A New Yorker cannot survive on masterworks alone — that’s like eating foie gras for lunch every day. For every Duccio and de Kooning, you need something a little less rarefied, the cultural equivalent of comfort food. So let’s descend from the grand serenity of the Cloisters and consider a few of the more curious museums around the boroughs. New York is, after all, a city that specializes in breeding eccentrics, and to serve them, eccentric institutions. It’s a healthy practice to mix your visual metaphors—and you might even learn something.
Queens is more than just a place for mediocre baseball teams and World’s Fair ruins. It’s also the site of the Louis Armstrong House Museum (louisarmstronghouse.org). The great musician was born in New Orleans, but he lived in New York and has always been revered here. The modest house in Corona, Queens, appears much as the Armstrongs left it, but it is also a true museum, and you’ll find in it photographs, letters and instruments that belonged to the great man. The real treasures, however, are recordings of the master at work: 1,600 records and 650 reel-to-reel tapes that Satchmo recorded himself. The house is still filled with music, and sometimes the garden is the scene of live jazz concerts.
Increasingly, it seems as if tattooed New Yorkers outnumber their un-inked brethren. In some precincts, that feels less a tribute to the city’s history of seamanship than a part of the escalating trend of bodily customization. So it was just a matter of time before a museum devoted to tattooing opened its doors. Perhaps the least museum-like museum in New York, it is located at Island Tattoo parlor (203 Old Town Road) in Grasmere, Staten Island, and not in Brooklyn, as one might expect. Here, one can find antiquities going back to the Polynesian art of tatau, as well as what may be the world’s finest collection of ancient tattooing devices. The proprietor, who goes by the moniker Dozer, is not only a tattoo historian but an artist of considerable renown, so if visitors are inspired by the exhibits, part of which are located on Dozer’s body, it is possible to come away with a lasting souvenir.
After a power-lunch at ‘21,’ why not head down the block to the Paley Center for Media (paleycenter.org). Formerly the Museum of Television and Radio, it’s updated its name, its look and its services. Think of it as a better YouTube (large screens, no home videos). There are screening rooms where you can order highlights from television history, whether you consider the pinnacle of the art to be The Honeymooners or Twin Peaks. Do you have a weakness for seventies game shows? The Paley Center will provide your fix, without judgment.
On the southern tip of Manhattan stands the Fraunces Tavern Museum (frauncestavernmuseum.org), an appealing brick building that captures the feel of New York during the Revolutionary era. It’s a reminder to the city’s younger denizens that New York had a lively nightlife almost 300 years before CBGB opened (or closed). Samuel Fraunces opened a popular tavern here in 1762.It was originally called the Queen’s Head, an indication of its original political leanings. It was a hub of revolutionary activity, and The Sons of Liberty met here regularly to conspire against the Crown. It is said that a Tory lover of Fraunces’s daughter once attempted to serve George Washington poison peas and was sent to the gallows for it. But the Father of Our Country was loyal to the place; it was at Fraunces Tavern that General Washington delivered his emotional farewell speech to the officers of the Continental Army in 1783.
The tavern suffered several disastrous fires and was extensively rebuilt several times. In 1975 a bomb exploded there, killing four and injuring fifty. Today, of course, security is much better, and for all the insults the building has suffered over the centuries, you still get a flavor for life in New York at the birth of the nation, when the per capita consumption of distilled spirits was 3.7 gallons, and that’s not counting the ale and Madeira for which Fraunces was famous.
After appreciating the collections of maps, prints, newspapers and artifacts of eighteenth-century life here, you can reward your newfound historical expertise with a pint of lager next door — at 2012 prices, of course. It’s a reminder that inflation is part of the city’s history too.
- David Coggins
DAVID COGGINS is a regular contributor to Art in America and Artnet. His work has also appeared in Interview, Modern Painters, The Huffington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is currently working on a book for Taschen. This holiday season, Mr Coggins will be elaborating upon the perilous art of gift giving with his weekly Gifts Most Welcome series here on 5th/58th. In addition, he’s our in-house scribe and usual tumblr contributor.