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Museum exhibit focuses on NYC activists

Strike Pickets, 1910

Strike Pickets, 1910 Credit: Museum of the City of New York

For more than 350 years, even before New York was called New York, the city has been a center of social activism.

Contemporary movements such as Occupy Wall Street are the latest phenomenon in a legacy of protest that began when the villages that grew into the city were still under Dutch rule, according to a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan.

The photos, artifacts and interactive installations of "Activist New York" chronicle "the many directions that activism has taken," said Sarah H. Henry, the museum's deputy director and chief curator, from the labor reformers who demanded change in the wake of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 to the advocates who started campaigning in the 1960s to make the city more bicycle-friendly.

"The effort was not to make it about the politics, but to make it about the people who become involved with politics and social movements," said Henry, who organized the exhibit. "We think that the level of social engagement, the noisiness, the tumult, the argumentativeness, the activity that New York has engendered, is not an accident," she said, but a product of a historically diverse population crowded in a relatively small space, where "all of these people have bumped up against each other."

On display is the diary of one of the earliest protesters, John Bowne, a Quaker activist. In 1657, residents of Flushing, then a tiny village in what is now Queens, sent a petition to Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of New Netherland which was the governing body for Dutch colonial settlements, objecting to his ban on Quakers.

Stuyvesant had fined and arrested Quakers for holding meetings in their homes. Three years earlier, Stuyvesant tried to arrest Jews who had recently emigrated to New Amsterdam, the settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan.

Bowne's diary recounts the trip he made to the Netherlands on behalf of his fellow Quakers. The Jews and Quakers ultimately were allowed to remain after their protests, making them some of the New World's first activists.

Stuyvesant's point of view is shown, too. He "believed that practicing many religions was disruptive to the social order," Henry explained. "Though it sounds odd to modern ears, it was really a vital question in his fragile young colony."

England seized New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York. In succeeding centuries, clamor for change was not always peaceful.

The exhibit recalls New York's Civil War draft riots, in which about 120 people died in July 1863. The violence grew from the law that conscripted poor men to fight but let the wealthy pay $300 to avoid service.

New York's role in well-known national movements for civil rights and gay rights is featured, as are lesser known activities, such as the Art for the Masses movement that used theater to protest poverty, corruption, racial tensions and fascism in the 1930s and '40s.

Henry adds, "It is surprising for people to learn that movements commonly thought of as national movements oftentimes had very pivotal components in New York."

Another installation called "What's Wrong with New York?" highlights conservative activism in the city from 1962 to 1973, discussing the ideas of author William F. Buckley's run for mayor on the Conservative Party line with promises to be tougher on crime, disorder and increased municipal spending.

For architecture buffs, there is a section dedicated to the debate around preserving historic New York landmarks, a movement that shaped New York in the 1960s.

More recent controversies are covered too, including the ongoing debate that first arose in late 2009 over a plan to build a mosque near the World Trade Center, sparking an intense debate between groups like 9/11 Families for a Secure America and the Coalition to Stop Islamophobia.

"Activism doesn't belong to any part of the political spectrum," Henry said.

The exhibit, funded by the Puffin Foundation, will run until at least May 2013. The museum, at Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street, is open seven days, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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