Since the launch of New York At Its Core, we’ve been able to uncover 400 years of New York history tucked within the walls of The Museum of the City of New York. The sweeping exhibition, spread out across the entire first floor of the building, features 70+ interactive portraits of New Yorkers who have helped defined the city beginning in 1609. This includes influential people like Jane Jacobs and Alexander Hamilton, as well as overlooked characters like the oyster. That’s right, these bivalve mollusks, which we so often slurp up as delicacies, have their very own spotlight in the exhibit, and the MCNY has provided us with an exclusive video highlighting their role in shaping the physical geography of the city.


“…[The] history of New York City is the history of the oyster,” says Brett Palfreyman, a professor at Wagner College and a curator behind New York At Its Core. “Before the hotdog, before the thin-crust pizza, the oyster was New York’s signature food. Everybody ate them: rich, poor, black, white, Lenape Indians. Everyone had access because they were so abundant.”

In fact, when Henry Hudson first arrived in the early 17th century, New York harbor was probably the greatest oyster habitat in the entire planet, Palfreyman notes. The abundance of brackish water in places like the Hudson River, the East River and Jamaica Bay provided the perfect breeding ground for these rough-shelled mollusks, which eventually gave way to an entire industry focused around them.


By the 20th century, however, the oyster pollution began to drastically decline due to overfishing, over-harvesting and pollution. This has resulted in a concerted effort by various organizations (like the Billion Oyster Project) to bring oysters back to New York Harbor. The importance of this mission goes beyond the marine population’s value as a food source; as you’ll see in the video, oysters are integral to the future of New York City and its waterfront.

“New York At Its Core” is now open daily at the Museum of the City of New York from 10am–6pm. For more information, visit the website here.

Next, read about the The Tragic History of New York City Oysters and check out our past coverage of New York At Its Core.