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Activism Spills Off the Streets Into Gallery at Museum of City of New York

By Amy Zimmer | May 4, 2012 7:58am
Two women strikers from the Ladies Tailors union stand on the picket line during the
Two women strikers from the Ladies Tailors union stand on the picket line during the "Uprising of the 20,000" garment workers strike, New York City.
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Museum of the City of New York

MANHATTAN — As Occupy Wall Street recaptured headlines this week, a history of New York activism was being plotted on the walls of the Museum of the City of New York.

Tracing big moments of agitation across the five boroughs over the past 350 years, "Activist New York,” opens Friday, inaugurating the museum’s new $3.25 million, 2,000 square foot gallery. The show casts an eye on 14 contentious city struggles, from religious tolerance under Dutch colonial rule and the Stonewall Riots more than 40 years ago to today's battles over bikes lanes and the flare-up over Park51, the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

Using artifcats, photos and audio/visual clips, the exhibition examines a range of social movements that transformed laws and assumptions regarding race, gender, class, sexuality and economic justice, museum officials said.

“An understanding of New York City’s historic distinctiveness is incomplete without grasping the motivations and issues for which activists have struggled and fought to bring about change,” MCNY’s director Susan Henshaw Jones said in a statement.

The show, for instance, looks at the nativists' fight against Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s. It covers the abolitionist movement, noting that while New York was a center for anti-slavery sentiment, it was also home to many who sided with Southern slave owners.

Women’s suffrage, the rise of settlement houses tackling problems of poverty and upheaval in the garment industry — plagued by poor work conditions that led to such tragedies as the 1911 Triangle Waist factory fire — are also featured.

Politically engaged theater takes the spotlight as does New York’s role in the Civil Rights struggle. There's a segment on the rise of the Conservative party in 1962, led by groups like “parents and taxpayers," along with historic preservation efforts, the gay rights movement and how South Bronx communities have been rebuilding since the 1970s.

"Virtually every aspect of life in the city has been affected by the actions of passionate and committed New Yorkers who have not been content with the world as they found it," Henshaw Jones said.

For the show’s first three weeks, the original "Flushing Remonstrance" — the 1657 landmark document protesting restrictions against Quakers in New Amsterdam — will be on view, museum officials said.