New York harnesses future with passion for the past

Thomas URBAIN
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The skyline of New York City with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground

Museums, apps and real estate: New Yorkers are taking a breather from the city's constant drive for renewal by delving into the past, searching for comfort and authenticity in fast-changing times.

The Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Historical Society have all recorded record numbers of visitors in recent months despite fierce competition in a city packed with activity.

America's cultural and financial capital -- and most populous city -- remains synonymous with perpetual construction, with skyscrapers stretching from Manhattan to now Queens and Brooklyn.

Springing up on the banks of the Hudson River on the West side is the largest private real estate development in US history: a new neighborhood called Hudson Yards being built from the ground up.

New York remains more than ever a city that innovates -- spontaneous queues can wrap around the block to buy the latest on-trend multicolored bagel. More than 100 new restaurants open each year, though 80 percent of them are destined to close within five years.

But New Yorkers are now also intent on rediscovering the past.

"Over the last decade, we have become a very different city, much more sharply focused on preservation," says Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society.

"Many people started to say: that's enough, we need to freeze our history and preserve it so future generations will know what happened in this neighborhood or on that block," she adds.

- Looking for answers -

In 2015 the New York Public Library launched an app, "oldNYC," that has been popular in allowing people to access old photographs of almost every street in Manhattan and compare them with the current reality.

New Yorkers' desire to soak up the past is also translating into real estate, said Jonathan Miller of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

The appetite for new has not dimmed, but more and more projects are integrating in their concept architectural elements from the past, he said.

"New constructions have more ornate details, bigger windows, higher ceiling heights," he said -- all elements inspired by the "pre-war" look that New York defines as builds before World War II.

"Consumers are comfortable with the past," he said. "It's not as foreign to their life and they connect with it."

The quickening pace of society -- stimulated by the internet in general and social networks in particular -- and the emphasis on the here-and-now is motivating many to take a longer view of time.

"We certainly have noticed that people are very much focused on history these days, more and more," said Mirrer.

"They are looking to history for explanations and answers of a world that seems confusing and very uncertain."

- Connect past and future -

Sarah Henry, deputy director of the Museum of the City of New York, says the past has been used in different ways at different times. "Interest changes particularly when there are moment of stress or crises," she said.

Recently there have been lots of them -- the September 11, 2001 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and now the election of New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.

"There isn't a fixed relationship between New York and its past. That's something that's always been redeveloped, reconsidered, reinvented. That's one of the things that shaped this city and this museum," said Henry.

The Trump administration has alienated many in the Democratic-heavy city: his travel ban orders, plans to roll back women's healthcare and review environmental reforms have appalled liberal New Yorkers.

"At a time of great national dialogue and controversies, being able to look to the facts or our history and to ground our specific conversation in data and information is very thoughtful," said Henry.

"It provides a longer view of the city and the country that enables us to be more informed about where we're going and where we've been. Our mission is to connect the past and the future," she said.

Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, told AFP this is a positive trend being adopted by museums in general.

Museums are more than ever seeking to tie the past to contemporary issues and "make history relevant" in ways "that make people excited," she said.