Archive Project Completes Two New Series of Oral Histories. Over 30 New Voices Heard from Across All Five Boroughs
By Brad Vogel, Executive Director
Oral histories are at the heart of the Archive Project’s work. They provide a unique means of recording stories of the preservation movement to inform and inspire future generations. Founder Anthony C. Wood conducted oral histories with key figures in the preservation movement even before the Archive Project was incorporated nearly 25 years ago. Today, the Archive Project continues that work. In 2021, despite the pandemic, the Archive Project completed not one but two new
Gerry Charitable Trust Oral History Intensive
Any collection of oral histories will inevitably contain gaps in coverage. In 2019, Executive Director Brad Vogel reviewed the Archive Project’s oral history collections and sensed a number of such gaps. Th e Peggy N. and Roger R. Gerry Charitable Trust expressed interest in funding an effort to fill those gaps, and thus a two-year “Intensive” led by oral historian Sarah Dziedzic got underway. What gaps did the effort address? First, the series sought to obtain narratives from a number of preservation efforts surrounding Black history sites. Peggy King Jorde shared important backstory regarding the preservation of remains at the African Burial Ground in the 1990s. Historian and tour guide Eric K. Washington focused on preservation efforts related to Black sites like the Hotel Olga and the former Colored School No. 4. Community garden leader Yonnette Fleming provided insights on the legacy of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Hattie Carthan and the continuing roles that gardens and markets play in community preservation.
The Intensive also captured a number of previously untold stories about preservation at the Ground Zero site in Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Interviews with preservationist Ken Lustbader and architect Robert Kornfeld, Jr. begin to tell the stories of preservationists who initially sought to assess damage to historic buildings surrounding the World Trade Center site and eventually pivoted to focusing on preserving key elements of the site itself. These preservation efforts saved elements that are now core, large scale artifacts at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
The new series also took to the watery “sixth borough” of the City, highlighting several decades-long efforts to preserve historic vessels around New York Harbor. Oral histories with dedicated figures like David Sharps of the Waterfront Barge Museum, Captain Mary Habstritt of the Lilac Preservation Project, and Carolina Salguero of PortSide NewYork illuminate the many challenges faced when preserving historic ships. Overlooked aspects of the landmark designation process also emerged in the oral histories captured by the Intensive. Christian Zimmerman of the Prospect Park Alliance digs into the regulatory nuts and bolts of scenic landmark designation. Kate Wood focuses on another category of landmarks also added via the 1973 amendments to the NYC Landmarks Law: interior landmarks. Christabel Gough, in addition to sharing insights from decades of preservation advocacy, provides unique perspectives from years attending nearly every meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Finally, the Intensive focused on voices from a series of waterfront neighborhoods. Dick Zigun, the one-time unofficial mayor of Coney Island, talks about that neighborhood’s preservation battles. Joe Svehlak provides backstory on Sunset Park’s long push for historic districts while shedding light on preservation efforts to save remnants of Little Syria. George Burke tells the story of the stately Seguine Mansion on the shores of Staten Island, a site that is part of the Historic House Trust. Richard George reveals his remarkable odyssey to prevent the destruction of remnants of the Far Rockaway bungalow colony in Queens.
Inspired by Grassroots Stories: Community Architectural Advocacy
Neighborhood preservation efforts emerged at the heart of the Archive Project’s second major oral history series in 2021. Growing from conversations at a 2018 board retreat and initial support from Pat Reisinger, the Inspired by Grassroots Stories series was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), with preservation consultant Kelly Carroll serving as moderator for a unique approach to capturing community stories.
The series operated on two tracks. On one, grassroots community preservation organizations gathered virtually on Zoom with Ms. Carroll moderating group oral history sessions that were open to public attendees. Th e group oral histories cover activity in Queens (Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society), Staten Island (Preservation League of Staten Island), Manhattan (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association), and Brooklyn (East 25th Street Historic District Initiative and Preserving East New York).
On the second track, individuals from around the City provided their unique perspectives in short, traditional style oral histories. Jean Prabhu explains local preservation efforts from her vantage point in Todt Hill, Staten Island. Daniel Karatzas recounts years of efforts in Jackson Heights, Queens. Barbara Stronczer brings a Bronx perspective, relating her experiences with the Bedford Mosholu Community Association. Dr. Keith Taylor provides background on the effort to preserve Dorrance Brooks Square in Harlem, and Frank Grassi delves into Deep South Brooklyn stories, with a focus on Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights.
In November of 2021, a number of narrators from both series of oral histories gathered at the Fulton Stall Market in the South Street Seaport Historic District (proof of vaccination required). Following introductory remarks by Bob Lewis of the Market, preservation consultant Kelly Carroll led a public roundtable sharing session. Narrators often went beyond their oral histories as they spoke, providing insights into their historic preservation efforts and swapping lessons and stories with old and new contacts from across the city. Th e sharing event, held a few days before
Thanksgiving, provided a welcome chance for camaraderie.
Overall, the Archive Project generated a greater number of oral histories than usual across 2020 and 2021 despite the global pandemic, dramatically expanding the collection and broadening and diversifying the public’s understanding of the historic preservation movement in New York City. Th e oral histories in both series may be accessed via the Archive Project website at: www.nypap.org/oral-history/.