In a Williamsburg backyard last week, recession-saddled neighbors slurped up mulligan stew, warmed their hands over flaming barrels and paid for pies to cream into the face of a man in a felt-brim fedora, from whose lips bulged a fat, wet cigar. That was “Pie the Landlord”—just one of the fundraising schemes dreamed up by the minds behind the City Reliquary, the small, non-profit history museum at 370 Metropolitan Avenue whose Depression-era “Rent Party” staved off the man. A DJ spun hits from the 1930s, pre-code films glimmered on a back wall and the fundraiser raised every penny it needed as it drew out neighbors seeking to put their hardship in perspective.
“It’s brilliant,” said Steve Gerbo between draws from a post-Prohibition bottle of Brooklyn Lager. “It has all the things I know from the ’80s in SoHo—like the burning barrels.” Before a table of Do-it-Yourself Fingerless Gloves, two Williamsburg residents recounted the fortunes they had just been told by Ms. Madame Lulu Lo Lo. Said Dory Kornfeld, “We’ll know it’s true if he gets a job.” “I’ve been promised employment,” Jon Psotka explained.
“Sometimes you have to sort of make jokes to sort of deal with it,” explained museum founder Dave Herman, whose day job as a firefighter keeps him in the black. “Being a historical museum, we were trying to be careful not to make a mockery of the Great Depression. We had to draw the line somewhere short of making fun of that desperation.” Plus, he noted—his grandfather had been through the Depression. This was really not that bad: “Our mulligan stew has hot dogs in it.”
The event was necessary for the small museum to survive before it hopes to receive delayed city funding. Knowing an “emergency” fix was in order, the volunteer board members—all history nuts—looked to New York historical precedents. Of course! Who could forget Harlem “Rent Parties,” wherein a host would invite in jazz musicians, cook up a cheap stew and charge entry? Herman guessed that a Depression-era theme would get people to come out, as it’s the current talk of the town.
The theme—which lovingly nostalgizes the aesthetics of poverty—was also just downright fitting for a museum so self-consciously nostalgic. Named to recall the notion of a religious “reliquary,” which displays the femurs and finger bones of saints, the “City Reliquary” collects the scraps, pebbles and screwbolts of New York’s great historical treasures. The massive collection includes a chunk of the Brooklyn bridge, the original sign from the 2nd Avenue Deli and samples of soil from all five boroughs. Rotating through are the collections of kooky Brooklyn neighbors—such as one assemblage of vintage thermoses, another of antique pens. When Joe Franquinha, took over the family business of Crest Hardware, just down the block, he made the tough choice to remove the store’s 30-year-old turnstiles and thought, as he did it, “This has gotta go to the Reliquary.”
“Where else are you going to find anyone else willing to save esoteric history?” asked Mark Strathy, an artist and college professor, noting a collection of seltzer bottles. “It’s a little different from a history museum. It’s one man’s vision.”
The museum began in Herman’s first floor living room window, which faced Grand Ave., and burgeoned over, in February 2006 to its current address.
As a three-room museum, it’s an oddity. Writes Vice President George Ferrandi in its mission, it is also a “humble but effective hub, of many sorts—historical, cultural, and social” and “‘the water cooler’ of the neighborhood”—a historical actor in itself.
On Friday evening, a neighbor’s kid threw the first pie. The second was thrown by Herman’s wife and daughter. Said Liz Gwinn, a student of museum studies who has spent the past year-and-a-half volunteering here after simply walking in and falling in love. “This is a huge part of my life. I’ve seen two babies born here. I’m dating his neighbor,” Gwinn said. Then she paused. Someone was hurling a pie at the landlord. Cameras flashed. The poor landlord licked the cream off his face. “It’s happily ever after,” Gwinn said.
The City Reliquary, at 370 Metropolitan Ave., is open Saturday and Sunday 12 – 6 and is hosting the exhibit “Over Spilt Milk: The Fight for Fair Price and Fair Profit in Depression Era New York” through May 3rd.