Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Muslims have been woven into the fabric of New York since the city’s origins as New Amsterdam, and the Museum is happy to share highlights from our collection which shed light on this deep history in our current exhibition, Muslim in New York.
The size and diversity of New York’s Muslim community has continued to grow over the centuries through immigration and conversion, with Muslims living and worshiping in Harlem and Brooklyn as well as Lower Manhattan. The change in U. S. immigration laws in 1965 ushered in a period of massive expansion and further diversity, as new Muslim arrivals from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere made the city their home. Today New York’s diverse Muslim community – immigrant and American-born, from multiple racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds — constitutes an estimated 3% of the city’s population, some 270,000 people living in all five boroughs.Photographer Alexander Alland (1902-1989) is responsible for capturing some of the earliest images of New York’s Muslim community in our collection. Born in 1902 in Sebastopol, Crimea, Alland immigrated to the United States via Ellis Island in 1923, and soon sought out and began to photograph his fellow Russian emigres in New York. He became interested in issues of social justice when he was asked to produce prints of Lewis Hine’s work on child labor, and he was responsible for the rediscovery of the photographs of New York reformer and journalist Jacob A. Riis in 1946.
In the 1930s, Alland began to photograph the city’s diversity, “to show clearly and distinctly the differences and the similarity among Americans of many national and racial backgrounds: similarity in the desire for happiness, prosperity, and liberty that we all hold as an American ideal.” The results were American Counterpoint, an award-winning book and accompanying exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 1943.
On February 26, 1993, the World Trade Center underground garage was the site of a car bomb attack that killed six people and injured more than a thousand. In both print and televised media, the grizzly scene was often accompanied by the phrase “Muslim terrorist.” In response, Ed Grazda (b. 1947), from Flushing, Queens, who had been photographing in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1980, teamed up with Jerrilynn Dodds, a professor at City College of New York at CUNY, to document some of the dozens of communities of New Yorkers who practice Islam in the aftermath of the attack. Grazda photographed Muslims’ civic life throughout the five boroughs as a counterpoint to the media stereotypes. This project was eventually published as New York Masjid: The Mosques of New York (powerHouse books, 2002).
Robert Gerhardt (b. 1977) began photographing New York’s Muslim community in 2010, after reading about the controversy surrounding the conversion of an unused convent into a mosque and community center in Staten Island. It was not the first time that New York had experienced public outcry over attempts to build new mosques or to expand existing ones – following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, a proposed Muslim community center at Park51—in the vicinity of “Ground Zero”—was also met with vocal opposition. Gerhardt set out to understand and to document the intersection between “Muslim” and “American.” The photographer says that the images are meant to encourage a dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims in America and to erase the boundaries that engender a sense of “them” and begin to foster a sense of “us.”
Since the 1970s, Mel Rosenthal (b. 1940) has used his camera to document social issues across the globe, beginning with an extended project chronicling the changing conditions of his childhood neighborhood in the South Bronx in the 1970s and 80s. In 1992 Rosenthal began photographing the Arab-American communities in New York—a community he believed was “often misunderstood and misrepresented in American popular culture today.” This selection of images focuses on the Arabic Muslims from a larger project that was originally featured in the 2002 exhibition A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City at the Museum of the City of New York.
We invite you to visit Muslim in New York: Highlights from the Photography Collection, and join the Museum celebrating this city’s rich heritage of diversity.