New York at Its Core: Explore NYC's Past and Future with Kids

Atop museum mile in East Harlem, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) is a treasured, often less crowded destination for parents in the know. Best for grade school kids and up, the MCNY explores the rich history—and celebrates the vibrant future—that makes this city so great. Plus, kids under 19 are admitted free, making the museum's suggested admission for adults a complete deal. My daughters and I recently checked out its newest and biggest exhibit, New York at Its Core: 400 Years of NYC History, and came away with a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the city we call home.

Don't miss Starlight, a part of the museum's permanent collection that includes thousands of hanging lights. Photo courtesy MCNY.

New York at Its Core: 400 Years of NYC History falls into three sections that dominate the museum's entire first floor. Once my daughters were done gawking at Starlight, a permanent installation of 5,283 lights hanging through the museum rotunda's main staircase, we headed for the first section of the new exhibit, Port City: 1609-1898 at the south end. This turned out to be a lucky call. Had we hit the middle section, Future City Lab, first, we might have seen nothing else.

Port City: 1609-1898 contains one-of-a-kind artifacts continually unearthed by construction development (especially in lower Manhattan), offering a dark and quiet room filled with glass cases and LED screens. My daughters initially seemed bummed, but that changed once they discovered interactive, free-standing kiosks dotting the room, and began swiping through subjects and character studies relative to the two centuries during which New York City functioned mainly as a vital—and rowdy—seaport. While I figured they'd swipe straight for Alexander Hamilton, they were easily engaged by in-depth, hypertext stories about 19th- and 18th-century anarchists, executed pirates, and escaped slaves.

By now I had a hunch Future City Lab would dominate their attention, so I steered them next to World City: 1898 -2012, which included points of NYC interest I had lived through myself. It contained fewer interactive features than Port City, but my 12-year-old daughter enjoyed reading Kurtis Blow's notebook of rhymes, and both enjoyed clips from the very first season of Sesame Street. They particularly liked seeing Jessie Jackson leading NYC kids in a chant of "I Am Somebody" which, while revolutionary in its time, highlights how little spontaneity kids' programming has retained over the years.

Finally, we reached the Future City Lab, which was worth the price of (my) admission for my kids. Almost completely interactive, Future City Lab centers on five separate ideas of city planning, the first three separated into Challenge Tables: Housing a Growing Population, Living with Nature, Getting Around, Living Together, and Making a Living.

RELATED: NYC Museums Guide for Kids and Families: Best New Exhibits and Old Favorites

Kids can design a future building. Photo courtesy of MCNY.

At the Challenge Tables, kids can design a future building, park, or street by using touch screens with a vast selection of drag-and-drop design features. Once completed, each design is saved and queued up, with other completed designs, for eventual appearance on the Creation Wall, a 10- by 10-foot screen next to the Challenge Tables. My 12-year-old STEM fiend was glued to this feature for almost two hours. Novel amid this process was the small ‘your design will appear in [x] minutes” upon completion of each virtual design at the Challenge Tables screens. Also appreciated: A running “next design by [kid’s initials]” notice repeats on the Creation Wall, so there's never anyone wondering “Where’s mine?”

For my 8-year-old, creating designs was fun, but the Creation Wall's special lure lay in four dark circles in the carpet. By standing in each one, kids could see themselves transported into the scrolling screen designs as live, detailed, and often dancing images of themselves. Later, at home, we watched a video explaining how the Creation Wall was created by MCNY.

While my kids designed away, I took time to wander the large, open room of the Future City Lab and take in offerings like Living Together and Making a Living, which offered touch screens featuring the work of street photographer Joseph Michael Lopez, as well as stories from residents of different NYC neighborhoods. In the same room, I took in Mapping New York City: 2000–2050, a huge, slide-shaped installation, as well as Then & Now & Then, a film by Michael Goldberg, in which New Yorkers discuss their hopes, dreams, and impressions of city planning.

RELATED: Free Times to Visit NYC Museums with Kids

Pen your own note at the "What If" table.

Once I unglued them from the Challenge Table and Creation Wall, my daughters made a stop at the nearby What If table, where they hand-wrote a ‘what if’ question that may later be answered by city experts. The table layout offered a chance to see what others had asked. Mine didn’t linger here long, but they both enjoyed writing their own questions and reading those already done.

With what was left of our afternoon, we took in the rest of the MCNY. To an extent, all exhibits at the MCNY are New York at its core: the recently ended Gay Gotham; the spectacular photo essay Muslim in New York (through July 30, 2017); and permanent exhibits like the Stettheimer Dollhouse or Gilded New York. We investigated it all, but we'll definitely be back, given that the MCNY is offering constant workshops related to New York at Its Core, including past workshops like Wild Style Graffiti Writing, or Paint Like Pollock.

The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets. It's open seven days a week, 10am-6pm. Suggested admission is $18 for adults, FREE for children under age 19. If you live or work in zip codes 10029, 10035, or 10037, just say "I'm a neighbor" and you get in for nothing! For less than a single 3D movie ticket, one parent could take a gaggle of middle-grade kids to the MCNY and call it a birthday party (of course, you can rent it out, too, but that costs a tad more). Bonus: With your admission, you also gain no-cost access to El Museo del Barrio one block north.

While you're in the neighborhood, be sure to check out the northeastern corner of Central Park, especially the Conservatory Garden and the East 110th Street Playground. Hungry? See our suggestions for family-friendly restaurants in East Harlem.

Top photo: Design a park at the Future City Lab station. Unless otherwise noted, photos by the author.

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