By Nancy Novick
Upper West Siders and a growing number of visitors from all over the world can enjoy two new exhibits at the New-York Historical Society this spring—one that celebrates New York’s pioneering African-American basketball teams, and the other that features the work of a New York institution, fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham.
The Black Fives, a show that fills a single gallery at the museum offers a concise and fascinating history of African-American basketball players in the first half of the last century, before the National Basketball Association became integrated in 1950. Recreational games of basketball—or “basket ball” as it was then known, could be found at venues around the city beginning shortly after the game was invented by James Naismith in 1891. But it wasn’t until 1923 that the New York Renaissance became the first professional team of African American players in New York City. Many of the team’s early games took place as part of dance-basketball events.
Spectators danced, enjoyed a game of basketball, and then danced some more at clubs like the Manhattan Casino on 155th Street and 8th Avenue. The team grew in popularity and eventually went on tour. The Black Fives exhibition also offers visitors the chance to view memorabilia relating to amateur teams, the New York Renaissance, and their contemporaries, the Harlem Globetrotters. Young people may be especially taken with the early uniforms and a vintage basketball—made of leather with lacing similar to that on a football—as well as a pair of hand-stitched basketball shoes from the same era. The latter were made from kangaroo leather “considered the strongest yet softest and most flexible… available.”
Fashions of another kind are on view down the hall at Bill Cunningham: Facades. In this series of photos, Mr. Cunningham, whose work appears every Sunday in the Styles section of the New York Times, posed his friend and fellow photographer, the seemingly indefatigable Editta Sherman in front of a wide range of NYC facades.
Although Mr. Cunningham began this project in 1968, the photos are arranged by the time period in which the background architecture was erected. In each one of the dozens of images, Ms. Sherman wears period costumes, often with flamboyant hats (a nod to Mr. Cunningham’s early work as a milliner) that match the era. Upper West Siders may particularly enjoy the images of Ms. Sherman posing at Central Park West and 102nd Street, at 113 Riverside, and in front of the Apthorp apartment building. In addition, to documenting NYC fashion and architecture through the decades, Facades recalls the cultural debate between preservationists and those who advocated modernization of public spaces during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Black Fives will be on display at the New York Historical Society through July 20,
2014. Bill Cunningham: Facades runs through June 15, 2014.