Posts Tagged ‘CitizenRacecar’

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

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, 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