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Our 5 favorite exhibits from 'This Is New York' — a gritty, stylish city celebration

In a town where private space is at a premium, this 1953 photo from Michael "Tony" Vaccaro taken for <em>LOOK</em> magazine shows off a stylish way to get a city view.
Michael "Tony" Vaccaro
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Museum of the City of New York
In a town where private space is at a premium, this 1953 photo from Michael "Tony" Vaccaro taken for LOOK magazine shows off a stylish way to get a city view.

Visiting New York City this summer? A fun, family-friendly exhibit celebrating movies, TV shows, music, books, fashion and art inspired by the city is now open at the Museum of the City of New York.

This Is New York is in celebration of the museum's own centennial. It turns out that the past 100 years have been rich ones for depicting the city.

"1923 is really at the beginning of mass American culture ... Radio, film, it's at the beginning of a whole cultural explosion," said Lilly Tuttle, one of the curators. She said the exhibit is meant to capture New York as artists have experienced it during that time. It's not a love letter.

"It's a crowded, dirty, smelly, rude, cacophonous place. And also glamorous and wonderful and glitzy and fabulous and elegant and cool. And artists across time and across media have captured that," she said. "It's all in here, all at once."

But there's so much to see — in this corner, Jake LaMotta's boxing gloves from Raging Bull! In that corner, a video mocking the meme Pizza Rat! — that it can be overwhelming. To help you know where to start, here are our top five picks.

1. Step on a song

Musicians have long been performing songs about New York City — in this installation, you can hear more than 100 of them.
Brad Farwell / Museum of the City of New York
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Museum of the City of New York
Musicians have long been performing songs about New York City — in this installation, you can hear more than 100 of them.

Step on an illuminated icon of one of the five boroughs, and a song about New York by musicians from that borough pours out of speakers. There are 112 songs in almost every style — from standards to salsa to punk to rap to reggae.

Step on the Bronx — maybe you'll hear "Jenny from the Block" by Jennifer Lopez. Hop over to Queens — hey that's "Rockaway Beach" from The Ramones. And though many, many songs have been written about Manhattan, you may be lucky enough to hear a famous one — like Frank Sinatra's version of "New York, New York."

2. Be immersed in the city

Sixteen screens bring you the story of New York over the past hundred years — as seen by visual media.
Brad Farwell / Museum of the City of New York
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Museum of the City of New York
Sixteen screens bring you the story of New York over the past hundred years — as seen by visual media.

Sixteen screens. Four hundred movies, TV shows and documentaries, including scenes you'll recognize from Ghostbusters, Do the Right Thing, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Working Girl and In The Heights. Thousands of clips flicker by in the dark, illuminating the ways New York has been portrayed — crowded and dirty and dangerous, sure, but also glamorous and ambitious and liberating. A place to be yourself ... even if that self lives in an apartment with four other people and hundreds of cockroaches.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's <em>In the Heights</em> is just one of 400 films that make up "This Is New York."
Macall Polay / "In the Heights," 2021, Reproduction Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
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"In the Heights," 2021, Reproduction Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights is just one of 400 films that make up "This Is New York."

3. Salivate over the skyline cape

Designer <a href="https://zangtoi.com/">Zang Toi's</a> hand-beaded New York skyline cape and mini dress for Versace, Inc. expresses the elegance of old black-and-white films about Manhattan.
Brad Farwell / Museum of the City of New York
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Museum of the City of New York
Designer Zang Toi's hand-beaded New York skyline cape and mini dress for Versace, Inc. expresses the elegance of old black-and-white films about Manhattan.

This floor-length, white silk cape is hand-beaded with an image of the New York skyline, the beads sparkling like the city's lights. The silhouettes of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building call to mind the elegance of all the 1930s black-and-white movies set in Manhattan, with their top hats and late night supper clubs.

But it's just one of the items celebrating the city's love affair with fashion — and fashion's love affair with the city. Sharp eyes will also spy the ballet dress Sarah Jessica Parker wore in the original pilot episode of Sex and the City. And next to the stunning cape is a painted denim graffiti jacket from the artist PART ONE (Enrique Torres), who pioneered this kind of vibrant street writing in the 1970s and 1980s. In New York, you could imagine people standing next to each other, one wearing the cape, the other the jacket, waiting for a cab.

"It's the idea that New York fabulous dresses up - or doesn't," Tuttle said.

4. Hear Lea DeLaria and Matthew Broderick read favorite books

In a long, narrow, room of its own is a library of books and DVD cases. Take a book off the shelf, drop it on a scanner, and hear Matthew Broderick read from John Cheever's short story The Enormous Radio or Lea DeLaria read an excerpt from the children's classic Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Or try a DVD case instead and see a clip from The Jeffersons, Seinfeld or I Love Lucy. Each work on the shelf portrays a New Yorker's view of home, which often is a crowded apartment with views of the neighbors.

Tuttle said it reminds people that people may think of the city as a public place of spectacle and performance, but those who live here are often working out private dramas.

"Sometimes maybe you're catching a murderer out your window and other times you're just yelling at each other," Tuttle said, laughing. She's a lifelong New Yorker herself. "But it's basically the idea of cramped quarters, bickering and spying on your neighbors."

5. Salsa at Orchard Beach

<em>Salsa Sundays at Orchard Beach</em>, 2023,<em> </em>created<em> </em>for the exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.
/ Cheyenne Julien and Chapter NY, New York
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Cheyenne Julien and Chapter NY, New York
Salsa Sundays at Orchard Beach, 2023, created for the exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

For about 50 years, Latinos in the Bronx have been meeting to salsa on Sundays at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Cheyenne Julien's painting may not literally take you there, but looking at it, you can feel the heat of the hazy sun and hear the beat of the music.

The rest of the art scattered throughout the galleries will likewise sweep you away. It's like a treasure hunt. There's a quilt from Faith Ringgold, with a family enjoying a quiet dinner on a rooftop; a lonely look into a movie theater with Edward Hopper; a drawing of a ferocious knockout punch from George Bellows. There's joy, too, in a life-size plaster casts of girls playing double Dutch on the street in the Bronx, and a lamppost from Sesame Street.

All of it captures the people parade that is everyday life in New York City.

Tuttle noted that every few years, like during the middle of the pandemic, someone declares that the city is over.

But art like this proves it's not, she said. "Once you move away from the hot dogs and the pizza and the dirty apartments and the subway, it's like, no, the city will always rise again, because of the creativity that we're celebrating in this exhibition."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Faith Ringgold's quilt <em>Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach</em> shares a corner with photographs that show how New Yorkers find quiet in a busy city.
Brad Farwell / Museum of the City of New York
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Museum of the City of New York
Faith Ringgold's quilt Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach shares a corner with photographs that show how New Yorkers find quiet in a busy city.

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Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.