Sunday, November 18, 2007

Old Neighborhoods, New Histories

In an age when some New York City neighborhoods are changing out of all recognition, two projects are recording histories of communities with enduring significance: the Germans of the Lower East Side and the Black Americans of central Brooklyn. Both shared their findings at the recent Researching New York 2007 conference at the University at Abany.

The “New York Neighborhood Stories” panel featured David Favaloro of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Jennifer Scott of the Weeksville Heritage Center; it was moderated by Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at CUNY.

Favaloro offered a preliminary look at a forthcoming exhibit in his presentation, “Kleindeutschland in Schneider’s Saloon: Interpreting Orchard Street’s 19th Century German Immigrant Community in the Tenement Museum.” “Schneider’s Saloon” will recreate a bar once located in a basement storefront of the museum’s restored tenement at 97 Orchard Street.

John Schneider, a German immigrant and proprietor of the saloon, served in the Union Army as a musician. His establishment was much more than a place to get a glass of lager.

As Favaloro explained, “Schneider’s Saloon” was also the scene of fraternal and political meetings. This wasn’t unusual for nineteenth century saloons. What makes Schneider’s unique is that it opens a window on the lives of German immigrants—a comparatively under-studied group in New York City history.

After 150 years of German American assimilation, and the body blows to German American culture struck by World War I and World War II, it is easy to forget the importance of Germans in nineteenth century New York. Germans were prominent as Republicans and Democrats, socialists and labor unionists, journalists and musicians. Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, was anything but a small presence in Manhattan.

Yet aside from the works of such historians as Stanley Nadel, Dorothee Schneider and Hartmut Keil, their stories have not received the kind of attention devoted to, say, the Irish or the Jews. (Can this be explained by a shortage of American historians fluent in German? Or is their something unique about the German experience in New York?) “Schneider’s Saloon” will go a long way toward correcting that imbalance

The Black Americans of central Brooklyn are much more visible than the vanished Germans of the Lower East Side, but gentrification puts a question mark over some of their neighborhoods. That’s why Jennifer Scott’s presentation, “Weeksville Speaks: Oral History and the Stories of Brooklyn’s Forgotten 19th Century Free African American Community,” carried such contemporary importance.

The Weeksville Heritage Center, where Scott works, researches and preserves the Hunterfly Road Houses. These buildings are the remaining heart of a Black community established in Brooklyn before the Civil War. In 2006 the Weeksville Heritage Center joined with the oral history group Story Corps, to record memories of people who lived around the Hunterfly Road Houses.

The Weeksville Heritage Center, as Scott described it, has a strong appreciation for efforts to build sturdy Black communities. It also shares the values of Story Corps, which encourages people to tell their own stories of their lives.

Sometimes, that produces surprising results. Scott described contrasting stories told by two different people with memories of the community around the Hunterfly Road Houses. One person recalled her home as a friendly, welcoming place for the entire community. Another person recalled the same place as exclusive and not welcoming to less than proper members of the community.

What to make of this? As moderator Wasserman, an old friend of mine from graduate school, observed, these are the kinds of contradictions found in all sorts of historical sources. They’re well worth puzzling out. They’re also a testimony to the enduring value of historical research.

With “Schneider’s Saloon” set to open in 2009, and the Weeksville Heritage Center planning to open a new educational and cultural center in 2010, current research will find an enduring expression and a wider public. In ever-changing New York, these are projects to be thankful for.

1 comment:

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