Not even 100 years ago, the neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was known for its shipyards and sugar processing plants built along the East River. Ten years ago, the neighborhood was better known for its art and music scenes, roof-top concerts and underground dance parties. Since the rezoning of the North Side and Greenpoint neighborhoods in 2005, many of the area’s artists and musicians have been priced out and a wealthier, less diverse demographic has moved in.
Today, Williamsburg holds only vestigial flickers of its former coolness. Even the Domino Sugar Refinery, which processed over half the sugar used in the United States for over two generations, was abandoned in 2004, and is better known today as an event venue for either city adventurers with flashlights who can run away quickly from the police, or folks who have the means to rent the space out (the most recent event was a swank gala to celebrate the (super, super over)hyped Art Star, Julian Schnabel).
Fortunately, amid the gentrification, there’s the City Reliquary, a small museum committed to preserving the memory of the city, a sort of temple right in the heart of Williamsburg that has at its altar exhibits of subway tokens, Statue of Liberty figurines, and a plethora of other collections, which, while not necessarily considered worthy of Met Museum caliber, contain objects that show an older face of New York.
The City Reliquary started in 2002 in the first floor of a private residence, and in 2006, moved to a storefront only a couple blocks away from its current location on Metropolitan Ave. The permanent collection contains entire donated collections of World Fair memorabilia. The story goes that two collectors each bet that he could collect the most items- one started collecting from 1933, the other from 1964 (1933 won!).
The collection boasts fragments of landmark buildings (The Flatiron and the Morgan Library being just a couple), a wooden brick from the last known wooden sidewalk in Greenpoint, seltzer and water bottles showing what New Yorkers have drank over the years, and more. From floor to ceiling, the small museum is packed full of signs that used to hang over since-demolished neighborhood establishments, and even a newspaper stand that used to sit in Chinatown.
One of the coolest things in the collection is inside this booth (and no, it’s not my gorgeous, messy self):
At first sight, this small booth seems to contain only a mirror. Press the button, however, beneath the glass, and the room (and my reflection!) is transformed:
Also in the collection is a cake from La Villita, a bakery that closed this past year due to the rent being astronomically raised. La Villita was famous for the cakes they kept in their storefront window. Covered in plastic figurines of half-naked women, the cakes were left so long that their white frosting became dark brown. That said, the bakery made damn good cakes (I ordered one nearly every year for my kid’s birthday) and the neighborhood wept when they were forced to close.
The Reliquary has become a community hub, a space truly for the people that hosts block parties, concerts, plays and film events in its large backyard. The museum also works with Public School 132 to create exhibitions of student work. My daughter and I have attended a few events over the years (the most notable being an eerie Edgar Allen Poe performance on Halloween about five years back); I’m always struck by the diversity of the crowd, the genuine enthusiasm, and the grassroots community-building that is still thriving amid the still gentrifying neighborhood.
The Reliquary has become more than a museum of curiosities, it’s become a non-profit that supports the community and maintains a bridge between the ever-changing neighborhood and the New York of yesterday.
370 Metropolitan Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Thursday – Sunday – 12-6PM