Monday, September 7, 2009

New York City: Museum of Complaint

How major cities exist at all seems nearly miraculous. Millions of people living in close quarters, all of free will and with separate interests makes for a potentially unharmonious place. The logistics of infrastructure alone are overwhelming - providing water, ridding the place of waste, keeping people from constant murder and mayhem, transportation, health concerns. A new book from Steidl, New York City: Museum of Complaint gives insight into many of the individual concerns of the citizens of one such metropolis, Manhattan.

Culled by Matthew Bakkom from the municipal archives, the Museum of Complaint is a collection of 122 letters to the various mayors of New York from Edward Holland in the 1750s to John Lindsay in the late 60s. The nature of our governance is to at least let someone be heard and this collection covers the bases from the humorous to the heartbreaking. One is a woman's desperate plea to Mayor Laguardia to help her find a husband. Another is from a young man who's baseball was stolen by a policeman (who plays baseball on his off hours) and the boy demands his $1.25 to buy a new one. One woman can't stand seeing the newest bathing suits made of mesh material. Others complain of communists, swarms of children, pawnshops, spitters, dogs, organ grinders, prostitutes - their creativity and insight into what disturbs the everyday citizen is fascinating. We all have pet peeves and small disturbances which we can't shake, conflating them into a larger part of our lives, more than rationality can suppress.

The first letters in this volume are noteworthy for the flowing script and idiom of the day - several of the writers end with "and your petitioners shall ever pray." The language is beautiful and parsing these letters for their meaning is a joy. One wants to pave over a street leading to houses and an inaccessible boat slip which has become ruddy. "Humbly showeth that the said street / or the greater part thereof, is not without great difficulty passable for carts or other carriages by reason of its declivity and the pavements thereof being very much broken and out of repair... and your petitioners shall ever pray" (signed) John Thurman and David Abeely.

The respect shown towards officials varies as society progresses. Some letters during the Second World War have illustrative sketches comparing the Mayor to Hitler. Other writers reprimand Fiorello Laguardia for denouncing The Feuhrer. "Sir, I am sorry I voted for you. Your deliberate insult of Feuhrer Hitler was planned Jewish propaganda and you were its mouthpiece. You are unfit for office and a disgrace to New York. You are a consummate American politician - the curse of our country. I am sorry I voted for you." (signed) I Siegel.

New York City: Museum of Complaint is a large format book which reproduces the original letters and they are beautiful objects on their own. Of the fine production values, I have no complaints, only a compulsion to write to Matthew Bakkom, to thank him for this wonderful project.


Vincent Borrelli said...

Chris Sullivan is a really great artist who has been building an incredible collection of found notes, etc. over the past 20+ years. You can check out some examples from his "Journal of Public Domain (JPD)" at:

Vincent Borrelli said...

or, download a pdf here, for closer view: