Friday, October 5, 2012

New York's Supremacy

Driving home to Pennsylvania from New York City one weekend when I was in high school, my family and I drove past the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. This was an unusual route for us, but traffic delays had diverted us through that part of town. Given the somewhat unfamiliar route, we did not simply drive past the towers; we had an extended conversation about them. We noted when we visited and who we knew who had worked there over the years. I even admired out loud the distinctive steel arches (pictured below from the interior) at the base of the towers.
World Trade Center Tower Interior, Mezzanine, Ceiling to Balcony Floor Windows (1974)
New York City Municipal Archives
I had never noticed the arches before since I rarely encountered the buildings from street level. We thus recounted multiple impressions of the towers as we made our way out of the city. And just a few days later, they were gone.

Everyone in my family loves New York, so we visit New York frequently. I was born there. I went to pre-school there. Any excuse I have to go to the city, I take it.  That weekend before September 11, 2001, we had been visiting my dad's family in Queens. New York has family, but it also has stuff. And while my family is important to me, the material culture of New York is what everyone who loves that city has in common.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published images of 50 objects deemed representative of the Big Apple. Readers were encouraged to indicate what was missing. Overwhelmed by the response (and the things that had been overlooked, such as the black and white cookie), the paper published fifteen more. In the spirit of that project, I would like to add a map.

Shortly after 9/11, my best friend and I went antiquing at a now out-of-business antique co-op in rural Pennsylvania, where I spied a large map of New York City and its "reaches" published by the National Geographic Society.

The terrorist attacks had deepened my admiration for the City, but I had always wanted a prominently displayed object that embodied my love for New York. So I snapped the map up for $15 and displayed it with pride through high school, college, and graduate school (parts I and II).
Yes, you've seen this map before. I have since moved into new digs, but the map has a prominent place here too. It didn't always boast a nice frame (which, incidentally, is worth about ten times the amount of the map). I kept it in the (gasp) cheap dirty plastic cardboard cover and support that accompanied it when I purchased it eleven years ago until it was framed after I graduated from college. Should this one ever deteriorate, I have a back-up: I purchased an identical map for about $20 at co-op in Adamstown, PA, about three years ago. The New York Public Library has a copy too; curators displayed it at the entrance of Mapping New York's Shoreline, 1609-2009.

Any casual reader of National Geographic is familiar with the spectacular maps that accompany many issues. This map---published the same year my dad was born, 1939---is no less spectacular. The map was produced for visitors to the 1939 World's Fair on Long Island. In the photograph below, you can catch a glimpse of Fair building models.
Groven Whalen shows model of [fair] grounds to three men (1939)
New York City Municipal Archives
National Geographic editors hoped that Fair-goers would use the map to explore "scenic places and historic shrines" in and around New York City. Based on the frenzied energy surging through the image below, the NGS did not underestimate the Fair's lure at the end of a long economic Depression and at the start World War II.
May 11th, (Re)Opening Day, World's Fair (1940)
New York City Municipal Archives
Twentieth century World's Fairs, like their nineteenth-century counterparts, typically featured exhibitions and displays that championed corporations (such as AT&T), countries (you name it), and entertainment. Check out this video from the New York Public library about the Fair and that institution's related archival collections.

After traveling around the world while staying in one place, it is hard to know how many fairgoers actually used the map for its intended purpose. If anyone did, were they dazzled by the options? "Washington crossed the Delaware Christmas Night/1776" in Pennsylvania and "Lindberg's Flight to Paris/1927" on Long Island.

Some of the themes highlighted on the map are also highlighted through the Times object list: industry, transportation, dead white guys, Native Americans, and the suburbs. Some of the sites on the map are as obscure now (single span wooden bridge in North Blenheim, New York...built in 1855 and whisked away in 2011 by Irene, apparently) as some of the objects highlighted in the more recent "people's" history (the artichoke...related to a monopoly on the artichoke market in the 1930s).
As we move farther North, we are beckoned by more obscure sites such as "Connecticut Valley Tobacco/used for cigar wrappers" in the vicinity of Melrose, Connecticut.

It should be clear by this point that even if you didn't go anywhere, the map provided a history lesson...overseen by portraits of famous men associated with New York and the region such as Grover Cleveland (governor from 1883-1885) and Eli Whitney (inventor of the cotton gin, buried in Connecticut). Between each portrait is a significant building or landscape such as Atlantic City, Columbia University, and Montauk Light. The map's outer border, colored in a soft red, resembles the iron skeleton of a bridge or skyscraper. This map embodies history, but it also embodies what the editors called "New York's amazing engineering achievements." In short, the editors concluded, the map helps "explain New York's supremacy."

But don't take my (or National Geographic's) word for it. Pay New York a visit and add an object to the list of "A History of New York in 50 75 76 Objects."

I welcome comments via the comment feature at the bottom of this entry and at nbelolan [at] udel [dot] edu.

Further Reading

For more on the meaning of World's Fairs in general, see Robert W. Rydell's All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 (1984), the standard work on the topic (though this doesn't cover 1939).

The University of Virginia put together a web site featuring the history of and images of the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair. You can access that here.

And finally, the Yew York City Archives recently put nearly one million photographs online. This site is not to be missed.

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