Once upon a time in Mulberry Street … New York recalls romance of its past

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Once upon a time in Mulberry Street … New York recalls romance of its past

On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, a new exhibition traces the roots of the city’s energy

There can be no more iconic photograph of Manhattan at its teeming, turn of the 20th century peak than the image of Mulberry Street taken by the famed documentarian Jacob Riis in 1900. “They are labourers; toilers in all grades of manual work; they are artisans, they are junkmen, and here, too, dwell the rag pickers,” the New York Times had reported four years earlier, in 1896. “Here are all sorts of stores, pensions, groceries, fruit emporiums, tailors, shoemakers, wine merchants, importers, musical instrument makers … There are notaries, lawyers, doctors, apothecaries, undertakers …

More than a century later, the photograph from New York’s classic era forms the centrepiece of New York at its Core, a fascinating exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York that attempts to explain the city’s unique energy, its mythology and enduring grip on the imagination, even as it becomes identified as a repository of extreme wealth for a global moneyed elite.

The timing of the exhibition, on the eve of the presidential inauguration of a New Yorker who claims to be anti-immigration, is especially acute. Donald Trump’s ancestry is both German and Scottish and in the early 1970s, when the young would-be US president was making his way in the city as a developer, Germans, along with Italians, Poles and Irish, remained the dominant immigrant groups.

“Even at that time the Lower East Side was considered to be quintessential New York in a way that it spoke to the diversity and struggle of the immigrant city,” says Sarah Henry, curator at the Museum of the City of New York, surveying the artefacts that tell the story of three centuries of evolution. […]