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Firefighting Artist Displays Artifacts of N.Y. Boroughs


If you fancy a bottle of water from the East River, maybe a fork from the famous Nathan's hotdogs at Coney Island, or a light fixture from an old matzo factory, you can find them all and hundreds of other New York artifacts at The City Reliquary in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The storefront museum of ephemera creates a New York that's vanishing as neighborhoods like Williamsburg gentrify and change.

From New York, NPR's Diantha Parker reports.

DIANTHA PARKER: The corner of a building at Grand and Havemayer Streets in Williamsburg is covered with careful directions to points of interest in the neighborhood, neatly hand-painted in white. But more arresting are the objects in the display window right next to them. They include a set of dentures found at Dead Horse Bay near an old horse-rendering plant and bits of three New York bridges. There's also a button with a sign asking you to press it.

Mr. DAVE HERMAN (Founder, City Reliquary): Hello and welcome to the DH Labs City Reliquary, free and opened to the public 24 hours a day.

PARKER: This is Dave Herman, the founder of the City Reliquary, which started in this window in the apartment where he used to live. He's a former art student, now a New York City firefighter. And he painted most of the directions a few years ago. They now point visitors to the Reliquary's new home, a storefront around the corner.

This part of the museum costs 50 cents admission and it's open several days a week. You go behind a velvet rope and get a tour of a small room lined floor to ceiling with New York stuff, old and new. It's all been collected by Herman and his 11 board members, mostly his friends. And there are gifts from the public. There's a taxi driver who brings hunks of rock from construction sites. There's usually a vinyl record playing along with a TV showing newsreels of Coney Island attractions.

(Soundbite of a newsreel)

Unidentified Man: Shows like this where ferocious tigers from distant lands come to quicken our blood.

PARKER: Melanie Hibbert is visiting New York for the first time from Alaska, and found a favorite item.

Ms. MELANIE HIBBERT (Visitor): The old Statue of Liberty postcards, you know, they have them all in that binder. And you can actually read, you know, things that people wrote about New York City from 50 years ago, or you know, a hundred years ago maybe.

PARKER: The overall effect of the Reliquary is a selective history of everyday New York. George Ferrandi, who's on the Reliquary's board, gestures to a piece of trolley track as she tries to explain why each item is so special.

Ms. GEORGE FERRANDI (Reliquary Board Member): Because I think of them as witnesses to history. So they, you know, they carry with them all of the trains that pulled into Grand Central and all of the people who were waiting in lines. So that little piece has sort of absorbed all of those events.

PARKER: The Reliquary folks are also trying to respect living witnesses to history: their neighbors. Dave Herman started the museum because he saw he was part of what's changing the Williamsburg that first attracted him.

Mr. HERMAN: But I wanted to be a positive part of it, because in a lot of senses I saw that some of it was not so positive and it was actually erasing part of the character and the history of the area.

PARKER: The neighborhood's traditional ethnic groups - Hispanics, Poles, Hasidic Jews - are being steadily pushed elsewhere by a rising tide of artists, hipsters and yuppies. Dolly Padilla grew up a few yards from the Reliquary window on Grand and Havemayer, but had to leave Williamsburg because it got too expensive. She's here today visiting her dad. Padilla considers Herman a friend, but says she'd kick him and all the other new people out if she could. She points to a trendy clothing store across the street that she says sums up the new atmosphere.

Ms. DOLLY PADILLA (Former Resident): Why is she selling a t-shirt from the '70s for 50 bucks when you could get it somewhere else for seven bucks? To our standards, we don't need it.

PARKER: But Padilla says the Reliquary's block parties and other neighborhood events do bring people together, and she gives Herman credit for that.

Ms. PADILLA: You know, if it wasn't for him, then we wouldn't have known the people that own the place on the corner. You guys that are from around the corner, the little place he's got there, we wouldn't have known it. Because people just walk by and just keep walking.

PARKER: Until they see that set of false teeth in the window.

Diantha Parker, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Diantha Parker