Wednesday, March 5, 2008

New Histories of the Recent Past

The changes in postwar New York City have been so swift that it is possible to overlook the spirited activism that surrounded some of the most contentious issues in the city. In a forum tonight at the CUNY Graduate Center, "Recovering Community History: Puerto Ricans and African Americans in Postwar New York City," three speakers described projects that will recover important facets of the history of this period, from Puerto Rican rights to school integration to urban renewal.

Lillian Jimenez screened scenes from her soon-to-be-finished film, Antonia Pantoja: Presente! Pantoja was an activist, educator, founder of ASPIRA, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her life, vividly recalled in Jimenez' film, is a reminder of the Puerto Rican activism that was a transforming presence in New York City in the Sixties and Seventies.

Craig Wilder, a historian at Dartmouth, described his current book project, The High. The book will be a history of twentieth century Brooklyn through the lens of Boys' and Girls' High--a school that has known excellence, integration, and segregation over the course of its history.

Marci Reaven, a historian and director of Place Matters, spoke on two efforts that grew out of Place Matters' survey of significant places in New York: a multi-year effort document the Latin music scene in New York, culminating in the film From Mambo to Hip hop and many public history projects, and an exploration of community activism that began against a Robert Moses redevelopment plan for Cooper Square. The movement not only defeated Moses, but continues to shape the neighborhood around Cooper Square today. Reaven's doctoral dissertation in progress at New York University, "Citizen Participation in City Planning, 1945-1975," explores the Cooper Square opposition and related themes.

All these inspiring stories raise a difficult question: why isn't there more spirited activism in the city today, especially over the levels of inequality and displacement that are remaking our neighborhoods? It is too early to provide a definitive answer to this question, but these three valuable projects--presented under the auspices of the American Social History Project, the Center for Media and Learning, and the Gotham Center--all open valuable windows on a recent past that is very different from our city's present.

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