9 Ways To Explore New York City Through A Social Justice And Historical Lens

New York City—built on the land of the Lenape people—has so much more to offer than the typical sites. You can learn about American social issues through any trip to the city.

For our next spotlight article in our Conscious Travel series we look at New York City through a social justice viewpoint and the sometimes not so pleasant history that has made the city what it is today. 


New York City. 

Outside the United States, it’s often thought to be synonymous with the country itself. Inside the United Statesthanks to the depiction in movies and showsNew York holds an almost fantastical appeal to its visitors from within the same country.

Glamorous can certainly describe New York. But it’s more than just that. While New York in no way represents all of what the United States is, it contains many stories that are true to the entire nation as a whole.

“Maybe you can see the glamour magnified in New York and also some of the problems,”says Elizabeth Pillsbury, New Yorker, teacher, and historian. “New York City has a tremendous disparity between the richest and poorest New Yorkers. When you visit, you can examine issues that are present all across the country, but you can see them magnified.” 

For that, New York City is such an amazing place to explore so many of the social justice issues and dive into the cultural diversity that the U.S. as a whole has. 

In New York, Elizabeth says, “there’s tremendous perseverance, tremendous resilience and you have really amazing museums, art galleries, restaurants, and other things that are really powerful. If you seek it out you can really get to understand New York City in a different way.” 

It’s with this intention that we asked Elizabeth to help us create a list in order to explore New York City through a social justice lens as part of our Conscious Travel column’s location spotlight. Her recommendations include new sites that might not have been on your radar before and new ways to see the tried and true tourist destinations. While to get a fully immersive experience (i.e. visit yourself), we’ll need to wait for the world to open up, many of these sites offer virtual experiences to travel and learn from home. 

Central Park is an amazing place within New York City, but it has a bit of a dark past. Learn about New York City through social justice issues such as how Central Park came to be!
The largest free Black community in New York was destroyed to build Central Park.

1. Learn about the first free Black community in New York City that was destroyed to build Central Park

Central Park, with over 40 million visitors a year, is the most visited park in the United States. It’s stunning in its mere presence as a respite from the bustle of city life. While it’s a remarkable example of urban greenspace and landscape architecture, it has a darker history. In order to build Central Park, the city displaced the residents of Seneca Village, the first free Black community in New York City. 

Before you visit the park, learn about Seneca Village and while you’re there, check out the Discover Seneca Village project which includes tours that give the history of the thriving Black community. You can also check out a virtual Seneca Village tour right now from anywhere in the world.

Thinking more broadly, this is not unlike displacement that has happened over the entire history of New York City. Elizabeth points out how Lincoln Center is also the site of displacement of a thriving Puerto Rican and Irish community during the times of urban renewal.

Like anywhere we go, she notes, “it’s important to think about the history of the land that you’re on. By examining the past, you can understand powerful stories when you are traveling to any place.” 

New York City through a social justice lens can be found in many museums and tours. One such tour is the Big Onion's Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour!
Little Italy is one of the stops on the Big Onion’s Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour

2. Learn about the vibrant immigrant history of the Lower East Side through food

Immigration is a story of modern America. With New York as one of the earliest immigration hubs, there’s no better place to dig into that history. But you need not go to Ellis Island alone, you can explore immigration through food found in the city today and support local businesses while you’re doing it. 

To eat your way through food history, check out The Big Onion Walking ToursMulti-Ethnic Eating Tour which brings you to local shops and markets (including samples!) throughout the Lower East Side of Manhattan. You can sign up right now for their Immigrant New York Virtual Adventure from anywhere in the world.

The Big Onion is an amazing option for a variety of tours all around the city. You can also reach out to inquire about the best family-friendly tours. 

3. Become inspired by one of the largest pre-Civil War free Black communities in Brooklyn

The Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn is a powerful and unique experience to transport yourself through their educational and arts program to one of the largest pre-Civil War free Black communities in the United States. Weeksville holds tours and a wide variety of public programming to dive deep into the resilience of the thriving community. 

While they’re closed to the public right now due to Covid-19, they will eventually be releasing 360 degree virtual tours of the historic Hunterfly Road houses and accompanying events, so check back at their website soon.

The Tenement Museum is a great place to start exploring New York City through a social justice lens and learn about the stories of the immigrants when they first arrived.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum once housed immigrants from all over the world when they first began their lives in the United States

4. Immerse yourself in the stories of immigrant families from the late 19th and early 20th century

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells the story of immigration as well, but through an immersive tour through a former tenement house where immigrant families lived and made their new life in New York between the 1860s and 1930s. 

The museum has a lofty mission “to foster a society that embraces and values the role of immigration in the evolving American identity.” They do this through educational tours, educational curriculum and programming, and various forms of media. 

While the museum is closed for in-person tours right now, you can take a virtual tour of the Tenement Museum, listen to the Your Story, Our Story podcast, or, if you happen to be local, take a safe, in-person neighborhood walking tour.

El Museo is a leading cultural center for Latinx art in New York | Image: The Fixers (Wikis Take Manhattan 2009 participant), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Delight in the wide-ranging exhibits of Caribbean and Latin American art

El Museo del Barrio in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanoften referred to as simply, El Museohas the mission to “present and preserve the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States.” Not only do they have incredible exhibits, but they offer a variety of bilingual programming including for young people. 

Check out their virtual experiences, events, and tours, especially those geared towards school age children.

The Highline is a wonderful respite overlooking the city life, but also has caused gentrification in the Lower West Side.

6. Reflect on gentrification while walking The Highline

The Highlinethe one-and-a-half mile long abandoned railroad-track-turned-public-park in the Lower West Side of Manhattanquickly became a popular cultural attraction after it was built in 2009. And rightly so, as it’s a shining example of modern-day renditions of urban green space. But similar to Central Park, there’s a darker side to the creation of such a cultural destination. Namely, gentrification.

While the Highline is certainly worth a visit, it’s important to also reflect on the park’s role in creating demand among real estate developers, and thus, rising prices and pushing out lower-income residents. “Even well-established businesses, with deep cultural roots, have closed down due to rent increases, and loss of neighborhood customers in a sort of forced exodus,” Mirna Nashed wrote in this NYCropolis article.

Elizabeth Pillsbury recommends that to get a deeper perspective on this gentrification is to watch the documentary Class Divide before you head over to the Highline.

Women sewing flags at the Brooklyn Navy Yard c. 1916-1920

7. Gain an awareness of urban redevelopment and food deserts at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Turnstile Tours’ Brooklyn Navy Yard tours offer an incredible view of the past, present, and future of industry in America. They offer several guided tours of the area from different vantage points including going inside the workshops and factories of the area and a deeper dive into World War II industry.

All of Turnstile’s tours are focused on “the meaning of a place.” Their approach to creating connections and inspiring reflection around “a culture of community participation” as their mission says, is a great lesson for how we can all approach our travels everywhere. 

Check out their virtual programming here.

The Brooklyn Museum often offers social justice focused exhibits and events

8. Be awakened and inspired through various social justice museum exhibits

The Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Museum present incredible opportunities to explore social justice issuesnot just focused on New York, but for our worldthrough their various exhibits that explore what is happening right now

For example, a mere nine months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the Museum of the City of New York opened the online exhibit New York Responds: The First Six Months which “looks at the still-unfolding events of 2020 through the eyes of over 100 New Yorkers.” And the Brooklyn Museum holds regular events with artists and writers who explore the most important social justice issues of our time. 

The Museum of the City of New York will re-open for limited in-person visits in mid-February, but has some wonderful online exhibits including the New York Responds exhibit. The Brooklyn Museum is open for timed entry and offers a variety of virtual events.

The National Museum of the American Indian is a great way to learn more about the Lenape people–original peoples of New York–and the original people of the United States | Image: Stuart Sevastos, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Think critically about the story of how Manhattan was “bought” from the Lenape

New York City was built on the ancestral land of the Lenape people. Legend has it that Dutch settlers “bought” Manhattan from the Lenape for a mere $24-worth of goods. However true this story might be, the typical Euro-centric tales told gloss over the root of cultural differences, especially the fact that Indigenous cultural belief systems did not see land and the natural world generally as being a “possession.” Yet the story is still told from the settler-colonialist perspective. Institutions like the Museum of the American Indian near Manhattan’s Battery Park can provide a perspective of American history from the vantage point of Indigenous peoples. Beyond the museum itself there are opportunities to think critically about who tells the story and how the story is told. The four statues in the Custom House building which houses the museum are an example. Daniel Chester French’s “Four Continents of the World” depictions of a headdressed Indigenous woman behind “Lady Liberty,” for exemplify the Euro-centric ideologies that represent the predominant narrative in history books.

To help reframe your reference point of New York, The Lenape Center is a great resource. Their workled by Lenape elders—shifts the narrative through workshops, exhibitions, performances, and more. Check out their work online, their social media accounts, and future events to learn more about New York from the Lenape people’s perspective.

Always Bring a Social Justice Lens

These suggestions represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring New York beyond the typical attractions. But they’re also a great reminder for all of us to reflect more deeply on the places we visit and the layers of stories we don’t always see while visiting “must-see” attractions.

“Frankly that’s the lens I take in any city I go to, whether I’m going to Lisbon in Portugal or to Atlanta, Georgia,” says Elizabeth Pillsbury. “I want to understand what are the pressures that affect local residents. I want to reflect on ways I spend money when I’m traveling to make sure that I’m contributing to small, local businesses, especially those owned by people of color.” 

The pandemic has shown the importance of supporting local businesses as well. When the world opens up again, New York City—like communities all over the world—needs your support, especially the local businesses that have suffered through this pandemic. This social justice lens can hopefully help us travel even more mindfully moving forward.


Do you know of any great spots to explore New York City through social justice viewpoints? Let us know in the comments below!

You may also like these articles from Bébé Voyage:

Who Makes My Clothes? A Look At Inequalities Within The Clothing Industry

Go Against the Crowds: How to Avoid Being a Part of Overcrowding and Overtourism

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Voluntourism



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