Naomi Habtu


The Big Apple at its Core

Naomi Habtu

For the past few centuries, the glamourous New York City has been home to some of America’s wealthiest and most successful citizens. New York also houses the most dignified centers for most disciplines such as Broadway’s Theater District, Wall Street, the United Nations headquarters Carnegie Hall, and museums of all varieties. Popular odes to the city describe it as a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” and the marker for success: “If [you] can make it there, [you] can make it anywhere.” Although there have been countless of successful individuals in New York, in the end, we have a tendency to neglect the people backstage, the uncelebrated individuals who keep the gears of the city turning so it can continue to thrive. The Museum of the City of New York features two exhibits that tell its viewers different narratives. The “New York at Its Core” exhibit includes a portrait of J.P. Morgan, badges awarded to Robert Moses, and a photograph of former Mayor Ed Koch with President Reagan, which support the narrative that these prominent individuals have made New York City into the successful metropolis that it is today. The second exhibit, “A City for Corduroy” showcases Don Freeman’s artwork, which intentionally highlights and recognizes the people behind the scenes who are usually left in the shadows. The contrast between these two exhibits in the museum illustrate the different perspectives of who and what the success of New York City can be attributed to.

While walking through the “New York at Its Core” exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice the familiar names and faces that I recognized for their social, political, and economic influence. They all tell a similar, one-sided story of individual success, which leaves out the contributions made by the rest of the people involved in the success. One artifact that supports this narrative is a portrait of J.P Morgan taken by the Pach Brothers. Morgan was one of the wealthiest and most influential bankers on Wall Street. The description of the photograph notes that he “spent lavishly” while also “support[ing] the city’s cultural institutions.” The medium of this artifact itself (a portrait) forces you to focus on honoring an individual and celebrate the face of the man who built this financial empire. The museum also displays his monogrammed cigar from Cuba, which shifts the focus from diligent New Yorkers to an object that undermines the work of other human beings behind the success. This single item, indicative of wealth, was intentionally chosen to be in the exhibition and took the place of something that could have attributed to the value of other humble New Yorkers.

Other artifacts that support this narrative of individual success are two badges awarded to Robert Moses: “Commissioner-Department of Parks-City of New York” and the other “Triborough Bridge Authority-Chairman.” As an urban planner, Moses designed and constructed highways, tunnels, and bridges. The badges reveal the narrative that only the ‘mastermind’ gets recognized to go down in history, not the construction workers who physically built these structures. I observed another photograph, one of “President Ronald Reagan applaud[ing] Mayor Koch’s budget cutting and tax breaks that kept big business from leaving the city.” It depicts the man behind the deal, Ed Koch, as heroic which is affirmed by Reagan on a national level. The badge from a president, who was known for valuing budget cuts and big business, speaks volumes about the kind of people who are exalted on both a local and national level as well as the types of policies that hold these values in place. Although New York City is a haven for diversity, its sky-high rent and taxes reaffirm that it is undeniably a city for the elite, including those who praised Reagan because they could afford to live under such exclusionary policies.

The “A City for Corduroy” exhibit, showcased Freeman’s artwork, which focused on ordinary New Yorkers going about their daily lives either on trains or rushing through bustling crowds. One painting that especially caught my eye was “Stage Hands” a painting featuring the people backstage during a show. The description of the painting read: “Stage workers fascinated Freeman. He called them “the unglamorous heroes and heroines of the theater who work the unsung wonders behind the scenes.” Going backstage gave him the perspective of how all the workers created ‘magic of the theater.’ “Be it the workers “flying in” scenery, the women who cleaned the auditorium after the show, or the stage door man who guarded against the likes of freeloading artists like him, Freeman thought them all worthy of attention and recognition”.Freeman appreciates the people working behind the scenes because he can clearly see that they are the ones who help string everything together. This perspective is very relevant to New York because the city is filled with almost nine million people, each playing a role in making the city into what it is. However, the everyday New Yorkers are not always credited or celebrated. New York is a working class city and yet is famous for the lavishness of its one percent. Although the Museum of the City of New York includes Morgan’s cigar but not names of all the workers, it strives to strike a balance by highlighting pictures of the construction workers who risked their lives to build the Empire State Building, children working in sweatshops, and a hard hat worn by David Rice during the construction of the Twin Towers.

The greatness of New York essentially comes from a mix of the achievements of both influential individuals who envision and lead the changes and the everyday New Yorkers who execute these plans. The museum does a great job of celebrating both sides of this narrative through the different exhibits. New York is often seen as a proxy for America and as a site in which to achieve the American dream — the type of place you envision when ‘making it’ in America. The author who coined the term American Dream defines it as “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”. So, consequently, the American Dream is less about ‘making it’ and more about living in a society where everyone’s work is appreciated and valued, no matter your social class. This especially can be made possible in museums where the work of contributors to society can be displayed for everyone to appreciate. The narrative that “New York at Its Core” presents is true to the world now. Specific names always come to mind as we live in a society where there is always a sense of competitiveness in the air, a hunger for success that is egocentric. However, just as Freeman does, we must refocus the narrative onto a communal perspective. The hands, back, and feet of the workers who build, clean, and keep the city running twenty four hours a day, are just as important as the names plastered on the front of the buildings.


Naomi Habtu

My mom was trying to push me in, but I didn’t want to let go of her.

“You can do this. Your dad will be waiting for you.” She said these words attempting to make it easier for me. But I couldn’t bear the idea of being alone without having anyone to protect me for what may happen. She nudged me in and told me to press the button for the floor just one level below us. As the doors closed, I stared at her waving, praying that this wouldn’t be the last time I ever saw her.

I had no problem riding up and down elevators if I wasn’t alone. However, my logic was that, if it was just me, something really bad would happen. I always thought of the worst. What if the ‘Emergency Call’ button doesn’t work? What if no one hears me repeatedly ringing the alarm? What if no one hears my screams? I became so paranoid about the potential “what ifs” that I couldn’t think rationally.

My mother knew of these fears, which was why she had my father meet me on the floor below. Without fail, he would be there for my landing. His presence would make my wildly beating heart slow back down to its normal pace.

Then, one day, he was no longer there. My father’s passing marked a new timeline where I would begin high school while simultaneously dealing with loss. My mom sent me off to ninth grade, and as the doors closed, I entered a new stage of my life. One without my dad.

When he died, I wanted someone to give me the answers; one ideal story about coming to terms with grief that would allow me do the same. I wanted that feeling of serenity, when the internal questions, the ‘what ifs’, and the irrational fears would disappear. I wished that grief were an elevator that my mom could simply shove me into, a linear journey where I could witness my own landing. However, there isn’t one eureka moment when everything falls into place. The gears of time keep turning. One of the hardest things about losing my dad was that I wanted time to stop, even if for a moment. I wanted to recollect and then continue.

There are many things that I’ve told myself I’ll do eventually. Starting a daily journal, studying every day so I don’t end up cramming, and drawing more. I promise myself I’ll do them in a few minutes, then hours, then next week, after I submit college applications, after I graduate, when I finally have a break. I pressed pause on when I will begin truly enjoying life. I thought after I graduate, after I have come to terms with loss I will be happy, content, feel fulfilled. I will pursue my passion for traveling, I will have a job doing what I love, whatever that will be. I created some distant fantasy, that one day I will come to terms with my grief, and after that everything will be clear, I will be able to live the life I want to. But the truth is, this is it.

My grandma says, “Yi koy malet, yi kir malet new.”

“Saying that you’ll wait to do something means that you’re not going to do it.”

Month by month, then year by year, I have gotten through high school while coping with grief. From freshman to senior year, each grade proved to be its own level on an elevator. All I’ve been doing is simply continuing to be present. I now realize that, by doing so, I was pushing myself all along. Everything I do is an active choice. One that I used to take for granted, or one that most of my peers see as a given. I chose to get up, go to school, and be present every day. Knowing that I have survived these three years makes me even closer to achieving that internal peace. I have not only been able to take things day-by-day, but my challenges have also strengthened me.

I realize now that my mom was making me push myself when she pushed me into the elevator. I used to let my fears control me, but, because of my parents, a sense of resilience has been instilled within me. It’s not always as easy as the day I was just put in the elevator and came out cured of my phobia. But, if anything, it makes me stronger. Knowing that I have agency in my choices, I am choosing to overcome.

Now as I graduate high school, I am back on the top floor. My first floor destination is embarking on a journey into independence. My mom isn’t pushing me into the elevator this time, nor is my dad waiting in the lobby, but taking the first step has become muscle memory. There are times when I go on elevators and still think about pressing the ‘Emergency Call’ button, but I stop myself and continue to ride with faith.

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Naomi Habtu

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