from a mix of the achievements of both influential individuals who envision and lead the changes and the everyday New Yorkers who execute these plans. The museum does a great job of celebrating both sides of this narrative through the different exhibits. New York is often seen as a proxy for America and as a site in which to achieve the American dream — the type of place you envision when ‘making it’ in America. The author who coined the term American Dream defines it as “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”^7 So, consequently, the American Dream is less about ‘making it’ and more about living in a society where everyone’s work is appreciated and valued, no matter your social class. This especially can be made possible in museums where the work of contributors to society can be displayed for everyone to appreciate. The narrative that “New York at Its Core” presents is true to the world now. Specific names always come to mind as we live in a society where there is always a sense of competitiveness in the air, a hunger for success that is egocentric. However, just as Freeman does, we must refocus the narrative onto a communal perspective. The hands, back, and feet of the workers who build, clean, and keep the city running twenty four hours a day, are just as important as the names plastered on the front of the buildings.