It started as a street-level window display in Dave Herman’s former apartment: old bottles and a set of false teeth found on the banks of Dead Horse Bay; souvenir postcards from the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows; a subway placard from a retired No. 7 redbird; a jar of “devil nuts,” an aquatic fruit found in the Hudson River—bits and pieces of New York history lovingly offered to the passing world. When Herman noticed a growing number of lost-looking visitors in Williamsburg, he painted a compass rose on the side of his landlord’s one-story brick building, along with directions to several major intersections within walking distance. Passersby were invited to take a recorded audio tour of his artifacts by pressing a doorbell. Newcomers naturally assumed that Herman was an eccentric old pack rat with too much time on his hands; longtime residents of the area knew better but still considered Herman’s grandly named City Reliquary as little more than sweet and improbable. They were mistaken.
Herman—a young Floridian with a gracious temperament, a tireless work ethic, and an ingenuous enthusiasm for history—started making ambitious forays into the community, encouraging his somewhat baffled neighbors and native New Yorkers from other boroughs to loan their collections to his ever evolving periscopic museum “for the people.” It didn’t matter if the collections related directly to New York history, insisted Herman; if their owners were New Yorkers, their stuff would be interesting. Herman was right. The rotating “community collection” window quickly became a regular destination for locals. Herman set out benches and invited people to plant small gardens in the large tire and claw-foot bathtub on the sidewalk. His neighbors began drinking their morning coffee under the Reliquary windows, catching up on the day’s news. As Herman’s longtime friend and Reliquary vice president George Ferrandi likes to say, it became the neighborhood watercooler.
Soon, people were leaving anonymous donations on the windowsill or between the flowers. One neighbor brought over a railroad spike from a long-gone trolley track that had served the bustling retail district at Havemeyer and Grand.
“He told me it had been sitting on his mantel for 20 years,” says Herman with a note of appreciation. “I guess that’s when I knew we were on the right track, that this might actually work as a bridge between the newcomers and the old-timers.”
In spring of 2005, the Reliquary featured the extensive fountain pen collection of Brooklyn natives Steve and Maryann Zucker. As usual, Herman made it a community affair. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who had become a stalwart supporter and occasional visitor to the Reliquary, was invited to the sidewalk reception, where essays by local elementary students on the theme “My Collection” were read. Small exhibition booklets were set in a rack under the window, and an interview with the Zuckers was posted on the Reliquary’s online radio station, WCRM, where everyone could learn more about the mysterious world of pen collector shows. Typical of a Reliquary opening, the Zucker display proved that the Reliquary had become a true neighborhood museum—miles away, in every way, from its tony counterparts across the water.
When Herman moved out of his old apartment, his housemates left the window displays and his landlord left the wall as is. A wooden sign now directs visitors to a new City Reliquary location just a few blocks away. It’s a big step up: two rooms, two large retail-size picture windows, and a small space for a gift shop, which offers bottles of East River water, soil samples from all five boroughs, City Reliquary pens, vintage gumball-machine toys, and street-sweeper bristles for $1. The Reliquary, Herman assures me, is still very much “for the people . . . not for profit.” In fact, last month, his volunteer board of directors pitched in to cover the rent. “We’re not very good at PR,” admits Herman. “We all just do what we enjoy doing and hope people will find out.”
Nik Sokol, the Reliquary’s resident geologist, enjoys excavating municipal sites in and around New York City. With his help, the “New Yorker’s Geology” exhibits have grown to include bedrock core samples from four of the five boroughs, one of the 175 million bricks used to construct the 19th-century New Croton Aqueduct, stalactites, tap water samples, a cornice from Brooklyn Borough Hall, a Hearst Building baluster, and samples of floor tile from the TWA building at JFK.
The specimens sit like jewels in low glass cases under muted halogen bulbs. A row of vintage seltzer bottles twinkle on the wall. A curtain of yellowing Statue of Liberty postcards is juxtaposed with a mahogany china cabinet filled with statues raising their torches. One case holds first-edition books and records about New York. There are old MTA transfers, subway maps, train car doors, and vintage billy clubs. There are menus from forgotten restaurants and light fixtures from a defunct matzo factory. An enticing walk-in closet is devoted to burlesque and offers a mechanical hula dancer. Brass rings from Coney Island sit near Brooklyn-brand bubble gum and a chunk of paint from a subway station wall. A 2nd Avenue Deli sandwich pick shares velvet with a set of clay dolls from Chinese New Year and a glass ring handmade from the neck of a bottle by children on the Lower East Side, who methodically ground the edges against a curb.
Among the fading memories and revealed histories is a cabinet of new acquisitions gathered by Bill Scanga, which offers present-day things that may soon become relics: A Nathan’s fork, snacks from a nearby bodega, a protest pin that reads “We’re no Soho.”
One of Herman’s favorite exhibits is a window, complete with signs and artwork, recovered from Petrella’s Point, a much beloved newsstand that once stood on Canal and Bowery.
“That newsstand inspired me to paint directions on the Reliquary,” says Herman, still somewhat moved by its loss. “I used to take people there when I was a tour guide.”
Tour guide, museum curator, long-haul truck driver, art handler, and sculptor are just a few of the things on Herman’s résumé. The latest addition is a New York City fireman, with Hook & Ladder Company 104.
“Ahh, yes, the many worlds of Dave Herman,” says George Ferrandi as we watch his company’s fire truck pull up to the City Reliquary’s “September Tribute” block party. At the University of Florida, Ferrandi was Herman’s sculpture professor; she also performed with him in an art circus.
“He probably hasn’t told the firemen about the circus yet,” says Ferrandi with a chuckle.
“I didn’t have any real circus talent,” clarifies Herman before hopping on the truck to greet his fellow firemen. “I was just the ringleader. I just made a connection with the crowd. As a sculptor, I did things like construct an old-fashioned barbershop and give people haircuts. It was like performance art presented by a nonperformer. Not very good at all. That’s why I had to start the museum.”
As Magnolia, a rock duo composed of 11-year-old girls, take the stage, I sit down to a game of Connect Four with a video artist named Gregory Rossi. Harley Spiller, the Reliquary’s “Inspector Collector” and the Guinness World Record holder for the largest menu collection, brings us prawns and chile peppers on a stick. A group of neighborhood kids bait us with hide-and-go-seek while the crowd dances to Magnolia. For one moment, everyone seems to be finding pure joy in the city that Herman helps us not to forget.