NYC Oddities: Morbid Anatomy Museum

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Curiosities on sale at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

What is it about the morbid and the disturbing that has fascinated so many throughout time? Is it the mystery of the unknown, of what lurks in the shadows? Is it the desire to push ourselves to the brink of what our minds can endure–a cerebral equivalent of physical death-defying sports like BASE jumping or ice climbing? At its heart, I think, it’s the need to imagine that our world extends behind the purely physical and into a realm we don’t quite know or understand. There’s a spiritual optimism to it, a curiosity that is–at its heart–undeniably human.

The Morbid Anatomy Museum, which opened last year in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, explores this fascination. The ground floor houses a coffee shop and gift shop with items like squirrel tales, unsettling photographs, wax modules of maladies like an ocular horn (do not Google this) and taxidermy everything. The second floor space is devoted to the current exhibition (Do The Spirits Return?: From Dark Arts to Sleight of Hand in Early 20th Century Magic; April 11, 2015 to January 5, 2016) as well as a research library borne of museum founder Joanna Ebenstein’s own collection of books, photographs, art and objects devoted to anatomy, death, medical anomalies and other curiosities.

The museum also offers an intriguing lecture series featuring talks, movie showings, and more by academics and historians discussing such varied topics as “A History of Serial Murder from One Billion, B.C. to the Present” (May 5)  and “Psychedelics and Death: A Brief Introduction” (May 21), both already sold out. Taxidermy classes help participants create animal displays like a two-headed mouse or a squirrel shoulder mount.

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NYC Oddities: Grand Central Dirt Spot

There is something magical about Grand Central Terminal. Perhaps it’s the large windows or the vaulted ceiling or the people scurrying around the central axis of the clock perched in the middle of all the chaos. For me, it’s the aqua-and-gold-colored depiction of the night sky’s constellations. The colors are pure and vibrant, and they lend the space a kind of incandescence. It wasn’t always this way. Before the interior’s restoration–completed in 1998–the ceiling and surfaces were grimy, stained with decades of tobacco smoke and dirt. The restorers left a reminder of the ceiling’s previous condition–a patch of grime left untreated in the northwest corner of the open-air terminal, right neat the Cancer constellation. It’s a vow to never again let the building deteriorate to such a state.

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NYC Oddities: The Berlin Wall in Manhattan

The Berlin Wall was a literal iron curtain; it was a tangible representation of the divide–physical, cultural and ideological–between communism and the West during the Cold War. Erected overnight in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the wall stemmed the flow of immigrants from East to West. Prior to its construction, Germans could easily cross between the two Berlins. Afterward, many were caught on opposite sides of the wall, unable to see their loved ones until the wall’s eventual fall in 1989. Over time, the wall became more and more impenetrable as the GDR added miles of armed guards, attack dogs, freshly brushed sand (in order to track defectors’ footsteps), floodlights, barbed wire, beds of spikes and other hazards to make escape extremely difficult (about 5,000 managed the feat, while about 200 died attempting to cross the border).

Five slabs of the wall are nondescriptly displayed at 520 East 53rd St, between 5th and Madison, in a small plaza outside Valbella, a fancy Italian restaurant. According to the New York Times, the wall was purchased in 1990 by developer Jerry Speyer of Tishman Speyer Properties, which owns the adjoining building.

If you don’t know to look for it, you might miss it. Office workers and tourists eat and rest in white Bertoia chairs in the shadow of the concrete. Most seem uninterested, or perhaps more likely, unaware of its historical prominence. The plaque that identifies the decorated concrete as the Berlin Wall is small and positioned far below eye level.

The slabs are covered in graffiti by French artist Thierry Noir, who spent five years–working nearly every day–painting the western side of the Berlin wall in the 1980s, and German artist Kiddy Citny. The graffiti artists’ work is striking, but what caused me to catch my breath was a date spray painted on the two left-most slabs: 3-5-89. Looking at it feels a bit like traveling back in time. I imagined myself there on the western side, months from the wall’s collapse, on the precipice of one of the most exciting moments of the 20th century. How would it feel? Would I be able to fully grasp the importance of what was about to happen?

There are slabs displayed at four other locations around New York City: in Battery Park City, outside the UN, inside Ripley’s Believe or Not! and outside the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

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Update, 9/14: According to a building employee, the above piece has been removed for repairs. There’s no confirmation that it will be reinstalled in the courtyard; it may be moved inside the adjoining building’s lobby.

NYC Oddities: Lenin Statue

If you’re walking east on Houston Street and happen to look up, you might see an unexpected sight. Perched high above the neighborhood on the roof of the Red Square Apartments is a large statue of Vladimir Lenin, his arm stretched out in his signature pose, a personification of the Communist slogan, “Onward toward a brighter tomorrow!”

The statue sits atop one of the first luxury apartment towers in the area, a somewhat ironic home for the father of the worker’s revolution. Red Square Apartments were built in 1989 by a radical sociology professor-turned-real estate developer, and the 18-foot-tall statue was added in 1994.  According to the New York Times, the statue was made by Russian artist Yuri Gerasimov and commissioned by the Soviet government. Since the USSR collapsed soon after, the statue was never publicly displayed. It was found by the developer’s art dealer associates at a dacha outside of Moscow and brought to NYC.

Lenin holds court over an area that has experienced unprecedented levels of economic urban renewal (or, aggressive gentrification, depending on whom you ask), with luxury hotels, fine dining establishments and cocktails bars filling the crumbling buildings once occupied by artists and squatters more than 30 years ago. Though it’s retained a bit of grit, the neighborhood has been and continues to be a place governed by market forces and the growing wealth of the city’s inhabitants. Not sure Comrade Lenin would be too pleased with his adopted home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Image via wfyurasko, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

NYC Oddities: North Woods

If it’s peace and quiet you’re after, the middle of Manhattan is usually not the place you want to be. Except, maybe it is? The North Woods–the lush, green, overgrown 90-acre section of northern Central Park–is filled with rushing waterfalls (I came across three), tight canopies of trees and winding, wooded paths. When you’re in the thick of it, the city’s skyline completely disappears. Originally designed to simulate the Adirondacks, you could imagine yourself anywhere, from central Vermont to rural Shenandoah, except you’re at about 105th Street near Central Park West, mere yards away from some of the liveliest sections of the city. The starkness is highlighted when you finally exit the woods–which I did at the eastern end of the Pool–and you’re greeted by the pleasant din of picnicking tourists and racing bicyclists. The Central Park Conservancy doesn’t meticulously cultivate the area the way they do most of the park; fallen trees are left unmoved unless they are deemed hazardous, lending the woods a pleasant untouched quality. It’s a slice of the rural life tucked inside the world’s busiest urban park.

Below, a walk through the North Woods on a rainy day. I entered from the East Side, near 104th Street, right by the Central Park loop.

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NYC Oddities: Smallpox Hospital Ruins

Non-native New Yorkers might remember the nighttime cab ride down the FDR when they first saw it, the lit-up horror story-esque building on Roosevelt Island. At night, the decidedly out-of-place structure is eery and hauntingly beautiful, a relic framed by modernity from every vantage point.

It’s been a favorite of mine ever since I discovered it years ago. I had pressed my face to the window of the cab trying to decipher exactly what it was I was seeing, amazed that an old, gutted, romantic edifice could have been preserved intact on an island in the middle of the East River. That it was illuminated for dramatic effect made it that much more compelling.

The stone Gothic Revival structure was designed by James Renwick, Jr. and completed in 1856 on then Blackwell’s Island. It served as a smallpox hospital during a time when the disease was still an epidemic in New York City. The hospital’s location allowed for easier quarantine of infected patients.

In 1976 the ruin was declared a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. After a section of the northern facade crumbled in 2007, $4.5 million was delegated to preserve the structure and prevent further collapse, according to the New York Times.

The site, also know as the Renwick Ruin, sits at the northern edge of the recently completed FDR Four Freedoms Park. The building is set to become the park’s visitors center. I paid a visit on a recent picturesque afternoon, noting how blue skies and sunlight created an incongruous scene. The ruin begs for twilight or ominous cloud-cover.

The ruins on a recent afternoon

The ruins on a recent afternoon

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A close-up nighttime view of the former hospital in 2007, before the recent preservation efforts

(Image via ejimford, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

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