Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 12 (Display Cake)

Thanks to our friends at UnionDocs, who have given us free access to the brilliant documentary LOS SURES (1984) to commemorate our final episode for this season of Undiscarded which discusses the gentrification of South Williamsburg. Click here to view this masterpiece for FREE –“LOS SURES • 1984” (no membership is required, but you must enter your email address). For more on this project please check out –  https://lossur.es/

LOS SURES • 1984
Diego Echeverria’s film skillfully represents the challenges residents of the Southside faced: poverty, drugs, gang violence, crime, abandoned real estate, racial tension, single-parent homes, and inadequate local resources. The complex portrait also celebrates the vitality of this largely Puerto Rican and Dominican community, showing the strength of their culture, their creativity, and their determination to overcome a desperate situation. Beautifully restored for the 30th-anniversary premiere at the New York Film Festival, this documentary is an invaluable piece of New York City history.

Copies of our Guest Richie Narvaez‘s book “Hipster Death Rattle” about a serial killer on the loose in a gentrifying Williamsburg are available here for purchase.

By Tania Mohammad
Back to home

When you think of museum-worthy artifacts in New York, your mind probably goes to well-established cultural institutions with big names. The Met boasts incredible pieces like their most ancient artifact, a set of Acheulean flints from Deir el-Bahri, dating back to the Lower Paleolithic period. If you are in more of an American mood, you can see the Bible from George Washington’s inauguration at the New-York Historical Society. These pieces are undeniably inspiring, deserving of our time and contemplation, and contribute to the city’s cultural appeal (just ask the hoards of tourists visiting our city!).

The City Reliquary’s motley crew of items may not fit the typical definition of “museum relics,” but I hope we’ve established, through the art of podcasting, just how special they are. These items originate from everyday New Yorkers, reflecting the city’s ever-evolving natural environment. In this season, you’ve heard about a sign from a beloved deli (Ep3), a broken shovel discovered by a tunnel engineer (Ep11), an old lightbulb from the Statue of Liberty’s keeper (Ep1), and more everyday artifacts. More often than not, these items find their way to the museum via a passionate collector or museum volunteer who insists that it deserves its time under the bright lights of a display case. I was curious how this unconventional approach to artifacts would translate into getting support for the show. Thankfully, every guest I spoke to went the extra mile with enthusiasm and passion for their topic, and every collaboration I sought out expressed genuine love and interest for this little, overcrowded space, built on passion alone. Thank you to our Season 1 partners 2nd Ave Deli, New-York Historical, and Queens Museum. Be sure to visit them this summer!

The City Reliquary has always been a community organization at heart, so it was fitting that we ended on a local neighborhood note. Richie Narvaez, an award-winning author, expert on Latin Noir, and guest on the podcast had a special connection to a peculiar artifact featured in the season finale of Undiscarded. This particular relic is prominently displayed at the City Reliquary: a wedding cake with a risqué topper. It comes from La Villita Bakery, a Mexican bakery that stood for 18 years on the corner of Grand Street and Bedford Avenue but was forced to close at the end of February 2013 after the landlord raised the rent from $5,000 to $10,000.  A tale still as old as time, alas. Although the icing has long congealed and rotted, the cake still holds a sweet space in the memory of those who remember not only the bakery, but, as the remnants of Los Sures, a south Williamsburg that is no more. The bakery was cherished for the universal NYC hangover cure (and icon) the greasy egg and cheese sandwich, beloved Latino specialties, and sugary desserts. La Villita also garnered plenty of attention from passersby on the street for its window display cakes, with quirky toppers. The voluptuous topper on our final artifact also was a mascot nicknamed XoXa for a hip Latin blog Remezcla (local to Williamsburg at the time) which has now become a major media company.

In this episode, we look at South Williamsburg with new eyes and acknowledge its existence as Los Sures, where Richie Narvaez was born and raised. Los Sures (the south) was a tough neighborhood and was home to a close-knit community of largely Puerto Rican (from the 1940s/50s) & Dominican (1970s) immigrants. The beautiful documentary by UnionDocs titled “Los Sures” captured the essence of the neighborhood and its struggles at a time when it was one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. The footage is unrecognizable from the shiny, polished, tall condo-dense neighborhood today, but it shows the immense sense of community & loyalty that is unique to NYC neighborhoods. Despite the challenges, it was their home, and they lived, laughed, and survived until many were eventually pushed out due to rapid changes in the neighborhood. Here are some stills from the documentary which was re-released as part of a larger project with UnionDocs: LIVING LOS SURES (2014) (more info in the resources section). Please take your time to view this show that BAMcinématek called, “Both an invaluable record of pre-gentrification Brooklyn and an ode to a community’s resilience.”

Images Courtesy of UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art /Living Los Sures

This brings me back to the subject of our unique cake, our final artifact for Season 1. Though every item in the museum holds a personal story, I didn’t realize just how deep the story went with La Villita. I can’t really phrase it as eloquently as Dave Herman (City Reliquary Founder) did, so here you go:

“When pulling together the very first City Reliquary display window in 2002, I wanted this display to represent the character of our neighborhood, inspired by what I saw in nearby windows.  One of those was at the storefront bakery, La Villita where I would stop each morning for my 50¢ “cafe con leche caliente.”  There was always a line out the door, and cakes in the window were often past their prime. The display cakes were topped with clowns, wedding figurines, bachelorette and bachelor dolls, all adorned with lovingly sculpted frosting flowers. All of this sugar icing covered a styrofoam cake form.  Not knowing this at the time, and with limited Spanish-speaking ability, I ordered one regular cake to put on display at the new City Reliquary Museum. Existing solely in the window display cases at the time, our micro-museum was “Always open. Always Free.” 

Inevitably, a small critter got into the delicious, if hardened cake and nibbled a hole in it.  So, the original City Reliquary La Villita cake did not last as long as its counterparts in the bakery.  Explaining this to the owners, Maribel Meza and Alfonso Sosa, they offered to give me a cake directly from their windows the next time they swapped them out. It would be a genuine artifact actually displayed at La Villita!  On what was coincidentally my birthday later that year, Alfonso reached across the counter with a cake in his hands saying, “For you! From our window!” That true relic was displayed at the new City Reliquary storefront museum until the day La Villita closed in 2013.

On closing day, I brought flowers to Maribel and Alfonso, but immediately left to retrieve what was more needed that day; a box of tissues for all the weeping employees and patrons who had been a part of each others lives for the past 17 years. At that time, Maribel reached into the window, with some help, to pull out the 3-tiered wedding cake that had been in their display.  We swapped out the traditional wedding figures for the iconic bachelorette that caught so many eyes walking down Bedford Avenue until then.  It seemed Williamsburgh wouldn’t be the same without her.

The cake has continued to age over the years, despite our efforts to seal it with spray shellac.  But it continues to be a true relic, remaining in Williamsburgh, and representing a small part of the culture that has made this neighborhood such a desirable destination. ” 

** The emotion of that last day of La Villita can be seen in a film called the Last Bread that documents emotional interactions between regulars and the owners on thier last day of business. Also part of the Living Los Sures project.

In a city with constant change, the Reliquary preserves these artifacts as an anchor to an era or a place that is no more. These mundane artifacts are valuable because of the meaningful connections they represent and the local stories behind them, not because the item itself is worth a ton on eBay. That has been the aim of Undiscarded to shed some light on these forgotten stories and I hope we’ve made you care about the old rollerskate, discarded replicas from a museum model, or a kitschy souvenir. They serve as reminders of the intricate tapestry that makes up the city’s history and the importance of cherishing our neighborhood touchstones and memories in the face of rapid urban transformation. We’d love to hear what you thought of this first season and what are some of your favorite items at the Reliquary. Do reach out to the Reliquary at [email protected] or to me directly at [email protected] with comments because there are so many more stories to tell and we’d love to know your favorites!

References & Resources:

More on Richie Narvaez, Author and resident of Los Sures (About)
A blog post on his childhood Apartment in Los Sures
Purchase Hipster Death Rattle- Murder is trending. Hipsters are getting slashed to pieces in the hippest neighborhood in New York: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While Detectives Petrosino and Hadid hound local gangbangers, slacker reporter Tony Moran and his ex Magaly Fernandez get caught up in a missing person’s case–one that might just get them hacked to death.
Recommended Reading from Richie!
A Puerto Rican in New York, by Jesus Colon
The Latin Deli, by Judith Ortiz Cofer
War Against All Puerto Ricans, by Nelson A. Denis.

Union Docs – LIVING LOS SURES • 2014
Produced over 5 years by 60 artists at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art, LIVING LOS SURES is an expansive project about the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Known by its long-term Latino residents as Los Sures, the neighborhood was one of the poorest in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, it had been called the worst ghetto in America. Today, it is the site of a battle between local identity and luxury lifestyle. With the restoration of LOS SURES, a brilliant work of cinéma vérité filmmaking as a starting point, the project has developed into a collection of 40 SHORT FILMS, the interactive documentary 89 STEPS, and the cinematic people’s history SHOT BY SHOT, demonstrating new possibilities for collaboration between an arts institution and its surrounding community to collect memories and share local culture.
LOS SURES • 1984 the movie for FREE (email entry required no membership fee)
The Last Bread directed by Maria Rosa Badia
Of Memory & Los Sures animated oral history project from Laurie Sumiye & Andrew Parsons
All part of the Living Los Sures Project from Union Docs

La Villita Bakery
After 17 Years In Business, Beloved Williamsburg Bakery Gets Priced Out – Gothamist
In a Bakery Window, Shades of Miss Havisham – NY Times
La Villita Forced to Close in Williamsburg – The Village Voice
XoXa in the NYTimes!!! – Remezcla

Los Sures
Los Sures: The Brooklyn You’ve Never Been To – Brooklyn Magazine
‘Los Sures’ continue mission to protect Hispanic community in Williamsburg – News 12 Brooklyn
THE POWER OF LOS SURES (EL PODER DE LOS SURES) – The People’s Art Project – Inside Out
How a Lost VHS of “Los Sures” Sparked A Movement to Preserve Williamsburg Latino Heritage – Remezcla

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 11 (Very Old Shovel)

Back to Homepage

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to join my son on a field trip to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. For years, I’d driven past the glittering, UFO-like building, and despite skeptical looks from others about my fascination with a sewage plant, I eagerly took the chance to visit. Being originally from Pakistan, where water is precious and clean water is even more valuable – to the point that we’ve witnessed mafia wars over the city’s water supply – New York’s vast, efficient water infrastructure has always intrigued me. (NOTE: global fast facts on water crisis- not just a Pakistan problem).

My visit to Newtown was well timed as the “very old shovel” episode was on the horizon.
The old shovel was found in Shaft 9 during a rehabilitation of the New Croton Aqueduct by the City Reliquary’s resident Geologist Emeritus, Nik Sokol. Nik an engineer, was someone who was very instrumental in the Reliquary’s early days and set up their New York Geology Section which includes a display of rocks and minerals from the World Trade Center and 2nd Ave Subway excavations. He no longer lives in the city but I was lucky enough to catch him on a visit. I figured an unusual stone would be our focus but instead, I was surprised when we settled on the very old shovel.…

New York City boasts the largest engineered water system in the nation. Beneath the city, a complex labyrinth of tunnels with water mains stretching about 6,500 miles. As noted in an article titled “City of Water” from The New Yorker, “As an engineering feat, the water-tunnel system rivals the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal.” Every day, this system provides more than 1 billion gallons of water to about half the state’s population of 9 million people. The water is channeled from reservoirs Upstate, pumped, and then drawn via gravity from a 1,900-square-mile watershed, almost the size of Delaware. The Catskills/Delaware watershed provides the majority of this water, while the Croton water system, the site of our “very old shovel,” supplies 10%. We discuss the Croton Aqueduct and the early days of NYC water supply in detail in our episode.

Left: Full map of the Croton Water Supply System – from the reports of Nik Sokol
Right: Outside shaft 9 – photo courtesy of Nik Sokol

While it’s natural to marvel at the astonishing engineering and construction achievements of this system, it’s crucial not to overlook the laborious efforts that made it possible. The toil of the people who dug, blasted, and rehabilitated these tunnels allows us to enjoy conveniences like riding the subway, flushing a toilet, or washing dishes, the accessibility of which we never really ponder. These tasks were largely executed by sandhogs, or urban miners/tunnel workers, who have been a vital yet invisible part of the city since 1872.  They formed their union Local 147 in 1906 and since then they’ve built almost every tunnel and many bridge foundations in the city, passing on their skills from one generation to the next. However, this is perilous work, often involving loud, dark, dusty environments, and potential hazards such as decompression sickness and physical injury. A quick Google search reveals numerous personal injury lawyers specializing in sandhog cases.

Right Image (courtesy Nik Sokol): Men constructing New Croton Shaft 26 from course report on historical preservation of the Croton system, from the City of New York Aqueduct Commission Reports on the New Croton Aqueduct

Left: 28 January 2010- Sandhogs continuing work on the LIRR station cavern below Grand Central Terminal and approx 100 feet below street level – photo US Dept of Energy
Right: Sandhogs working on the East Side Access megaproject have concluded major blasting under Grand Central Terminal, where they are building two enormous caverns 160 feet below street level that will house eight tracks for Long Island Rail Road trains (photo- Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York)

In the end, the “very old shovel” stands as a testament to generations of laborers and their immense contribution to our essential infrastructure. It deserves its place alongside the Statue of Liberty or the subway in this season of Undiscarded. And if I ever get the chance to meet a sandhog, I’ll certainly ask about any encounters with alligators down there.

References and Extra Reading
History of Water in New York & Resources for Educators (from the Dept. of Environmental Protection)
How New York City Found Clean Water – Smithsonian Magazine
The Contentious History of Supplying Water to Manhattan – Museum of the City of New York (Juicy stuff & great images)
Croton Aqueduct Celebrates 175th Anniversary – Medium (A few years old but finally something on the New Croton Aqueduct)
City of Water – The New Yorker

About the Sandhogs
The Dangers Sandhogs Face Every Day for You to Commute – NY Post
The Sandhogs Who Built the New York Subway – Jstor Daily
The Sandhogs Who Brought Water to NYC – Urban Archive
Go Underground With the Workers Who Dig NYC’s Subterranean Tunnels – Business Insider

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 10 (Subway Token)

Hope everyone had a lovely 4th of July! – Back to Homepage

The summer season is here, and instead of dreaming about the beach on my 4th of July weekend getaway to the cape, I find myself contemplating public transport. Mainly because I still had to write this blog and we were stuck in back-to-back crawling traffic for a full 8 hours when it’s usually a four-hour journey. In general, whenever I am away from our bustling city, I realize how every place else is dependent on vehicles to get anywhere. What a blessing it is to live in a city where you can get by without a license!  I am embarrassed to admit that lately, I drive a lot more in NYC, perhaps due to my ingrained LA training, post-pandemic nerves, and the luxury of a coveted parking spot. But the realities of a sprawling metropolis like ours make it evident that driving may not be the best option. Obviously, there is the carbon footprint to think of but on more than one occasion (gridlock, surge pricing, a pile of parking tickets), I curse the roads and I ruefully wish I had stuck underground, the city’s preferred way of getting around.

When my kids were younger their favorite book was Subway (by Christoph Niemann) an adoring fun ode to NYC’s favorite mode of transportation. Even though I had committed it to memory at that time, I have forgotten what a marvel our transit system is. Some images below for context from Christoph’s book (available on his website).

Sure, the subway has its share of woes: track work, fare hikes, the invasion of personal space, and lately an increase in troubling incidents (subway surfing, people being shoved on tracks, deaths, etc). But despite these setbacks it is still the backbone of our city. The New York City Subway has a daily ridership of approximately 2.4 million, coupled with our bus system which has a daily ridership of 1.2 million. This public transit system fuels the city’s economy, provides congestion relief, increases accessibility, and is just plain RAD. I mean how amazing is it that you can catch a Mets game in Queens in the afternoon and mosey on over to Coney Island to see the fireworks at night all on the same day at the low fare of $6.25!

We’ve previously featured NYC icons such as the Statue of Liberty, Newsstands, and the Jewish Deli, so it seemed fitting that this Undiscarded episode is dedicated to the subway. Our guest (and the show’s contributing producer), Jacob, is amongst many things a subway enthusiast, thanks in part to the Transit Museum (a wonder itself), we had plenty of transit-related Reliqyary artifacts to choose from.  Among the artifacts displayed are an older Red Subway door, station signs, pieces of rail, a metro card art, and a collection of straps mounted like a prized aminal game. However, Jacob ultimately decided on the humble token as the object of our episode. This rare SJD token was one of the Bullseye tokens introduced from 1986 to 1990. The letters “SJD” were secretly etched on the “GOOD FOR ONE FARE” side between the “D” in GOOD and the “F” in FOR The story is that  “SJD” are the initials of  Sylvester J. Dobosz, who was in charge of the money room.  We get to the story behind it in the podcast but also discuss the history of the token and its significance, and the journey from tokens to Metrocards and now to OMNY. 

Behold the plethora of City Reliquary Subway Tokens!

While tokens were phased out in 2003, they still represent a significant piece of NYC’s history, making appearances in fashion, business logos, and pop culture. When the subway was introduced in 1904, the fare was just a nickel and then increased to a dime over the years, but once the fare changed to 15 cents, the token was introduced as a flexible, well token, to accommodate changes in fare prices over the years.

New York City Board of Transportation, City of New York Board of Transportation New York City Transit System ticket, ca. 1940s, Ticket & Transfer Collection; New York Transit Museum.

Once the tokens were introduced in 1953 it remained a vital part of the city’s life for five decades. They weathered fare changes, morphed to keep counterfeiters at bay, and commemorated special occasions. Although practicality led to their eventual replacement by the Metrocard, they continue to be a cherished memento of New York’s past.

Despite the convenience of the Metrocard,  its introduction was met with reluctance, a testament to New Yorkers’ enduring affinity for the old ways. This nostalgia can be seen by many creators who make jewelry and art out of the old tokens (the Y token being one of the most popular ones). And now as we transition to the OMNY system, there is plenty of artwork and memorabilia dedicated to the Metrocard! From elaborate collages by Thomas McKean to cute illustrations by my friend Kate Durkin, the Metrocard has found its way into our hearts and art. Despite the challenges of technology and concerns over privacy and accessibility, we are hopeful that OMNY will prove beneficial to our ever-evolving transit system.

Left image: Cutesy Cardvark “a character who was supposed to symbolize the MetroCard and be “a high-tech yet lovable creature who can `sell’ the card.” – more about him at Gothamist
Right image: Reimagined OMNYvark courtesy Mattie Lubchansky & Gothamist

Left image: [MTA Chairman Peter Stangl swiping MetroCard on it’s first day in the system], February, 1994, NYCTA Photographic Unit Collection; New York Transit Museum.
Right Image: [MTA Chairman Peter Stangl swiping MetroCard on it’s first day in the system], February, 1994, NYCTA Photographic Unit Collection; New York Transit Museum.

References & Resources

  • A Brief History Of How New Yorkers Have Paid For The Subway – Gothamist
  • What Goes Up Must Come Down: A brief history of New York City’s elevated rail and subway lines – Library of Congress Blog
  • About the MTA network – MTA
  • NYC subway cars throughout history: from steam-powered engines to open-gangway design – Curbed NY
  • Remember NYC Subway Tokens – Untapped NY
  • NYC Subway Tokens – nycsubway.org
  • Transit Gifts – NY Transit Museum

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 8 (Letters To A Hero)

If you like Undiscarded, tune into The Brooklyn Public Library’s flagship podcast, Borrowed. Brooklyn has so many stories to tell, and a lot of them start at the library

Superheroes are worshipped for a reason and we often place them on a high pedestal. We look up to their courage in the face of grave danger, we gleefully cheer them on (at a safe distance) as they vanquish all-powerful villains. As mere mortals, we can’t help but be drawn (sometimes obsessed) by these larger-than-life figures, who hail from destroyed fictional planets, mythical islands, or forged by crazy experiments that have gone wrong. Those who don’t possess superhuman strength & mind-bending abilities, often compensate for their lack of powers with endless wealth, superior intelligence, or unparalleled mastery in warfare (trained under some ancient warrior no doubt). We’ve devoured endless film franchises, TV shows & comic series and are fully vested in their complex worlds, offering an escape from reality. But despite the “hero-worship”, every so often, a superhero surfaces that feel a little closer to home, a figure we can genuinely relate to and aspire to be.

Despite his spidey superpowers, no one is more relatable than Spiderman, also known as Peter Parker and his realness is one of the reasons he’s been an enduring fan favorite. He is a student who hails from what is considered the most unglamorous borough, Queens (strongly DISAGREE). He fights crime not in a mythical metropolis, but right here in New York City. As he swings over the Queensboro bridge or perches atop the empire state building, he epitomizes the quintessential friendly neighborhood Spiderman. Balancing his mighty powers with everyday worries, like caring for his aging aunt, making the rent, and navigating high school relationships, Spiderman embodies a unique blend of the mundane and the extraordinary. It’s this mix that endears him to fans worldwide, making us wonder: Could there be a superhero among us? Could he be living at a real address in Queens?

It just so happened that The City Reliquary’s latest blockbuster exhibit broached this very theme. The “Letters to Spiderman” exhibit at the Reliquary Museum caught my attention due to its bizarre blend of coincidence and fandom. It’s been the subject of much media coverage lately and I knew it had to be part of Season 1 of Undiscarded.

Back in 1989, two issues (#316 & #317) of “The Amazing Spiderman” comics cleverly hid Spiderman’s Forest Hills address. Only the keenest fans could decipher it, piecing together the details from both issues.

And what did these ardent fans do next? They wrote letters to their hero, only to be received by a real family named Parker who lived at this actual address in Forest Hills, Queens! This peculiar story became public knowledge in the early 2000s when Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, featuring Tobey Maguire, hit the screens. (Fun fact I was living in LA in those days, and was an extra in the Times Square scene when the Green Goblin attacked the Unity Festival).

Our guest on the podcast, Pamela Parker, shares the surreal experience of her family becoming entangled in this comic book mystery. This narrative has garnered attention over the years, fascinating fans and capturing the magic of life imitating art. The uncanny parallels extend even further – with an Osborne family living next door, echoing Spiderman’s arch-nemesis! Pamela knew these letters were something special and managed to keep a few. They moved from place to place with her in a shoebox, till they found their home at The City Reliquary, a fitting resting place. Securing an interview with Pamela seemed challenging initially, given our commitment to in-person recordings and Pamela’s relocation from the city. But, as luck would have it, we managed to connect during one of her visits to the city. You can see all of the fan letters here

Though we didn’t quite have the resources to track down all the original kids from around the world, we did bring in some local adorable talent to contribute to the episode! Friends from the Sunnyside, Queens let me record their kids reading out these fan letters. They were quite eager to participate in anything Spiderman related.  One could argue nepotism was at play, with one of the young readers being my son! It was really cool to have kids from Spiderman/Peter’s home borough read out the letters.

Fox News and Hellgate reporters even tracked down one of the original letter writers, now a college student and unsurprisingly, still a die-hard Spiderman fan. This delightful story encapsulates a universal yearning – the desire to connect with our heroes, making them feel real and reachable. It’s a testament to the magic of fandom, a testament to the idea that superheroes might just be more than figments of our imagination. Maybe we should take a closer look to appreciate the real-life Superheroes who are hiding in plain sight every day.

Resources & Additional Reading
The Bowery Boys – Spidey in NYC & The Secret Origins of Comic Books
Marvel’s Podcast “This Week In Marvel” feat. Greg Young about the History of Marvel in NYC
Royal Collections – your friendly neighborhood Comic shop – in Forest Hills
Other famous Spiderman NYC destinations – here
A Brief History of Spiderman – Historynet
Spiderman We Know Where You Live – NYTimes

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 6 (Model Buildings)

New Yorkers are fiercely loyal to their neighborhoods, whether they’re native New Yorkers or transplants who’ve lived in the city long enough to earn “local” status. This sense of community and neighborhood devotion is stronger compared to other cities. When my husband and I lived in the East Village, he famously declared that there was nothing worth seeing above 14th Street, and many of our friends had similar opinions about their respective neighborhoods. It’s as though the frenetic pace of the city compels us to hunker down and take refuge in our own corners of the city. A good friend who lives in Park Slope might as well live in another city! I was warned by a friend that when I moved to Sunnyside, Queens I’d stop coming into “town.” And soon enough I became an ensconced local, my outside friends dwindling and reasons to venture off the compound less. It’s only the post-pandemic fomo and work that’s forced me to venture out more in the last few years.

As much as I love my hood, it’s not considered a destination by visitors and often many New Yorkers. While Manhattan has glamour and cachet, Brooklyn has a brand, and the Bronx has grit and sass, Queens often gets short shrift. It’s frequently labeled as the unsexy, unglamorous borough, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Queens is the World’s Borough, with residents who speak over 120 languages and full of diverse cultures and cuisines. The 7 train is famously known as the “international express’. After eating in Queens I cannot even eat certain cuisine in town (my borough friends avoid “Manhattan Thai” like the plague). For immigrants like me, who have been assimilating for years in other cities, it’s a blessing to be in a place where you are not an “other.” And of course, like so many other places in New York, it is steeped in history. So it was a no-brainer to try and come up with a Queens-centric episode for Undiscarded.

It just so happens that one of the aims of Undiscarded was to showcase the City Reliquary’s and CitizenRacecar’s dedication to fostering civic partnerships and collaborations with cultural institutions in all boroughs. We did this with the 2nd Ave Deli episode, where we took a field trip to the New-York Historical Society. Since the Reliquary also houses a sizeable amount of World’s Fair memorabilia, it made sense to invite the Queens Museum to our humble space for an episode. Luckily they were on board and we were introduced to Lynn Maliszewski, Assistant Director of Archives & Collections at the Queens Museum. It was fun to see Lynn and Jacob put on their History Nerd hats as they debated which artifact to choose. The stories that could come from our World’s Fair collection are numerous, but we eventually settled on a group of old discarded model buildings from the famous Panorama of the City of New York, the crown jewel of the Queens Museum.

The Panorama of the City of New York is a scale model of all five boroughs created for the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. The panorama, which was housed in the former New York City Building (now the Queens Museum), is an impressive work of art, occupying 9,335 square feet and featuring 895,000 structures built at a scale of 1:1,200. It was one of the Fair’s most popular attractions, with an average of 1,400 visitors daily.

Despite being plagued by problems and deemed a financial disaster, the World’s Fair was an ambitious project that left a lasting impression on attendees. Conceived as a celebration of the City’s municipal infrastructure and intended to be used as an urban planning tool, the Panorama remains a living model to this day. The museum even updated the Panorama in 1992 with 60,000 changes using their original techniques.

Visiting the Panorama is indeed a surreal experience, as Lynn mentions in the episode. It is overwhelming in its scope and scale, but at the same time, meticulously organized and detailed. Even though it has not been updated since 1992, you can see all of the major landmarks and neighborhoods of New York City, and even discover areas you never knew existed. It’s a powerful reminder that we are all part of a vast, ever-changing city that offers endless possibilities to explore and discover. It’s why we love New York! If you haven’t been, you can add the Panorama and the Queens Museum to your (growing) list of reasons to visit Queens.

Hopefully, now that it’s post-pandemic times, the Queens Museum will resume hosting the City Reliquary for its annual Panorama Challenge, the world’s only geographical trivia-based game night.

Additional Reading & References:
Detailed info about the Panorama at the Queens Museum
Events & Current Exhibits at the Queens Museum
World Fair
info from the NY State Library
NYTimes article on the Panorama
Failures & Successes of the 1964 World Fair – analysis by Bloomberg
Buzzfeed shares some reasons why Queens is the greatest

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 5 (Stuffed Alligator)

Urban legends have persisted worldwide, with many tall tales rooted in folklore passed down through oral tradition. Some are supernatural stories based on myth, while modern iterations often go viral through social media or chain emails that promise doom or good fortune. Myths like Bloody Mary transcend borders, as I remember both my brother and me leaving the bathroom door open a crack in our childhood home in Saudi Arabia. Each place has its own set of urban legends, and New York, one of the original 13 colonies, is no exception. The city’s history is steeped in local folklore, including the lost treasure of Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island) and the ghost ship of the Hudson River (read more here). I recall anxiously looking up when walking past the Empire State Building, fearing a penny might hurtle down and split my skull. Despite their ridiculous nature, most of these myths contain a kernel of truth.

In Episode 5, we explore one of New York’s most famous urban legends: the alligator in the sewer or subway. Upon entering the reliquary lobby, you’re greeted by a stuffed alligator smirking from the roof. Now the origins of this gator are mysterious but know that it pays tribute to the classic myth. Michael Miscione, former Manhattan Borough Historian and longtime friend of the museum, join us as our guest to discuss the origins and validity of this legend. Here are some shots of Michael with Dave Herman, the Reliquary’s founder, and the creature in question.

Miscione has been captivated by the alligator in the Subway story since childhood. He and his friends would lose stick balls in gutters forever because retrieving them may result in a face-to-face encounter with a large, semiaquatic reptile from as far away as Florida. Over the years, he has conducted exhaustive research to uncover the myth’s origins and has spoken about it widely in the city. In this episode, we dive into the first reported alligator sightings in the sewers and explore theories on how these crocodilian reptiles definitely not local may have ended up in the Big Apple. Below are some awesome old headlines and images from Michael’s research, which he has kindly shared with us. Many of which are referred to in the episode

Central Park Menagerie of Animals

The allure of exotic creatures for New Yorkers persists. Residents have cared for exotic birds, Savannah cats, snakes, and peacocks in their cramped apartments. While special permits are required for certain species, it hasn’t deterred New Yorkers from attempting to tame these wild animals. According to Article 161 of the NYC Health Code, a wild animal is any animal naturally inclined and capable of inflicting harm upon humans. The list includes but is not limited to, lions, tigers, leopards, ocelots, jaguars, pumas, panthers, mountain lions, cheetahs, wild cats, and bears. Who knows which of these creatures might be lurking in the sewers next? Personally, I’d prefer a good old-fashioned New York rat slinking around any day.

Next year don’t forget to celebrate this New York myth with Michael on February 9th, which he has decreed as “Alligator in a Sewer Day.” You can also learn about his other passion, the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs, at NYC125.org.

PS: You can still send a baby Alligator in the mail today – they just need to be less than 20 inches long! You probably don’t need to look in the back of a magazine though, maybe just google?

Post-PS from Jacob Ford: our stuffed alligator being mounted upside-down to the ceiling is our little shoutout to Ferrante Imperato and his Dell’historia Naturale, which also had (at least according to his own woodcut) an alligator belly-up above visitors. His is the first published picture of a wunderkammer, the progenitor of the modern museum. We have a little framed print of it that floats around the museum.

Wall of the Reliquary front room, featuring old NYT headline ALLIGATOR FOUND IN UPTOWN SEWER below Ferrante Imperato's Dell’historia Naturale print

Further Reading & Resources:

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 4 (Pigeon Tags)

If you look closely in small corners of the museum, you can find hidden and not-so-hidden birds tucked away in the Reliquary’s corners and vitrines (a word I frequently use now that I have a museum pod—thx Jacob Ford). They have been a part of the museum since its early days in 2002 when it was a window display on Havermayer Street, before moving to its permanent space on Metropolitan Avenue. In fact, Dave Herman, founder of the Reliquary, said they had a policy to have at least one chenille bird as a decoration in every display.

Last year, Jacob curated an entire exhibition at the Reliquary on the birds, people, and bird people of the city:

BIRD SHOW documents the ways humans & birds notice, help, and threaten each other in this city we share.

Taxonified incorrectly as science fair, fairly as art show, but most specifically as nature exhibition, BIRD SHOW looks at people watching birds, and the birds staring back.

BIRD SHOW introductory text

While brainstorming with Jacob for artifacts for this season, nothing made more sense than to pay homage to the Reliquary’s ornithophilic tendencies. And we did so by honoring one of the most recognizable and famous NYC creatures – not the infamous one known for dragging pizza through the subways, but the Columba livia, also known as the humble pigeon.

The obvious choice for a guest was Gabriel Willow, a naturalist, environmental educator, ecological tour guide in NYC, and ALSO a DJ & artist. He joined us to discuss our episode’s artifact: the pigeon tags. In addition to having collaborated with the Lincoln Center and Morgan Library, he teaches classes and offers programs, some of which are free (info here). Appropriately dressed in pigeon attire, as you can see, I definitely felt my feelings change towards the pigeon as I learned that some of New York’s OG birds may have originated in Pakistan and Africa before being brought over as pets by European immigrants. We mentioned some famous pigeon fanciers in the show (Mike Tyson, Bert, Nikola Tesla, and the fictional Terry Malloy played by Marlon Brando, again Bert because he’s the best), but here are some more I found in pigeonpedia who might surprise you…

As we mention in the episode, these non-native species were once used as food but eventually became a popular hobby in old-time New York. Originating with European immigration, urban birdkeeping thrived on rooftops from the 1930s through the 1950s, with pigeon fanciers often keeping hundreds of birds at a time. Thus, the pigeon registration tags were introduced. There was a time when you couldn’t walk down certain neighborhoods in the city without seeing flocks of pigeons flying overhead.
I found these awesome pictures in an older article from Messy Nessy Chic about the New York subculture of rooftop pigeons. Photographer Aaron Wojack was kind enough to let me use his GORGEOUS photos in this post.

Gentrification, rising costs of keeping pigeons, and stringent regulations have phased out this old pastime, leaving only a small dedicated group of New Yorkers. It started mainly with white immigrants back in the heyday and was passed along to communities of color towards the end of the 20th century. They New York Times published an article about the crossing of racial lines & pigeon fanciers. It’s estimated that there may be only 50 coops left now, down from thousands at one point.

Pigeon keeping and pigeons themselves have captured the imagination, inspiring countless article, art and books. In fact, Mo Willems’ famous pigeon, a childhood favorite of my kids, just turned 20. Though coop culture is dying, there is no shortage of NYC’s favorite feathered species. Estimates range from around half a million to one pigeon per person, which would mean approximately 9 million pigeons in the city. I guess by now, they belong here just as much as we do.

Drawings of extinct NYC birds, and photos of US Airways Flight 1549, from BIRD SHOW exhibition at the City Reliquary
BIRD SHOW mid-installation, featuring Gabriel Willow’s drawings of extinct birds over modern-day photographs: Ecolegiac

Guest info: Gabriel Willow, who is on Instagram.

Photos: Aaron Wojack, also on Instagram with pigeons

Research & Resources:

Gabriel has a cool hat. Jacob is wearing a pigeon head mask by Archie McPhee.
Gabriel Willow & Jacob Ford in their natural habitat: Wild Bird Fund’s Flocktail 2019

More episodes of Undiscarded await you

Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 3 (Letters From A Sign)

Listen to the FULL EPISODE here or search for “Undiscarded” wherever you get your podcasts…

The City Reliquary Museum & Civic Organization is known for its unique partnerships with organizations and institutions throughout the city. Currently, one of its famous & beloved artifacts is on loan at New York’s oldest museum, the New York Historical Society. The original 2nd Ave Deli sign was rescued and bought to the Reliquary when the Deli closed down after a dispute with the landlord—sadly, not a new phenomenon. The two remaining parts of the sign, “2nd” and “Ave,” can be seen on display in the Historical Society’s exhibit,“I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli (organized by the Skirball Jewish Center). The exhibit, which features neon signs, menus, displays, and an in-depth look at the history, importance, and evolution of the Jewish Cusines in America, closes on April 2nd, 2023, and I highly recommend visiting and it will make you hungry.

It was truly special to journey uptown to this historic institution and interview Jack Lebewohl, the current owner of the 2nd Ave Deli, within the expansive exhibit hall, a stark contrast to the cozy confines of the Reliquary. Jack was brimming with stories the moment he entered. In fact, I had to forgo the pleasantries and start recording almost immediately to capture all the gems he shared.

I felt transported as he vividly recounted his family’s migration from Europe after the Holocaust, his brother’s beginnings working in Coney Island, the glamorous stars who frequented the Deli, and the tragic, unsolved death of his brother Abe in the 90s.

Original 2nd Ave Deli Location, courtesy 2nd Ave Deli
Abe Lebewohl, the original owner of the 2nd Ave Deli & Mohammad Ali
Chopped Liver Day
Original 2nd Ave Deli dining room

Intertwined with Jack’s personal history and the demise of the Jewish Deli is the familiar story of change in New York. The integration of the immigrant communties and the shifting demographics of neighborhoods, the contsant change remain integral to the city’s fabric.

Our interview had a hard stopping point due to the museum’s opening time, but we managed to continue with my first-ever recording session inside a car as Jack was on the move. It was definitely the most unusual interview location I’ve experienced. As we continued our conversation. At one point there was a thriving presence of over 3,000 Jewish delis in the city, and as Jack says now there are maybe only 3 real Jewish Kosher Deli’s left in Manhattan. I definitely prepared for this interview by visiting the 33rd Street location of the deli, and it’s not going to be my last visit for sure. I didn’t grow up on Jewish cuisine like many in the City, but despite that, the comfort and history of that food seeped thru and felt like a warm hug.

Tania Mohammad wearing a herring jar costume, at the I'll Have What She's Having: The Jewish Deli museum exhibition
Your correspondent

Let us know what other iconic Restaurants you miss in the City and what other Reliquary items we should feature.  And don’t forget to tune in every other week, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and spread the word. We have so many more stories to tell.

Further Reading




Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 1 (Lightbulb)

I discovered the City Reliquary Museum through my friend Harley Spiller, a City Reliquary board member infamously known as Inspector Collector. I was fascinated by the Reliquary’s quirky take on history and ll the New York-centric ephemera in its collection. But it wasn’t until I did a story on the Reliquary’s post-pandemic burlesque shows with the Last Chance Dancers, for Act Two New York, that I truly fell in love with the museum and the folks behind it.  When David Hoffman suggested CitizenRacecar collaborate with the museum for a history podcast, I was thrilled to be part of it. We teamed up with City Reliquary board member Jacob Ford, and delved into the museum’s vast and peculiar collection to create Undiscarded: Stories of New York, a podcast that captures the spirit of the museum and the unique stories behind its seemingly ordinary artifacts.

Our first season is full of quintessential New York artifacts, forgotten histories, and a diverse array of fascinating guests. It made perfect sense to begin the series with an object from one of New York’s most iconic landmarks, the Statue of Liberty. The museum is renowned for its extensive collection of Lady Liberty statues and related memorabilia.

Wall of postcards featuring the Statue of Liberty at the City Reliquary
Close-up of 5 statues in the vitrine of hundreds of Statues of Liberty figurines in the City Reliquary
Closeup of more Statue of Liberty figurines from the Reliquary collection. Some are metal, others plastic. Some green, some white, some metallic.

As discussed in Episode 1, the crown jewel is a burned-out bulb gifted by Charlie DeLeo, a war veteran, long-time New York City Parks employee, and the Statue’s “Keeper of the Flame.” Now retired and celebrating his 75th birthday this weekend, I hope he listens to our podcast. Below are photos of Charlie in action and the bulb he gave the Museum. Don’t forget to check out the additional resources below for links to Charlie’s books and more articles!

A man in a hard hat smiles, holding a crooked broom
Credit: Statue of Liberty National Monument (National Park Service)
A young man blinks during a photo standing on the rim around the torch of the Statue of Liberty
Credit: Statue of Liberty National Monument (National Park Service)
Man in hard hat stand in doorframe in front of an empty room with a single chair
Photo by Bill McKay
Man in hard hat points in a dusty room
Photo by Bill Mckay
Man in hard hat with hands on hips
Photo by Bill McKay
Man in hard hat next to large chain links the size of himself on the Statue of Liberty
Photo from Statue of Liberty Monument

Dave Herman, the founder of the Reliquary, was the ideal person to discuss the story behind this object and the museum’s origins. Although conducting an in-person interview after many Zoom meetings felt intimidating, it went smoothly despite my occasional stumble over the word PLEXIGLAS (try saying it quickly three times folks!). I’m always amazed by the wealth of knowledge history enthusiasts possess. Jacob set up our “studio” near the main Statue of Liberty display case, which created a dramatic, old-timey radio show atmosphere—a fitting setting for the first episode of the Reliquary podcast.

We can’t wait to hear what you think of the show. Please tune in, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and spread the word. We have so many more stories to tell.

Return to Undiscarded

Further Reading






Undiscarded: Stories of New York, Episode 2 (Mannequin)

I love the eclectic arrays of curated artifacts jammed packed in crowded cases at the Reliquary, and all the stuff on the walls but there are also a lot of beautiful art and handmade homages to the history found throughout. From the little birds hidden in the vitrines to the altar dedicated to Jackie Robinson, and the stunning mosaics and sculptures in the backyard, history-based surprises abound. Those who know me are aware of my obsession with burlesque, so it’s no surprise that the “Tribute to Little Egypt” artifact made the cut for Episode 2. Who would have thought that a repurposed police locker could perfectly depict the History of Burlesque in New York?

As mentioned in the episode the Little Egypt Act was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC
Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC
Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC

Some say the original Little Egypt was a dancer named  Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos. Sol Bloom, an American songwriter, politician, and all-around showbiz personality, presented a show titled “The Algerian Dancers of Morocco” at the attraction “A Street in Cairo.” The show featured Spyropoulos, who was neither Egyptian nor Algerian, but Syrian. In reality, it was likely a rotating act, with many others performing as Little Egypt and many claiming to be the original. Another Little Egypt was Fatima Dejemilie and was most famously, the subject of two early films: Thomas Edison’s Coochee Coochee Dance (1896) and Fatima (1897). Another one who claimed to be the OG Little Egypt was Catherine Devine’s who took the “exotic” stage name Ashea Wabe. Little Egypt was a hit, but its success really took off in New York, particularly in Coney Island. Due to Little Egypt’s popularity and the titillating appeal of belly dancing (also known as the Hootchie Kootchie) several troupes and theaters put on their own versions of the Little Egypt act. I was utterly immersed in this era during the episode, delving into the catfights, scandals (that dreadful Seely Dinner), and vintage photos—it’s just such a vibe! I was fortunate to stumble upon a treasure trove of photos courtesy of David Bruce at https://www.femmecentric.com/, featuring the three main Little Egypts and a wealth of images from that era. I’d gladly dedicate an entire season to this period.

news clippings of Little Egypt
Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC
Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC

Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC
Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC
Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC
Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph (Pittsburgh, PA) 09 May 1937, Sun. Page 73
Courtesy of The Rogue Cap LLC

Naturally, who better to discuss the infamy of Little Egypt than the Reliquary’s very own burlesque expert and reigning Miss Coney Island—Maggie McMuffin. Maggie, a producer of numerous shows around town, became one of the Reliquary’s most ardent supporters after discovering it as an unconventional outdoor venue post-lockdown. Her burlesque troupe, the Last Chance Dancers (produced with Venatrix), arguably kept the doors open during these challenging times, donating all ticket sales to the Museum. Like many Reliquary members, she possesses a wealth of knowledge on specific objects, such as the Ghanaian Fantasy coffin in the front lobby (perhaps an artifact for Season 2!).

Here are some behind-the-scenes shots with Maggie.

Maggie McMuffin holding a micrphone

A few things I realized after this episode, the hustle required to make it in Showbiz in New York hasn’t changed, it seems just as grueling/exciting as it did back in the early 20th Century. To think Little Egypt(s) did it all without Social Media!  Also that Coney Island is still Sodom by the Sea. Would you listen to pod about the Early days of Burlesque?

Be sure to check out all the amazing Reliqaury Events and if you become a member, you get to see some of them for free!

Further Readings & Watchings