For the fourth year, Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center has replaced the 193 United Nations member states’ flags with crowd-sourced artworks. But this time, depictions of bagels, dollar slices, well-known restaurants, and hidden gems line the plaza that houses the iconic Christmas tree during December. On display through April 30, this edition of the Flag Project celebrates New York City’s dining and restaurant culture — not just what and where we eat, but how.
“Before my first visit to New York I don’t think I had ever had a slice of pizza eaten on the go, a deli coffee bought in the morning on the way to work, or a big pretzel bought whilst strolling through Central Park,” said Fanny Gentle, a Brooklyn resident whose flag features these and other iconic NYC staples being carried by pigeons against a light blue sky. “I’ve lived in New York for the past 20 years now, and these distinctive moments have become a natural part of my family’s everyday life.”
With this year’s partner, the food rescue nonprofit City Harvest, Rock Center held a call for submissions from the end of January through March 2. From there, City Harvest’s selection committee narrowed hundreds of submissions to nearly 200, including almost two dozen flags made in collaboration with local restaurants and notable food industry professionals including Andy Baraghani, Geoffrey Zakarian, and Eric Ripert.
Organizers have arranged the artworks around the plaza alphabetically by the artist or participant’s last name. Some flags, like Taylor Alvarado’s design with honey-roasted peanuts or Rosie Batista’s “Mangu con los tres golpes,” focus on individual dishes or snacks. Special haunts were another theme, as in Pamela Alvarez’s “Toñita’s,” a tribute to one of the city’s oldest and most frequented Puerto Rican social clubs, or Annabelle Arana-David’s reportage drawing that recounts the 100th anniversary of Nathan’s in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Of course, bagels, coffee cart cups, and pizza slices have a prominent place in New York City food culture and abounded as featured designs. But some artists like Alberta Maineri-Burke decided to use collage to tell a story of New York City as a melting pot of different cuisine. Even the famed Pizza Rat appears in Jane Hanstein Cunniffe’s image reading The New Yorker.
Akane Morinishi’s flag is inspired by her experience of eating Xi’an Biang Biang noodles for the first time in the Big Apple. “It was totally an amazing new experience, so I wanted the Statue of Liberty to be enjoying those same noodles, too,” Morinishi said.
Since 2020, Rockefeller Center has used the project as an outlet for New Yorkers and the world to respond to various pressing issues facing the city. Last year’s installation focused on climate change. Partnering with the United Nations Environment Program and the Climate Museum, the organization asked artists to submit designs that visualized the theme “Only One Earth.”
City Harvest hopes this year’s collaboration brings attention to New York City’s rich food culture and issues like food insecurity and waste. Starting in March, pandemic-related boosts in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) concluded, leaving many New Yorkers who relied on the additional help potentially without enough money to pay for groceries. The end of these benefits coincided with the expanded child tax credit ending and a rise in grocery store costs due to inflation.
Due to these assistance programs being scaled back and inflation, City Harvest told Hyperallergic that food insecurity in the city is as bad if not worse than in previous years of the Covid-19 pandemic. The organization suspects that visits to NYC food pantries and soup kitchens have risen nearly 70% since 2019.
“We hope this installation inspires people to dine out in our city and also raise awareness that so many New Yorkers are experiencing food insecurity right now, even more than were pre-pandemic,” said Jilly Stephens, City Harvest’s chief executive officer. “Especially as food prices continue to rise and many federal supports for low-income individuals expire.”