The Resilience of New York in 10 Remarkable Sites: 50 States of Wonder - Atlas Obscura

50 States of Wonder
The Resilience of New York in 10 Remarkable Sites

New York has been described as a playground for the rich and powerful, but the state's history is full of ordinary people who have overcome extraordinary struggles. What if Seneca Falls, the village that launched the fight for women's suffrage, were as famous as Niagara Falls? What if Weeksville, the historic free Black community in Brooklyn, were as well-known as Williamsburg? From immigrant sanctuaries to the Survivor Tree, here are sites where New York has shown its resilience.

As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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The free Black community of Weeksville was almost forgotten until the 1960s. Anonitect/Public Domain
Neighborhood

1. Weeksville Heritage Center

Weeksville Heritage Center is home to a small stretch of historic houses that were once part of the Weeksville community, one of America’s first free Black enclaves. Despite its historical significance, the village was nearly forgotten until the 1960s. The Lefferts family was among the biggest landowners and enslavers in Kings County by the time slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Shortly thereafter, they began selling off parcels of land. One buyer was the prominent abolitionist Henry C. Thompson, who bought up plenty of property to sell to fellow African Americans. He sold two plots to Longshoreman John Weeks, who built himself a house and began to form the community of Weeksville.

By the 1850s, Weeksville had a population of more than 500 people, as well as its own churches, schools, and businesses. Despite its success—and even though it had been home to several important figures, including Dr. Susan Smith McKinney, the state’s first African American female doctor, and New York’s first African American police officer—Weeksville’s influence and legacy faded as Brooklyn developed around it. Only in the 1960s did researchers document the remnants of the neighborhood and start an effort to protect and restore the historic homes. In 2014, a modern community center opened to ensure that the story of Weeksville would never be forgotten again. (Read more.)

158 Buffalo Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11213

The synagogue once drew thousands of worshippers, but fell into disrepair after World War II. Karen Green/CC BY-SA 2.0
House of Worship

2. Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue

Between 1881 and 1924, over 2.5 million Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States. By the turn of the century, New York's Lower East Side was known both as the “Jewish Plymouth Rock” and the most crowded place on Earth. Built in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was America’s first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews, providing a space of sanctuary for the immigrants of crowded Lower East Side tenements.

Designed by the architects Peter & Francis Herter, the synagogue featured 67 stained glass windows, Stars of David on the outside facade, and an exuberant interior with soaring ceilings. For 50 years, the synagogue flourished, but following World War II, many Lower East Siders left for the suburbs. In the 1980s, after decades of neglect, a New York University professor rediscovered the sealed sanctuary and established the Eldridge Street Project, a precursor to the Museum at Eldridge Street. The project paved the way for a 20-year, $20 million restoration. Today, the museum welcomes visitors from around the world, and a small group of Orthodox Jews uses the space for worship. (Read more.)

12 Eldridge St, New York, NY 10002

The archive brims with ephemera. Allison Meier (Atlas Obscura User)
Library

3. Interference Archive

The Interference Archive is a volunteer-run library dedicated to exploring five decades of activism history. Located in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and open to everyone, the archive opened in December 2011 and originated with the personal collections of founders Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee, who had large amounts of materials on the activism and punk rock subcultures of the 1980s and ’90s. It has since expanded into an extensive library of thousands of posters, zines, books, comics, signs, and other ephemera, as well as T-shirts and buttons from causes both national and international. The library holds such social movement ephemera as posters made by students from China, prints made by queer and feminist movements in Poland and Cuba, and signs calling for liberation from countries in the Global South. (Read more.)

314 7th St, Brooklyn, NY 11215

The motto of the Lesbian Herstory Archives is, “In memory of the voices we have lost.” Anna Tag/CC BY-SA 4.0
Library

4. Lesbian Herstory Archives

In a limestone townhouse in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood is the largest collection of items relating to lesbian history—or herstory—in the world. The Lesbian Herstory Archives has its roots in the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s. A group of women involved in the Gay Academic Union, at the City University of New York, started their own group out of concerns about sexism within the GAU. The women, which included Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel, were also concerned about how difficult it was to get any information about lesbian history through traditional academic channels. In 1974, they published a press release to established lesbian organizations announcing their efforts to create a comprehensive lesbian archive. It initially resided in Nestle’s apartment on West 92nd Street in Manhattan, but in 1993, the Lesbian Herstory Archives officially opened in its much larger Brooklyn home. Digitized materials can be found online, preserved in the spirit of the archives’s motto: “In memory of the voices we have lost.” (Read more.)

484 14th St, Brooklyn, NY 11215

Museum

5. Native American Museum of Art

This remarkable art museum is easy to miss: It sits smack-dab in the middle of Smokin' Joe's Trading Post, a Native-owned pit stop on the Tuscarora Nation Reservation, about 10 minutes from downtown Niagara Falls. NAMA was founded in 2000 by members of the Tuscarora Nation, part of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations) that once inhabited much of present-day New York. Inside, you'll find reproductions of maps tracing the bounds of the Haudenosaunee peoples, mapping their original lands before forced resettlement. There is also a fine-art collection of sculpture, paintings, and rare antiques, including soapstone carvings by the renowned Tuscarora artist Joseph Jacobs. (Read more.)

2293 Saunders Settlement Rd, Sanborn, NY 14132

The museum is tucked away on Centre Street in Chinatown. Carl/CC by 2.0
Museum

6. Museum of Chinese in America

The Museum of Chinese in America is nestled—almost tucked away completely—in the heart of Chinatown. Founded by Charles Lai and Jack Tchen and beautifully designed by Maya Lin, MOCA is just one floor of exhibition space, but it’s packed with history.

The core exhibition, With a Single Step, is a timeline that starts as early as 1400. The highlights include the realistic recreation of an old Chinese general store, a mock television set that is motion-activated (and comes with a comfy arm chair), and “core portraits,” which are personal narratives of the Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American experience. It is highly interactive, with pull-out maps and a dragon head you can deposit a wish into, making it kid-friendly while maintaining a sophisticated approach to preserving Chinese history. (Read more.)

 

215 Centre St, New York, NY 10013

Saplings from the Survivor Tree have traveled around the world. Maria Garcia Batalla/Shutterstock
Natural Wonder

7. Survivor Tree

In October 2001, recovery workers sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center uncovered the remains of a Callery pear tree. Twisted and broken, its roots snapped and branches burnt, the workers nonetheless decided to pull the tree from Ground Zero, beginning its remarkable recovery. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation sent it to the Arthur Ross Nursery in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx for specialist care. It was replanted in the Bronx on November 11, 2001, and in 2010, the tree was replanted at Ground Zero as part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. It is often the first plant to bloom in the area each year. Since 2013, tree scientists have propagated some 450 descendants of the original tree, and saplings have journeyed to Boston, San Bernardino, Orlando, and Paris, France. (Read more.)

911 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10006

A French marching band performs in front of MoRUS. The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space/CC BY-SA 4.0
Archive

8. Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

The mission of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) is to preserve history and promote scholarship by archiving material about the grassroots efforts that have created community spaces.

In the 1950s and ’60s, as wealthy New York City residents started moving to the suburbs, property values plummeted across the city, and the Lower East Side was hit hard. Landlords collected rent on dilapidated properties until the city repossessed thousands of them. Whole neighborhoods were left abandoned and decaying. In the late ’60s, struggling artists, punks, anarchists, and activists saw an opportunity to reclaim these spaces. They transformed tenements into livable spaces, abandoned schools into community centers, and plots of rubble into community gardens. Decades later, property values rose again, and many residents were pushed out. But about a dozen squats became legal co-ops, and many of the gardens are still an essential part of the neighborhood today. (Read more.)

 

155 Loisaida Ave, New York, NY 10009

Sculpture

9. 1872 Monument

On Election Day in 1872, Susan B. Anthony led a group of women from her home on Madison Street in Rochester, New York, to a barber shop on West Main Street to vote, despite the fact that women were not legally allowed to do so. When she arrived, the men running the polling place were reluctant to break the law for her, but she and 14 other women managed to cast ballots. Anthony was later arrested, tried, convicted, and fined for voting. (She refused to pay.) Today, where the polling place once stood, there is a bronze sculpture of a locked ballot box flanked by two pillars that represent the barbershop.

Dubbed the 1872 Monument, it was dedicated in August 2009, on the 89th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Leading away from the 1872 Monument is Susan B. Anthony Trail, which leads to Troup Street Park and runs beside the 1872 Café. The sculpture is the work of Pepsy Kettavong, who also created the nearby Let’s Have Tea sculpture of Anthony and Frederick Douglass, located down the street from Anthony’s house. (Read more.)

 

439 West Main St, Rochester, NY 14608

The last Shaker to leave Watervliet sold the remaining land to Albany County in 1936. Jim Logan/CC BY-SA 2.5
Community

10. The First Shaker Village

Before dying at the hands of a hostile mob, Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, developed a religion based on pacifism, equality for men and women, celibacy, and a personal relationship to God exemplified by an ecstatic dancing or “shaking.” Lee is buried at Watervliet, the first Shaker village in the U.S., which is also home to a trove of Shaker architecture and artifacts. In addition to the large worship space, the Meeting House also includes a museum with examples of Shaker products, village artifacts, and interpretive displays. A short distance from the remaining complex is the Shaker cemetery. The last resident left the Watervliet site after selling what was left of the land to Albany County in 1936. Shakers went on to develop similar utopian communities in the United States in such states as Maine and Kentucky, and the last Shakers currently reside at the Sabbathday Lake settlement near New Gloucester, Maine. (Read more.)

25 Meeting House Rd, Albany, NY 12211

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All aboard for a plate of pancakes.

7 Places to Glimpse Maine's Rich Railroad History

Maine is widely known for its mottled red crustaceans and stony-faced lighthouses, as well as bucolic towns and the top-notch hiking outside of them. But before all that, Maine was all about one thing: trains. As America industrialized in the 19th century, there was an insatiable demand to build and a hunger for lumber. Maine had plenty of it, and the state’s rivers became swollen with the fallen bodies of pine and spruce, much of which was hauled by rail. Trains did the heavy lifting to coastal hubs including Bangor and Ellsworth, and by 1924, there was enough railroad mileage in Maine to get from London’s King's Cross station to Mosul, Iraq. Over the years, some of the old cars were fashioned into eateries, but many were simply abandoned in the woods. Now, relics of Maine’s railroad history are scattered in museums, restaurants, and more. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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At Glacier Gardens, the tree canopies are flowers in bloom.

11 Places Where Alaska Bursts Into Color

Picture Alaska. You might see in your mind's eye the granite and stark white snowcaps of Denali National Park, or the dark seas that surround 6,000-plus miles of coastline, or the muted olive of its tundra in the summer. But as anyone who's been there knows, the country's largest, most sparsely populated state can absolutely burst with color, from the luminous green of the Northern Lights, to the deep aqua of its glaciers, to the flourish of wildflowers fed by its long summer days. Here are some places to see the full spectrum of The Last Frontier. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Workers assess the exterior of the Washington Monument after an earthquake in 2011.

9 Places in D.C. That You're Probably Never Allowed to Go

The District of Columbia is home to a number of places that you need to flash the right ID to access. From restricted rooftops to government storage facilities and underground tunnels, the city is filled with places that are off-limits to the average visitor. What’s more, many of them are hidden within popular tourist destinations and densely populated neighborhoods—so you might catch a glimpse of them, but never get any closer. These are a few of our favorite restricted spots in D.C., and the stories behind them. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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