Founded in 1985, City Lore’s mission is to foster New York City – and America’s – living cultural heritage through education and public programs in service of cultural equity and social justice. We document, present, and advocate for New York City’s grassroots cultures to ensure their living legacy in stories and histories, places and traditions. We work in four cultural domains: urban folklore and history; preservation; arts education; and grassroots poetry traditions. In each of these realms, we see ourselves as furthering cultural equity and modeling a better world with projects as dynamic and diverse as New York City itself.
At City Lore, we abide by the definition set forth by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard for cultural democracy – a society which allows many cultural traditions to co-exist on an equal footing and encourages active participation in cultural life, not just passive consumption of cultural products. We seek to foster webs of cultural meaning, linking past and present through tradition and creativity, encouraging the process whereby human beings, as sociolinguist Dell Hymes suggests, “shape deeply felt values into meaningful forms.” We consider ourselves to be tradition-inspired by not tradition-bound.
At City Lore, we believe that art is at the heart of how human beings create meaningful lives. Grassroots art forms and community-based artists in particular, embedded in the cultures of local neighborhoods, hold a key to creating vital communities. Just as New York City is one of the so‑called “high culture” (e.g., opera, classical ballet) centers of the world, so is it one of the richest and most diverse centers of traditional culture. New York City may well boast the most diverse aggregate of ethnic groups in the world. We work with a wide range of communities along with grassroots, folk and traditional artists. Yet, we do not see ourselves simply as presenters or documenters of these artists and communities, but as their collaborators. They are not our “informants” but our partners. We work collaboratively with marginalized, folk, ethnic and community artists to accomplish shared ends. By embracing different aesthetics for the creation of art, we seek to democratize the arts, and foster a wider range of communities, artists, and forms of artistic expression.
City Lore is City Wide
City Lore is home to New York City’s only gallery dedicated to the City’s grassroots, expressive culture, as well as hub for performances, discussions, screenings and more. In addition, City Lore is often described as New York City’s “Museum without Walls”; our extended galleries are the City itself. We work in all five boroughs and beyond, going into communities rather than asking them to come to us.
City Lore’s storefront gallery at 56 E. First Street opened in 2014. The opening exhibition was Moving Murals: Henry Chalfant & Martha Cooper’s All-City Graffiti Archive. Exhibits have included Mother Tongues: Endangered Languages Spoken in New York City and Beyond (2015); Poetic Voices of the Muslim World (2017); Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island (2016); What We Bring: New Immigrant Gifts (2018); and Bama and Pistol: Pioneers of Subway Graffiti (2019).
City Lore is a decidedly collaborative organization
In our key programs, we collaborate across disciplines to give our ideas and programming far greater reach and relevance. Collaborators include the Bronx Music Heritage Center (for Bronx Rising); the Gotham Center for New York City History (for our Teaching American History initiatives); the New-York Historical Society (for our work on the shrines and memorials following 9/11, and the exhibit Nueva York), and the Center for Traditional Music and Dance (for What We Bring: New Immigrant Gifts). We were the original fiscal sponsor for Dave Isay’s radio programs, and served as consultants on the creation of StoryCorps. In addition, we often partner with a wide range of small community organizations including Eddie Rosa’s festival of Puerto Rican décima music for whom we have served as fiscal sponsor, and the casita or social club, Rincon Criollo, built on a vacant lot in the Bronx.
We also work closely with community organizations and artists to develop ideas collaboratively. We serve as the fiscal sponsor for the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Coalition. We sponsored Jennifer Callahan’s documentary on the The Bungalows of the Rocakaways and coproduced the documentary DeAf Jam, directed by Judy Lieff, highlighting the remarkable poetry and storytelling of an increasingly marginal community: the community of the Deaf. City Lore also serves a sponsor for filmmakers and other cultural specialists developing programs in keeping with our mission. We served as fiscal sponsor for Ric Burns’ documentaries Coney Island and the New York series.
City Lore is a “living archives.”
The “backstage” for our theater — the city itself — are our offices on the corner of First Street and First Avenue in New York. Beyond our desks, phones, and office furniture, we house City Lore’s living archives. These archives — including over 20,000 images, hundreds of oral histories, and traditional music and poetry performance tapes — are not simply a repository. They are the motherlode that all of our programs draw upon to create our “Museum without Walls.” The archives come alive in key ways. They are a repository, a resource, and an ongoing documentation project that grows out of and provides the underpinnings for all of our public programs including the People’s Hall of Fame and Community Anchors. Increasingly, our archives have been given a public face on our encompassing story maps of New York, including City of Memory, Place Matters, and the City Lore Story map. City Lore is a part of a national initiative with the American Folklore Society, funded by NEH, to digitize and archive folklore materials so as to be compatible with the Library of Congress, which may serve as a future repository.
City Lore combines the Arts and Humanities
All of our programs are grounded in ethnographic and historical research. Our staff is comprised of talented cultural activists with advanced degrees in history, folklore, arts education, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and preservation.
City Lore believes in the democratizing potential of the worldwide web
City Lore’s Story Map, our New York State Living Traditions Portal and our older City of Memory site are participatory, dynamic story maps of the city. They feature highlights of City Lore’s extensive documentation, invites viewers to post their own stories, and enables us to work closely with communities to place themselves “on the map.” Check out our Youtube channel for a sample of our extensive documentation of New York City communities, our education programs, the adventures of the POEMobile, and more.
City Lore has an abiding commitment to diversity
City Lore’s staff and board are ethnically diverse. They include representatives from a number of the communities served by our projects – African American, Asian, Jewish, European, and Latino. All of our staff members share a life-long commitment to the City’s communities, and they have roots in all five boroughs. City Lore’s teaching and performing artists are from a wide range of cultural backgrounds: Palestinian, Egyptian, Greek, Nigerian, Mexican, Haitian, Brazilian, Dominican, and Irish, among them. By embracing different aesthetics for the creation of art, we help foster the creative expressions of a wide range of communities.
City Lore is an activist organization
City Lore advocates for street performers and ethnic clubs in New York City. Our “Know Your Rights!” guide for street performers is updated and widely used. Our Place Matters program advocates for local landmarks and cherished sites endangered in the ebb and flow of New York City’s rapidly changing cultural landscape. Through our Cultural Ambassadors program, we mentor and work with documentarians from new immigrant and African American cultures to develop programs and document their local communities. We also take on select causes as a fiscal sponsor with no administrative fee including Marjorie Eliot’s longstanding Sunday jazz concerts in her home, and an effort raise funds for medical emergencies for early pioneers of hip hop.
City Lore is responsive to the City’s Changing Demographics
City Lore’s programs target schoolchildren, the elderly, and members of New York’s inner city diverse ethnic populations. We are particularly proud of the education program we have developed for New York City public schools. Recently, our education program is responding to requests by public school teachers and principals in Bay Ridge with swelling Arabic student populations for artist residencies with Middle Eastern artists, and requests from two schools in Queens with growing Himalayan populations for a residency in Tanka painting from Nepal and Tibet. We work with Mexican, Ecuadorian, Egyptian,Ivory Coast, Cuban, Haitian, Peruvian, South African, and Brazilian artists, among many others, on developing school residencies. We also provide artist training for these artists, many of whom are not familiar with NYC school settings. Currently, our grant from the U.S. Department of Education enables us to work with 7 schools in northern Queens, in some of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country.
City Lore has an engaged Board of Directors
Our 19 member biopic-majority board includes CEOs, lawyers, filmmakers, teaching artists, and publicists. Every member contributes financially to the organization, and we have a strong give-or-get policy in place.
In 2018, City Lore was accepted as a Smithsonian Affiliate. In 2021, teens from underserved neighborhoods who participate in our Urban Explorers program submitted a series of two minute documentaries on ideas to change the world for a contest run by the Smithsonian Affiliates program. Four of our films were selected as winners in the nationwide competition.