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History Happens Here: Place Matters' Place Marking Projects in NYC

Molly Garfinkel
Director, Place Matters, Citylore


Executive Summary

Place Matters is a joint initiative of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society. Founded in 1893, the Municipal Art Society continues to serve as one of New York City’s premiere advocates for intelligent urban design, planning and preservation. City Lore was founded in 1986 with a mission to foster New York City—and America's—living cultural heritage through education and public programs.

City Lore documents, presents, and advocates for New York City's grassroots cultures to ensure their living legacy in stories and histories, places and traditions. In 1988, City Lore established the "Endangered Spaces” project to identify and advocate for local establishments and landmarks that were disappearing from the New York City landscape. In part, the rapid diminution of community loci resulted from the fact that these sites were unknown to preservationists, or difficult to for preservationists to interpret and therefore to protect.

In 1996, City Lore and the Municipal Art Society formed a Task Force on Historical and Cultural Landmarks, and collaborated on a conference called "History Happened Here,” which was held at the Museum of the City of New York. Two years later, City Lore and the Municipal Art Society jointly established the Place Matters program so as to continue to celebrating and advocating for places that hold memories, anchor traditions and help to tell the history of New York City. The goal of Place Matters is to broaden the ways preservation is understood and practiced in New York City by offering alternative ways of identifying, celebrating, and ultimately preserving places that matter. This essay explores various strategies developed to meet these goals: place marking, Place Matters awards, community focus projects, and virtual tours.

Place Matters is a ground-breaking collaboration between Citylore and the Municipal Art Society
of New York City.

City Lore

At City Lore, we abide by the definition set forth by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard for cultural democracy: "that cultural diversity is a positive social value, to be protected and encouraged...;  that authentic democracy requires active participation in cultural life, not just passive consumption of cultural products; ... that many cultural traditions co-exist in human society, and that none of these should be allowed to dominate and become an 'official culture'; and that equity demands fair distribution of cultural resources and support through the society." This is also true for narratives- there are usually no singular narrative or history that defines a place. As Dolores Hayden suggested in her seminal Power of Place, urban places are layered and often contested. And, as Hayden also noted, the rate and scope of change in American cities have increased quite substantially in the last several decades. City Lore’s founder and Director, Steve Zeitlin, jokes that New York City is a different city every ten years, and there is some truth to and important implications in this quip. These changes mean that places, whether individual buildings, blocks, neighborhoods or whole boroughs are like palimpsests – the ancient parchments that contained text that is scraped off or removed so that the parchment can be reused, but so often the traces of the preceding texts are still visible, if not legible, in the parchment.

Staking claim to space and/or preventing your presence from being erased or built-over to accommodate new narratives can be difficult. Just as New York City is one of the so-called "high culture" (e.g., opera, classical ballet) centers of the world, so is it one of the richest and most diverse centers of folk culture. With a diverse staff and board, we embrace different aesthetics for the creation of art, seek to democratize the arts, and foster a wide range of communities, artists, and forms of artistic expression. We also aim to ensure that these communities can exist in the places that they care about, across the five boroughs.

We work in four cultural domains: urban folklore and history; preservation; arts in education; and grassroots poetry traditions. In each of these realms, we see ourselves as furthering cultural equity and modeling a better world with projects as dynamic and diverse as New York City itself.

City Lore serves multiple constituencies/audiences. We have a membership base of about 400 individuals, and a mailing and email list of about 10,000 persons who attend our events ranging from POEMobile presentations to our museum exhibitions to the Place Matters Awards and the People’s Hall of Fame. In addition, we have a constituency of public school students who we serve through arts education programs, and community audiences including the Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, African American, Native American, Brazilian, Haitian, Czech, Russian and Chinese communities, among many others.

I believe that this holistic approach to communities has helped to make our place-based work that much stronger.


Place Matters

I direct Place Matters, another City Lore initiative, which works to preserve and sustain culturally significant sites, and thereby traditions, within New York City. At Place Matters, we work with twin missions of:

  • documenting, presenting and helping to sustain traditions and places that represent the rich diversity of cultures that coexist in New York City

  • and of trying to celebrate these traditions and places in ways that are meaningful to the practitioners or communities who steward them

The Place Matters collaboration with the Municipal Art Society began in 1996, when the two organizations formed a Task Force on Historical and Cultural Landmarks and hosted a conference called "History Happened Here” at the Museum of the City of New York. The joint initiative has introduced preservationists and community activists on the local and national scenes to a new way of thinking about the role of place in public life, and a new appreciation for the ways in which non-experts can identify and sustain places in their local landscapes that embody a broader historical record and keep communities healthy and vibrant. One of our purposes is to propose reasons for valuing places that go beyond architecture, and another is to consider how to let others know that these places are important.


Virtual Place-Marking

Place Matters documents and advocates for neighborhood sites that anchor traditions, preserve history, sustain communities and keep our cities distinctive. At the heart of the project is the Census of Places that Matter, a grassroots survey/ guidebook/encyclopedia of places in the five boroughs that the public finds significant. Nominations arrive via the website, mail, and public meetings. All nominations are posted to our online Census, and we regularly add photos and fuller "place profiles" to the postings. The Census is becoming a citywide survey, encyclopedia, and guidebook rolled into one. It is also a unique inventory of places and histories that people warrant attention and caretaking.

Census of Places that Matter, a grassroots survey/guidebook/ encyclopedia of places in the five boroughs that the public finds significant.

By nominating sites to this inclusive, public list, individuals and communities can broaden the public record about meaningful places in New York City. The public will learn more about a specific place, and through this process, will also learn more about New York City, about what people call a "sense of place," and about the role, or power, of place in public life.

By educating the public about their places, nominators are also taking a step toward advocacy. The Census provides nominators with a public platform that may better position them to ask others for support if the place needs some kind of help. Additionally, journalists, writers, and others may learn about these places through the Census and help to make them more visible.

The Census was first published as a paper document in 1998, and it has grown into a digital registry linked to an interactive map.The rich histories of the Census sites are now overlaid on a compelling, visual analytical tool. Together, the registry and the map offer a multi-pronged, alternative approach to identifying, celebrating and preserving places that matter to the people and communities who love or are concerned about them. Today, the Census includes over 750 sites nominated by the public.

Once you click through the map or search by borough, neighborhood, or several other categories you will learn (in many cases) more about the site and it’s current or past uses. On the individual place profiles you can see the multiple nominations for an individual site. This allows for the dialogic, for the inclusion of multiple perspectives on a place, even if the place profile doesn’t include all of the various historical and contemporary narratives of a place. The nominations can be added continuously, and profiles can be changed and updates as new information or perspectives come to us. We can also change the Census profiles to indicate when a place no longer exists, and we do allow for what we call "ghost sites,” or places that are no longer extant, but which exist in the memories of the people who nominate them.

Place Matters continues to feature a Place of the Month and a sister site, both of which are drawn from the Census. Both places are highlighted on the front page of our website for one month, and our monthly eblasts notify readers of the honorees and why they were selected. These eblasts have often encouraged readers to add their comments to existing place profiles, while others are inspired to nominate sites not yet listed on our Census.

We were recently a partner in "Locating the Sacred,” a project of the Asian American Arts Alliance. Locating the Sacred was a twelve-day, twenty-event festival that brought together artists and spaces in New York for creative explorations of the "sacred." Place Matters and the Asian American Arts Alliance asked our constituencies to nominate sites that help to tell individuals’ stories, and those of the Asian American communities in New York City. Nominated sites were denoted with a star icon on the Place Matter map through the end of the festival, but they will live on the Census indefinitely, with the hope that they encourage further discussion about how we interpret narratives of sacredness in the city’s ecology of places.


Real-Time Place-Marking

Over the years we have completed several place-marking projects in the real space of New York City. Our place-marking initiatives aim to crack the "silence" of historical and interesting sites. Place markers can be evocative signs or other means of revealing stories rich in human experience that are associated with places. When a place is marked, its value becomes apparent to all. Place marking encourages people to pay attention to their surroundings, and recognize, protect, and care for the places that matter to them.

Since 2003, Place Matters has been experimenting with strategies for marking interesting places to alert passersby to their history and stories. Place-marking not only promotes knowledge of the past, but also encourages greater appreciation for the people and places captured in the markers. Currently, our streetside sign project "Your Guide to the Lower East Side” can still be seen in a number of locations. We have also held three Place Matters Awards ceremonies to honor and call attention to sites nominated to our Census of Places that Matter. For each Awards cycle we assembled selection committees of place-enthusiasts to chose the awardees, who were then honored at a ceremony and given a 10"-15" plaque identifying their site as a Place that Matters.

Signage capturing memories of place in Chinese and English, part of "Your Guide to the Lower
East Side," a place-marking project.

Beyond the Brass Plaque—Marking Places that Matter

In spring 2003, eight finalists in the Marking Places that Matter Ideas Competition presented their innovative place marking strategies in an exhibition and series of public programs at the Municipal Art Society. A jury assembled by Place Matters had selected the finalists from a pool of entries.The challenge was to create simple, relatively low-cost strategies that would go beyond the traditional bronze plaque for marking and describing places around the city. Entries would need to be visually exciting, rich in content, adaptable to diverse environments, and user-friendly.


About the Competition

Places nominated to our Census of Places that Matter are often of modest architectural distinction. They do not always reach out and grab the passerby's attention, or make their significance known. Place-marking is one way to reveal hidden secrets.

In February 2002, Place Matters issued an open call to architects, artists, and graphic designers to "think outside the plaque" in developing ideas for place-markers. More than 100 design teams responded with innovative place-marker concepts—ranging from large-scale image projections to sidewalk sculpture. A jury of public art specialists and civic leaders selected eight winning entries, based on creative flair, feasibility, ability to engage the public, and sensitivity to community-based histories. Winners then proceeded to transform concepts into designs.

The schematic designs produced by the competition finalists went on view from March 20–April 30, 2003 in an exhibition called "Marking Places that Matter: New Views on Favorite Places," at the Urban Center Gallery at 457 Madison Ave. The exhibit presentations offered views through time and walls, reflections on networks and patterns of daily life, the power of the spoken word and real-life stories, and the experience of moving through the city as explorer, resident, and tourist. All the designs use as inspiration places drawn from the Census of Places that Matter.


Your Guide to the Lower East Side

Place Matters sometimes works with community groups to help them make a case about why their places are important. In the fall 2007, Place Matters, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Lower East Side Preservation Project presented the experiences of past and present Lower East Siders on twenty-eight signs at six separate sidewalk locations. With photographs and text in five languages, these place markers weave personal stories and cherished memories directly into the landscape, often right where the stories took place. The signs reveal the rich and diverse layers of human experience that make the neighborhood so distinctive. They transform the participants' stories of struggle and achievement into a legacy for all who pass by.

The collaborators found public and private hosts for the signs. By prior agreement, the signs at Seward Park and Straus Square came down after 6 months, but you can still see the others:Lower East Tenement Museum (91 Orchard); P.S. 42 (71 Hester); St. Teresa's Church (141 Henry); (Essex & Canal); and St. Augustine's Church (290 Henry).

The Loews Canal Street Theater at Canal and Essex is an example of a building that could be landmarked, and probably should be, because its physical structure perfectly conveys an important type of movie theater development, and because the LES was important in the history of early cinema. But that’s not the only thing that can be done to draw attention to its existence and its potential to be a community asset.

The purpose of the project was to make a case for preserving buildings in the area, but also to call attention to the area’s ethnically and economically diverse population. It was also a demonstration project that sought to develop a low cost way of creating historical signage that marks community sites and stories from the vantage point of insiders. The signs cost 200 a piece to fabricate. They were also designed to be adaptable to different mounting situations.

The signs are eye-catchingly bright, but they contain intimate stories. They place memory on the landscape, and we hope that they still grab people’s attentions!

We collected stories, for example from an employee of the Educational Alliance. The memory included on the sign reads, "One amazing night a few years back we held a prom for our older members in the Whittaker Senior Center. Some had been in Nazi concentration camps during their own prom years, others had been too poor. They had missed this experience. We also invited young people and everybody danced. You’ve never seen anything like it.”

Two, which featured the same story in Chinese and English text, contained a more distant memory from Reverend Bayer Lee, Pastor to Chinatown churches. "Mr. C.J. Thom ran a Chinese hand laundry at 86 Orchard Street in the 1930s.” The sign goes on to the recollection, "My step-father came from Taishan around the same time. He lived at 40 Bowery with many other men from his kin network and worked in hand laundries uptown. When I worked in his laundry during my teens in the 1960s, he told me that he used to press shirts on top of the ironing table by day and sleep underneath the same table by night. Restaurant jobs take fathers away from jome but laundries keep them close.” These signs were installed at the LES Tenement Museum on Orchard Street—so not entirely specific to a single location, but represented the scores of hand laundries that existed in the LES.

Your Guide helped to make visible longtime residents of the neighborhood who increasingly feel marginalized as the neighborhood becomes a high rent shopping and entertainment district. The signs are meant to represent the perspectives and experiences of some community residents for audience of insiders and visitors.

One sign, which was affixed to the site it represented, also identified the fact that the building had been designated an NYC landmark in 1966. The sign went further by identifying why the place was and is significant to the African-American community, and why preserving it matters. The sign’s introduction reads, "St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church built in 1828 as All Saints Free Church/ Designated a NYC Landmark, 1966.” The sign then shares the thoughts of The Reverend Errol Harvey, Rector of St. Augustine’s. "From the ‘Slave Galleries’ you’re invisible. You can see, but can’t be seen. Black people, free and enslaved, were forced to sit in hidden, cramped rooms above the balcony of our church. Today, we are one of the largest African American congregations in the Lower East Side, but with the neighborhood changing, succeeding generations might not become aware of our history. Restoring the Slave Galleries not only preserves our Greek Revival building, but also the memory of slavery in American history and evidence of our important place in the community.”

To the idea of history and memory loss across generations, each of the signs reads, "You’re always walking in somebody’s footsteps. Who will walk in yours?”—a reminder that we are all part of history, and history is always relevant.

And as a related, final example, P.S. 42 on Broome/Orchard Street was represented by four signs that chart the school’s changing attitude toward cultural diversity. The first two, "Leaving a Place Called Home,” feature memories from Lillian Milagros Rivera who was a student in the 1950s, and the 2007 school principal, Rosa Casiello O’Day, each of whom faced cultural discrimination while growing up. O’Day acknowledges that today PS 42 values its families languages and cultures. The third sign, "Finding a Place Called Home,” features thoughts from current PS 42 teachers who were PS 42 students, and returned to teach at their alma mater because they had such positive cultural experiences at the school. The fourth sign, "Revisiting a Place Called Home,” features thoughts from Allan Eng-Achson, an ELL teacher at PS 42, who tells his father’s immigration story in class so as to encourage his students to explore their own family migration or immigration stories.


Place Matters Awards

Our website features a Community Toolkit, which, among other things, present the public with options for approaching places that matter. Sometimes people want to preserve a structure, sometimes they want to recognize a place for its having retained long-standing use and sometimes they want to add to the narrative or contribute to interpreting the story. Sometimes a first or even a final step or goal is recognition and celebration of a place, whether or not it is threatened. To we have held three Place Matters Awards ceremonies, which have been free and open to the public.

The first, held in 2008, on Place Matters’ 10th anniversary, honored ten great places that highlighted ten ways that places matter and contribute to the city of New York. Honorees included the Federation of Black Cowboys in Howard Beach, Queens, the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, La Plaza Cultural Armando Perez in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, and the Point Community Development Corporation in Hunts Point in the Bronx, and several others.

In 2009 we focused on the Bronx by recognizing six places that give the Bronx its richness, its flavor and its life. Honorees included 52 Park, an urban park, the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, Arthur Avenue Retail Market, the Bronx River Houses, the epicenter of the hip hop movement in its earliest days, the General Sedgwick Houses for incubating hip hop, and where the tenants’ association fights to keep the musical history alive, and also the maintain the complex as affordable housing, and Casita Rincón Criollo, possibly the oldest and the largest of the New York City casitas build by Puerto Rican communities in many boroughs to recall the look and feel of the Puerto Rican countryside. Rincon Criollo is also a traditional context for the transmission of traditions, particularly those of bomba and plena, two indigenous Puerto Rican musical forms.

Last fall, shortly after the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, we honored six Lower Manhattan sites—Streit’s Matzos in the Lower East Side, one of Lower Manhattan’s last industrial concerns, the Bowery Mission, which has been serving the city’s homeless since 1872, the Chinatown Senior Citizens’ Center (which is in PS 23, where the Chinatown History Project held reunions to collect memories, and where, on the second floor, the Museum of Chinese in America got started), Ear Inn, Economy Candy and the tenement at 109 Washington Street, one of the last vestiges of the Financial District’s now-vanished "Little Syria” enclave.

In the first two Awards, we gave each place a specially-designed ten-inch sign for interior or exterior mounting. Each place was notable in its own right and also represented a way that place matters to us all. John Wong designed the signs. American Express Historical Preservation Fund supported the program. In the third Awards ceremony we increased the size and changed the design of the Award so that it was bolder and brighter. We actually used the design of the Lower East Side signs as a model, and we think that the aesthetic was appreciated by the Awards’ recipients.


Community Focus Projects

Place Matters works with other organizations to conduct in-depth studies about communities and their places. The community focus projects result in nominations to the Census of Places that Matter and a variety of educational and protection projects. Together with The Point Community Development Corporation in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx, City Lore documented the Latin music and hip hop histories of the South Bronx, focusing on the neighborhoods of Hunts Point, Longwood and environs. The purpose of the project was to transform the distinctive musical heritage of the Latino South Bronx into a resource that could be tapped for cultural and civic renewal.

From the 1940s through the 1970s, hundreds of Latino musicians and dancers lived there, including Tito Puente, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, and Ray Barretto. Dozens of dance halls, clubs and theaters hosted the music, and people from all over the city came to enjoy it. By the start of the 1970s, a deadly combination of factors precipitated the decline of the South Bronx community. The fires that tore through the southern part of the Bronx in the early 1970s ripped it apart. Nonetheless, its legacy remains a deeply rooted part of Latin music history and continues to live in the memory of musicians and audience alike for its unparalleled decades of intense creativity. Moreover, out of the fires emerged a hard-edged urban hip hop rooted in the streets, playgrounds, and burned-out lots of the South Bronx in the early 1970s. During the height of the destruction, Latino and Black teenagers, like the mambo and salsa musicians before them, held parties and jams in schools, basements, parks and playgrounds. Tying their turntables, speakers and amps into lampposts for power, teens gathered to rap, break, spin and scratch records. They reclaimed their spaces and, as their parents and grandparents had done in the 1940s and ‘50s, made the spaces work for them.

Place Matters’ Mambo to Hip Hop project is a good example of how interpreting the story can contribute to public knowledge while supporting historic preservation and cultural conservation. It also demonstrates how local cultural assets can be recovered and used as a resource for instilling pride of place and fostering renewal of the physical environment. While not all U.S. communities may claim the same degree of cultural influence as the South Bronx, most places offer rich stores of cultural assets that simply are waiting to be mined.

Mambo to Hip Hop, a multi-faceted community focus project intended to transform the distinctive musical heritage of the Latino South Bronx into a resource for cultural and civic renewal.

The project revolved around the partnership of Place Matters and a South-Bronx based nonprofit, THE POINT Community Development Corporation. The theme was popular music in the South Bronx. Our project evolved over a three year period to tell the story of how multiple generations of predominantly Puerto Rican New Yorkers created artistic expressions that were at once culturally specific yet universally appealing. Focusing on the mambo, salsa, and hip hop generations and the South Bronx neighborhood that has been both celebrated and demonized, the project revealed how creative expression helped foster and sustain community in the Bronx, and when the landscape looked bleakest, served as a resource for strength and community rebuilding. The story, as it was communicated in community conversations, musical events, and publications, captured the historic interplay of people, place, and music that produced internationally significant cultural movements from the late 1940s through the present in one of the world’s least likely places.

The two organizations came to the project via different routes. Pursuing their aims of community empowerment and economic development, THE POINT had begun to consciously revive the musical legacy of the area by holding tribute concerts at their facility to honor legendary local musicians. Place Matters learned about the creative history of the South Bronx from two separate responses to our ongoing cultural resource survey: the Census of Places that Matter. In particular, music historian David Carp led us to interviews and passed on written and visual records. What galvanized our interest in particular was the notable role of place in the story. It seemed to be the critical mass of clubs, dance halls, local bars, candy stores, playgrounds, rooftops, and home party-giving in the neighborhood that helped to stimulate critical bursts of creativity and create a community of supporting fans for the new musical styles. Looking further into the story, we learned about THE POINT and discovered our mutual interests. Place Matters’ goals--to promote and protect the places that connect us to the past and support vital communities--complemented those of THE POINT, and we decided to collaborate.

Place Matters staff conducted almost three-dozen oral history interviews with musicians, dancers, industry figures, and fans. We consulted with humanities scholars, read historical texts, and conducted building research to determine the history of relevant buildings. All this research formed the basis for a variety of projects that aimed to publicize this history and preserve this creative legacy in popular memory.

Interviewing participants to document the past brought a host of benefits. It uncovered the universe of places that supported the local music scenes. It legitimated the life experiences and creative contributions of many former and current Bronx residents. And it helped us compile a wealth of rich memory material that could be shared with the larger public. In fact, we extended the interviewing process to larger neighborhood public settings to create opportunities for intergenerational panels and audiences. We knew our approach was working when a young, female break dancer, participating in a panel with older musicians, made an emotional statement to the audience about the new connections she was making between her own musical attitudes and aptitudes, and those of her parents’ generation.

In addition to a transcribed series of oral histories, the Mambo to Hip Hop project generated four local community conversations, in which panels of participants in the Bronx music scene shared memories, ideas, and concerns with other community members and the general public. We arranged similar events outside of the community on two other occasions—once at a New York City history conference and once at a prominent Latino cultural institution in Manhattan. Topics for all the programs focused on different aspects of the music history, and most of the events also featured mini-performances. Panel members included practitioners, music industry figures, professional scholars, and—to use a useful term from folklore—community scholars (local experts who have not had academic training). Place Matters recorded each of these events to collect information about the individual places and the ways in which they collectively contributed to the music’s development.

This project produced the following:

  • Multiple public programs and performances
  • Mambo to Hip Hop map/brochure, which put the history on the landscape and encouraged self-guided walking tours
  • Walking and bus tour of heritage sites
  • Feature-length PBS documentary From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale
  • Successful listing to the National Register for Historic Places in 2001 for Casa Amadeo, in Longwood, which is the longest-running Latin music store in New York City.  This was the first Register listing to recognize Puerto Rican migration history – it was the first place connected to mainland Puerto Rican heritage to be listed.
  • Reunion concert of musicians who had graduated from the local elementary school PS 52. The PS 52 All-Stars performed one summer night in the park across from the school. (36) Ray Barretto and other legendary locals showed up. Both sites—the school and the park—were significant to the music history as well as being important community landmarks.

To explain why so much of the Mambo to Hip Hop project focused on interpretation of the story, rather than on historic preservation or retaining long standing use, it is important to know that much of the 20th century physical infrastructure of the South Bronx was lost to the fires and political and property abandonment of the 1970s. Of the surviving structures that once hosted music and dance—playing a role in cultural movements of international stature—only Casa Amadeo continues the tradition. One would never wish for this kind of historical experience. But what the Mambo to Hip Hop project usefully demonstrates is that historical interpretation can contribute significantly to public knowledge, to the revival of pride of place, and to a community’s positive hold on the future

Other community focus projects were conducted in Central Brooklyn, the Garment District in Midtown Manhattan, and East Harlem. Focus projects have also been thematic, such as a Labor History project undertaken in collaboration with the New York Labor History Association where we conducted a survey and public programs to discover places throughout the city important to the history and traditions of New York's labor movement. We wanted to learn more about work sites, workers' gathering places, restaurants and bars, housing developments and sites of labor political activity.Some of the programs reached out to Labor History Association members; others, in partnership with the artists' collective REPOhistory, to a broader public. In the program "Tell Us A Story," for example, audience members had five minutes to describe a place and its story. At the end of the session everyone voted for the ten stories they thought should provide the basis for a future NYLHA project.

One result of this Community Focus Project was the identification of the former Asch Building, where the horrific 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took place, as an important site for official New York City landmarking. Place Matters followed up on this idea and helped to secure landmark designation of the building in 2003.


Virtual Tours

We currently are exploring better ways to present web-based information that encourages, or even necessitates, participants to get back out on the streets to actually visit the places they are seeing on our website. The virtual tours that we have created tell a variety of thematic stories, from the history of the built environment of the Bowery to a Manhattan Jazz photo tour to a foodways tour, to an exhibit on the WPA Pools. We are currently completing a tour of the block of East 4th Street as part of a New York City chapter of the Vernacular Architecture Forum that asks, and attempts to show the public (of all backgrounds), how to "see” New York’s history in the built environment.

We have used Tom Carter and Elizabeth Cromley’s Invitation to Vernacular Architecture as a point of departure, because it offers an unpacking of the sometimes inaccessible, sometimes abstruse terminology that is known (or debated) in architectural history and preservation, but which is often left undefined for the general, non-academic or non-practicing public. I don’t know that our definitions are much help, but we try to intersperse the terminology in the exhibit text with concrete examples on the block of East 4th Street, which in many ways, typifies New York City’s development history. The block contains numerous examples of extant typologies that represent the various phases of working-class New York City residential building, and it also contains several halls-for-hire, which served as public spaces for working class communities to gather, celebrate, mourn, discuss and protest. It was almost demolished as part of a Robert Moses-era urban renewal plan, but local residents and activists took on Moses and the city, and not only prevented the demolition of their buildings and the displacement of their neighbors, but submitted an Alternate Plan, which was at least partially adopted by the city. The Cooper Square Committee, which is what they called themselves, is still located on the block, and their Mutual Housing Association still owns many of the neighborhood’s low-and moderate income apartments and commercial spaces.

One aspect of the exhibit, which I hope compliments the content of the exhibit as well as the suggestions in the ToolKit, is a guide to doing building research in Manhattan. It’s easy enough to say "and then you go visit private and special collections and gather historical documents,” but it’s not so easy to do, even for professionals. So we’ve offered some repositories, and a possible order of operations, for looking for maps, building records, drawings, photographs, and census records to help people who have not conducted building research, and who do not have access to private collections, take on the take of the information gathering. We call it "being a history detective,” so that it doesn’t sound like there is an obviously linear method that will result in all of the "right” answers, and so that it doesn’t sound boring.

This block is part of an area that was just designated the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District. There is certainly distinction that goes along with this designation, but we are hoping to collaborate with local arts and education groups to turn this project into an educational place-marking project wherein, using the exhibit as a foundation, students would be asked to research the block further, and either design physical place-markers or create an app-based scavenger hunt-type game for mobile devices. Such gaming platforms already exist, and we are currently exploring the best options for thinking of the educational program in this way.

I conducted several interviews with long-time residents and business people, which we would like to use at some point, although they are a bit a field of the themes explored in the exhibit itself. We might try to make a tour on City Lore’s City of Memory map, but we will see.

We are also hoping to expand the Your Guide to the Lower East Side marking project to the Two Bridges neighborhood, a community roughly bounded by the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, which is part of what has been called the fertile crescent of public housing in New York City along the East River. We are taking steps toward developing a community focus project with the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, and will begin conducting outreach on November 3, 2012.

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