Museum of the American Gangster

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 108 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I liked this dusty model rum runner, combined with Mimi’s commentary drawing a direct line from these boats to World War II PT boats and Kennedy’s wartime heroism.   

Museum of the American Gangster-Rum Runner
Rum Runner!

I arrived at the Museum of the American Gangster predisposed to dislike it. A small, threadbare operation by the sound of it, two modest rooms over a nautically-themed absinthe-specialist dive bar on St. Marks Place (with a fancy take-out-window sandwich shop embedded in it). Combine that premise with a steep $20 admission charge and it seemed sketchy — like the execrable Ground Zero Museum Workshop, a ploy to separate gullible museum-goers from their hard-earned cash.

Museum of the American Gangster-Entrance

And, yup, it’s that.

But it’s not just that. It’s also Mimi, the guide on the Sunday shortly before New Year’s when I took my tour. Mimi who gave a rather astonishing, 105-minute, note-free, free-associative, and fascinating history of the entire American project, from colonization through today, as viewed through the lens of organized crime and from the unapologetic perspective of a smart, funny, middle-aged, super-liberal, Jewish New Yorker.

I realize that description contains a fair amount of redundancy.

What I Saw at the Gangster Museum

The Gangster Museum is indeed basically two rooms, the size of a starter New York apartment (which in a past life it probably was). Very much of the Science Fair variety of exhibition: lots of photos, reproduction documents, and wall text with a few artifacts (old bottles, models, some bullets from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre…Tommy gun) to liven things up.

Museum of the American Gangster-Tommy Gun

You can only visit on a tour — no wandering in off the street. For the first chunk of it, covering the early history of organized crime and booze and America, there are thankfully seats. The second part is about standing and peering at pictures on the walls. There’s not much of any time for self-guided exploration, but then again, there’s not much to explore.

Museum of the American Gangster-OfficeThe space is, to put it kindly, disheveled. A desk in at the front of the first room serves as the office, with various bits that should probably be thrown out or tidied up, just kind of out there. If you need a restroom break, visit the dive bar on the ground floor.

Eventually, the tour takes you down to said dive bar, which was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and which also now houses the old St Mark’s Theater, installed after the Prohibition days. Then you put on somewhat sketchy hard hats (are these things sanitized between visitors?) and go down to the basement, which is even sketchier, and gives you a great view into what the basement of an East Village apartment building that also contains a dive bar and trendy sandwich shop looks like.  Cluttered with utility pipes and ducts and wires and conduits dangerously everywhere.

Museum of the American Gangster-Basement
Typical East Village Basement

 

In the Prohibition days, the organized criminal who ran the enterprise kept his office down there, and you can see what the space is like today. It didn’t add much.

What I Heard at the Gangster Museum

I’m not going to try to reconstruct the Gangster Museum spiel from my notes. You need to hear it firsthand. Some highlights of what we covered, though:

  • The triangle slave trade
  • Women’s rights and the dawn of Prohibition
  • Southern plantations as Auschwitz
  • Rum Runners and Kennedy’s WWII Heroics
  • Prescription Booze
  • The Dawn of the Cocktail
  • The Chemist Wars as Extrajudicial Killing — or “Assisted Suicide”
  • Prohibition was just for the poor

And then we finally got to gangsters. This review is already long enough but two of my particular favorite quotes from the gangster part were: 

  • Arnold Rothstein (real gangster): “I think we can do crime better.”
  • Omar Little (fictional gangster): “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

We rolled right over our allotted tour time and still barely had time for the history of the building. As it was Mimi turned away a guy who arrived for the 2:30 tour — sent him to the bar for a hot apple cider, because she wasn’t finished with us yet.

Museum of the American Gangster-Interior

We learned of lost safes, buried in concrete. The speakeasy turned theater, the lost office, the whole building an “improvised explosive device” should the Feds come knocking. Escape tunnels and expired Italian dinners (locked in said safes).

I can’t even.

There was a whole heck of a lot left out. No real conversation about organized crime post-Prohibition, or certainly not post-WWII.

Nothing about the potentially awesome, deep topic of organized crime in popular culture. Though Mimi did talk about the ways that early gangsters masterfully manipulated their images in popular culture — at least until their extralegal activities got too bloody or grandiose for their generosity or outsized personalities to balance.

I left exhausted and excited in a way I hardly expected from a two-room, threadbare, quasi-museum.

Museum of the American Gangster-Interior

Is The Museum of the American Gangster a Hit?

Rarely in the course of my museum project have I found myself so stymied by the bottom line. Generally, it’s an easy “go” or “don’t go.” Or a “go if you’re into so-and-so topic.” The Museum of the American Gangster isn’t a good museum — it’s not worth it if you approach it as one, even if you’re into organized crime.

But think of this place, instead, as a theatrical experience. Your reaction to it will completely depend on your guide and whether you click with that person. I can only speak for Mimi, who reminded me why I love this city in all its quirky, passionate, fascinating diversity.

Note also that there’s a Groupon deal seemingly always available that gets you in two-for-one. Do that. Even for Mimi, I have trouble recommending spending $20 on the Gangster Museum.

Museum of the American Gangster-Exterior

 

For Reference:

Address 80 Saint Marks Place, Manhattan (near First Avenue)
Website museumoftheamericangangster.org
Cost  General Admission:  $20, check website for guided tour times. Note, check Groupon for a 2 for one deal.
Other Relevant Links

 

Coney Island Museum

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 4/5
Time spent 52 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I liked three bumper cars on display, dating from (from left to right) the 1950s, the 1930s, and the 1980s. They demonstrate that if a technology is sufficiently perfect, it won’t change much over time.

Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn
Evolution of Bumper Cars
   
   

It often goes overlooked, but New York, like Venice, is a city of islands. And not just the obvious Manhattan, Staten, and Long.  This project has taken me to many of the city’s lesser islands, including City, Governor’sLiberty, and Ellis.  There’s no museum on Roosevelt Island, I note. But now, near the end of my journey, I’ve gone to Coney.

Coney Island Museum
The View From the Museum

Coney Island. Iconic playland for New York City, and thanks to twentieth century mass media, for the entire country.  Maybe the world.  Slightly tawdry, slightly tacky, entirely fun and open to one and all, the very name evokes the image of hot summer days, boardwalks, hot dogs, and a thousand and one sticky, sunburned delights. Continue reading “Coney Island Museum”

Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum

 

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 108 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The tantalizing glimpse into the gold vault.  I’m not awed by wealth, generally, but there’s wealth and there’s WEALTH.

Federal Reserve Bank of New YorkThe Federal Reserve Bank of New York occupies a huge (full city block) beautiful Italian palazzo of a building constructed for it in 1924.  Its classical grandeur meant to evoke the stability of many centuries of tradition. Solid and rich, like a Medici. Which was important, because the Fed was then still a fairly young institution created to stabilize the financial system and steer the economy in the right direction.

Security at the New York Fed exceeds even that of the United Nations. And frankly, in terms of relative institutional importance, that might be appropriate.

However, mere mortals can in fact visit. Limited free tours introduce visitors to the history and role of the Federal Reserve System, explain what the New York Fed does in particular, and, best of all, permit them to ogle one of the largest accumulations of gold in the world. Continue reading “Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum”

Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration

Edification value  
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 213 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Ellis Island National Immigration Museum, New York

Ellis Island’s mental health tests were simple puzzles designed to be as culturally and linguistically neutral as possible. In theory, they quickly weeded out anyone who needed a closer cognitive look.

The classic twofer of New York Harbor is typically viewed as nerdy little brother Ellis overshadowed by big sister Liberty, who enlightens the world.  But from a museum perspective it is the reverse.  Ellis Island’s outstanding National Museum of Immigration tells the story of a unique era in American history, in the space where that era unfolded.  Twelve million people got their starts in the United States right here.

Ellis Island National Immigration Museum, New York Continue reading “Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration”

Conference House

 

Edification value  
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 65 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned As is very often the case with historic houses, I was enamored of the Conference House kitchen, which includes the original open hearth stove. I wouldn’t want to have to cook there, especially not in the summer. But it’s neat to look at.

Conference House, Staten Island

Far, far away, on the southern shore of Staten Island, is an old farmhouse.  And I mean, pretty darn old.  The Billopp House, better known as Conference House, dates to around 1675.  Wyckoff House in Brooklyn and Bowne House in Queens are older. And there are four houses in Staten Island that are older, too.  I suppose Staten Islanders don’t tear stuff down as aggressively as they do in other boroughs.

Conference House, Staten Island

Anyway, Billopp House survives not through an accident of fate or because the Billopps themselves did anything particularly great or notorious.  Rather, it survives because of a single afternoon there in 1776. Continue reading “Conference House”

Roosevelt House

 

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 88 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Happy Days Are Here Again Set

This 1934 pitcher and mug set featuring caricatures of FDR and other Democrats, created by the Stangl Pottery Company following the repeal of prohibition. Cheers!Roosevelt House, Hunter College

Roosevelt House on East 65th Street is Hunter College’s public policy institute.  Lots of schools name places after people who gave them money or famous alums (or both!) so you might just think, “Oh the Roosevelts bought naming rights back in the day.”  Or, I mean, it’s Roosevelt, why not name something policy-related after any or all of them?  But all those hypotheses are wrong!

Roosevelt House, Hunter CollegeFor nearly a quarter of a century FDR and Eleanor lived there as their place in New York City.  Actually it’s two houses designed to look like one from the outside. Franklin and Eleanor lived to the right, while FDR’s mom lived to the left.  While few historic furnishings remain, the house’s internal fabric is similar enough that you can get a sense of the space the Roosevelts occupied. And it’s open for public tours on Saturdays.  

For some reason, Hunter keeps this quiet. I stumbled on to the place late; it was not on my initial list of museums.  I think this is the most under-the-radar historic house museum in Manhattan.  And I’ve been to all of them.  At least, I think I have.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City

When Franklin and Eleanor married in 1905, Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR’s mom, gave them a drawing of a townhouse as a wedding gift.  It took a while to deliver on the real-world equivalent, and it’s unclear whether she specified she’d be their extremely close neighbor.  But still, pretty neat wedding present.

The Roosevelts moved into the Charles Platt-designed house in 1908.  They already had Anna and James, and had a further three surviving children while living there.  The house feels big by New York standards, though small by modern McMansion ones.  And maybe not so big for a family of 7 plus assorted staff.

Each of the paired houses featured a teensy elevator, installed mainly for staff use initially. They turned out to be extremely important once FDR contracted polio in 1921.  His wheelchair, designed to be as small and discreet as possible, could fit.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College

The Roosevelts’ library is still a library today, and contains an array of interesting Rooseveltiana, including a complete set of travel guides published by a Works Progress Administration program to provide work for unemployed writers.  Today, I guess, the government would just give ’em a blog.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
WPA Guides

Among other historic events, the Roosevelts were living in the house when FDR won the presidency in 1932.  FDR’s first radio address to the nation (also recorded for newsreel distribution by Fox Movietone News, which I can’t help but find ironic) was broadcast from the drawing room.

The House and Hunter

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Sara over the fireplace, flanked by FDR and Eleanor

Franklin and Eleanor were living in the White House when Sara Delano Roosevelt died in 1941. By that point, it seemed unlikely that their path would take them back to NYC, and so they decided to put the house/houses on the market.  Hunter approached the family with an offer, and, generously, the Roosevelts both cut their asking price and donated some money to the school.  In exchange, the house was named the “Sara Delano Roosevelt Memorial House for Religious and Racial Tolerance.”

Hunter used the house primarily as a student center,  filling a vital need to build community in what was then an all-girl school that specialized in training teachers.

As a part of a not-very-wealthy academic institution, the house was hard used and ill repaired.  Eventually in the 1990s the school had to close it; conditions inside were becoming downright dangerous.

Fortunately, Hunter admins and donors realized the importance of the house to the college, the city, and the country. The school raised nearly $20 million for a lengthy rehab.  The restoration was bad in terms of the historicity of the place, permanently merging the two houses into a single space.  But it was good in the sense that we might otherwise have lost the house entirely. As happened with Teddy Roosevelt’s torn down then rebuilt birthplace.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Sara Roosevelt’s Former Bedroom, now Seminar Room.

Should You Visit Roosevelt House?

Roosevelt House, Hunter CollegeToday if anyone thinks of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s residence at all, they likely think of Hyde Park, the estate north of New York that houses FDR’s presidential library.  That’s absolutely worth a visit; Roosevelt House in Manhattan pales by comparison.

But Hunter’s public policy institute was the Roosevelts’ city home as they were growing their family; as Franklin suffered and recovered from polio; and as FDR and Eleanor plotted out the beginnings of a political career that would lead to arguably America’s greatest presidency.

So what if they don’t have the sofas or the lamps or the bric-a-brac.  They have the place, and places matter.  The guided tour was terrific, too.  Rachel, a doctoral student when not guiding people around Roosevelt House,  told the story with wit, warmth, and intellect, augmented by photos and videos in the various rooms to help bring the Roosevelts back to life.

If you’re at all interested in 20th century American history, presidential lives and times, or how wealthy New Yorkers lived in the early 1900s, Roosevelt House is well worth a visit.

For Reference:

Address  47-49 East 65th Street, Manhattan
Website  roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu
Cost  General Admission:  $10 suggested donation

 

Statue of Liberty Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 123 minutes (not counting time going through security, waiting for the ferry, or on the ferry)
Best thing I saw or learned I’d never given much thought to the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. So the story of its design — and the near failure of the effort to raise the money to build it — fascinated me. Yes, it’s like choosing frame over the painting, but still.
Statue of Liberty, New York HarborThink how different she’d look if they’d gone with a stepped, Aztec-looking pyramid as her base.  Or something Egyptian revival.

There aren’t all that many museums built to honor a single work of art. Right? I assert that and now suddenly I’m unsure of myself. In New York, there’s Walter de Maria’s Earth Room. And I think of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans as a single, unified whole, even though many busts of great men (and a few women) comprise it. And the Statue of Liberty Museum makes three.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
Lady Liberty

The Statue of Liberty Museum occupies a substantial space in Liberty’s pedestal. It tells the story of the genesis, engineering, construction, and gifting of the statue, as well as her absolutely iconic role as a symbol of freedom, democracy, New York, and the United States. Among other treasures, it includes the statue’s original torch, glass and lit from inside. Continue reading “Statue of Liberty Museum”

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum

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Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 32 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In addition to the historic photos and artifacts the museum has a series of odd, delicate, contemporary wire sculptures hanging below the skylight.  

Kehila Kedosha Jenina Synagogue and Museum

I couldn’t find any explanation for who made them or why they were there.  Google solves the mini-mystery: they’re by Judy Moonelis.

Almost all Jewish people in the U.S. are either Ashkenazi or Sephardic.  Ashkenazi Jews trace their ancestry to central or eastern Europe, while Sephardic people lived in the Iberian peninsula, until they were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella.  However, they are not the only European Judaic traditions.  Tucked away on Broome Street in the Lower East Side is the only synagogue in the Western Hemisphere serving Romaniote Jews, a distinct, ancient, Greek community.

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagoge and Museum, Lower East Side

The congregation of Kehila Kedosha Janina occupies a modest 1927 building, currently one of the last active synagogues on the Lower East Side.  And since 1997 the building has also housed a museum on its upstairs floor– open only on Sundays as of this review– presenting photographs and artifacts describing the community and its traditions. Continue reading “Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum”

Staten Island Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 94 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I had completely forgotten about New York’s state fossil, until the Staten Island Museum reminded me.  It’s a sea scorpion or eurypterid, which I would absolutely not want to meet on a Jurassic beach.

Staten Island Museum
The State Fossil!

The Staten Island Museum started as a private pooling of personal natural history collections in 1881, opening to the public in 1908.  Currently it claims to be New York’s only truly encyclopedic museum, embracing science, history, and art.  And so it does, albeit in small doses of each.

The museum formerly resided in a classical building in St. George, near the Staten Island Ferry, until last year, when it moved to Snug Harbor.  It’s a bus or car ride from the ferry terminal, but at least the architecture is still appropriately museum-y.

Staten Island Museum

The Snug Harbor Cultural Center is Staten Island’s Mall of Enlightenment.  A Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a Children’s Museum, the fantastic Noble Maritime Collection, the hit-or-miss Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, and the Staten Island Museum all reside within its more-or-less renovated, beautiful, Greek revival grounds and buildings. Continue reading “Staten Island Museum”

United Nations Headquarters

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 138 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Octavio Roth’s depiction of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as cheerful, colorful lithographs.  I particularly like the one about the right to leisure, which uses sailing as its visual.

United Nations
Octavio Roth, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN

As I was walking toward the East River on 42nd Street to meet a friend for my 11:30 tour of the United Nations, I realized that this institution breaks one of the rules of my museum project.  I set out to visit every museum in New York City.  Technically, in a legalistic, treaty sense of the world, the 17-ish acres of Manhattan occupied by the UN are not part of New York, or even of the United States.  The UN is its own extranational entity.  So from that perspective it isn’t  a “New York museum.”

Then again, I should be less pedantic.

United Nations

Continue reading “United Nations Headquarters”