Marathoners, police chases, bats. . . and the Croton Aqueduct

I can’t believe it’s been exactly a year since I uploaded this audio! Last spring, my second semester preservation studio developed an interpretive plan for the Croton Waterworks, a complex system of historic infrastructure that winds from rural towns north of New York City down into the heart of Manhattan. Our team of twelve researched and documented hundreds of structures, studied existing legal protections and threats, and worked with the many stakeholders along the aqueduct’s path to design signage and collaborate on a comprehensive plan for conveying the often-ignored system’s history and significance to varied audiences.

The Croton Waterworks’ century-and-a-half and forty-one miles have left a trail of not only structures but also stories. Of the many pleasures I experienced in working on the project, my favorite was the privilege to hear and record longtime Westchester residents as they reminisced and discussed their personal views of the aqueduct’s significance. Remnants of the system’s conclusion in Manhattan are quiet: fragments of the Murray Hill Reservoir lie generally unvisited in the New York Public Library, and it is easy to walk past a Croton gatehouse and, without knowing its significance, perceive it as simply one more handsome structure fading into the crowded city’s built landscape. For residents of Westchester County, where the system originates, the aqueduct has a louder presence. We knew that our interpretation would be incomplete without consulting residents, so I took the train up to Westchester to conduct mini-oral histories in Croton and Ossining, two towns where the Waterworks are integrated into everyday life.

One of my gracious subjects was Captain Scott Craven of the Ossining Police Force, who shared his memories of growing up alongside the aqueduct and explained how the police make use of the Croton structures in unexpected ways. My afternoon ended with a tour of the police station, a chat with the Chief of Police and other officers about their own memories of the Aqueduct, and even an escort back to the train station (which I’m pleased to say has been my only experience in a police car). I left Westchester assured that preservation is not only about buildings; it is also very much about people.

I’ll post more Croton oral history clips in the coming weeks; for now, enjoy the tales of Captain Scott!

Learn more about the Aqueduct and our project, and check out the finished product.

“I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

In progress (with chianti)

Bound (and determined)

Tomorrow, I don my preservationist armor and go to the defense of my master’s thesis, that tome which has kept me constant company — and often, kept me from this blog — over the past seven months. Currently titled “Concealed Certainty and Undeniable Conjecture: Placing Marginalized Heritage,” it explores the challenges of interpreting sites related to under-documented community heritage. I suppose I could publish it here as a series of thirty 1000-word posts…but instead, I’ll settle for sharing my epigraph, which in fact isn’t settling at all. This paragraph opens Mary Oliver’s essay “Steepletop,” featured in her collection Blue Pastures. As a young aspiring poet in 1953, Mary wrote to Norma Millay to ask if she could visit Steepletop, the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norma’s sister and Mary’s literary idol. Norma’s consent resulted in a friendship between the two women. Mary lived at Steepletop off and on for seven years—including the period of her schooling at Vassar, Vincent’s alma mater—and helped Norma to organize her sister’s papers. In this essay, Mary directly addresses her experience sorting through the stored papers and stories Norma shared with her: stories that I long to hear, because Steepletop happens to be one of the five case study sites in my thesis. I’ll admit, I grew a bit teary when I came across these lines; as many day-long coffee dates as my thesis and I had shared, I knew that I had reached the heart of it when I read Mary Oliver’s words.

“Biographers, of all writers, have need of prayers, and answered prayers. The graceful angles and sinuations of clean prose may finally be chiseled from the language, but what of the material itself? How can the biographer know when enough is known, and known with sufficient certainty? What about secrets, what about errors, what about the small black holes where there is nothing at all? What about the wranglings among minor characters, the withholding of facts for thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful reasons—or their mishandling—and this not even in the present but in the past, hidden in letters, in remembered conversations, in reams of papers? And what about the waywardness of life itself—the proclivity toward randomness—the sudden meaningless uplift of wind that tosses out one sheet of paper and keeps another? What about the moment that speaks worlds, as the saying goes, but in the middle of the night, and into deaf ears, and so is never heard, or heard of? I would not be a biographer for all the tea in China.”

Mary Oliver walking in the graveyard at Steepletop. Photo by Helen Atwan, http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/05/on-the-road-wit.html

Mary Oliver, “Steepletop,” Blue Pastures, (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1991): 73-74.

All signs point to a Happy Kansas Day!

I have emerged from my thesis cave to celebrate the first big holiday of the new year. That’s right, folks…Happy Kansas Day!

At my Texan middle school, my math teacher and now dear friend Myron taught me more than how to calculate the slope of a line; he showed me how to take active pride in history. A historian in his spare time who has written about the Texas postal system and his experience flying 0-2B airplanes in the Vietnam War, he is also a dedicated ambassador of his home state of Kansas…which entered the Union on today’s date in 1861. Every year, on January 29, signs would appear around campus—on doors and windows, in the elevator and the pages of library books—bearing wishes for a Happy Kansas Day. Some featured facts about the state of Kansas (the state amphibian of Kansas is the barred tiger salamander), others hand-colored sunflowers (the state flower); all generated a great deal more conversation about Kansas than would normally be heard in a Texas middle school hallway.

He tells me that he started the tradition in hopes of encouraging people to consider and even “advertise” the origins of their own home states. It didn’t quite take off that way; few people seem to have such loyalty for their state, respect for its roots, and initiative for raising awareness. Of all places, this must be especially true in NYC, where notoriously few people are native New Yorkers but many are quick to adopt the New Yorker identity. But that is all the more reason to spread the Kansas Day joy. Last year, I received an envelope full of Myron’s handmade signs from years past, passed along to me with a list of suggested spots to post them (e.g. “side of a bus—don’t get run over”). I relished seeing them pinned up in halls around Columbia and clinging to the glass of NYC bus stops (not the buses themselves—I’m a coward) until the snow took them down. This year, I made photocopies, preserving the remaining originals so that wherever I am on each January 29, I can share with strangers a bit of cheerful curiosity on behalf of the Sunflower State.

Love to Myron, Kansas, and statehood in general, and a very happy Kansas Day to all.

Click to zoom...Columbia and Kansas Day

Dear Barnes & Noble, please don't ban me as a litterer if you see this.

 

Tenement Museum: Telling the many stories of a 5-story building

the Tenement Museum, courtesy of ahistoryofnewyork.com

97 Orchard Street may not have been a model tenement, but its current incarnation as the Tenement Museum serves as a model of responding to challenges in interpretation. First, it has devised a clever solution to the question of encouraging repeat visitors to a historic site, and simultaneously broadening the diversity of that audience. The museum offers eight different guided tours that appeal to a variety of interests, including five tours that explore the building’s physical stories through the lens of historic residents’ life stories, and three walking tours of the neighborhood that set the tenement itself into wider contexts. Using the floors of 97 Orchard as microcosms of the building’s history, and by extension the history of the tenement form in New York City, the five building tours, one hour each, rely largely on visitors’ imagination and sense of empathy to animate the rooms. In one case that is specifically advertised for families, the “Confino Family Living History Program,” a costumed interpreter assists with this animation, demonstrating the museum’s plan of appealing to different audiences through strategic interpretative methods.

As an indecisive person, I was a bit overwhelmed upon first visiting the museum’s website. Which of the tour options would provide me with the best sense of the tenement’s history? After poking around reviews and travel forums to gauge the tours’ popularity, I chose “Getting By.” This tour, which took place on the second floor of the building, visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family in the 1930s. While I was initially disappointed that my experience of the building would be limited to one level, and a bit skeptical that an hour-long tour could sustain interest while restricted to two small apartments, I was ultimately impressed with the scope of the experience and saw the benefits of offering multiple tours.

The reason that one floor was sufficient material for an hour was that the interpreter used each apartment as the setting for telling the story of a family who actually lived there, and then generating a discussion of the family’s conditions in relation to a modern context. She interwove the historical accounts with questions designed to help the audience observe certain characteristics of the apartments and to connect with the families, not only by occupying the space they once inhabited but also by considering the emotions and thought processes that might have accompanied certain events in the history. These questions ranged from “What does the word ‘tenement’ make you think of?” to “What would you do if you were Natalie Gumpertz and your husband disappeared?,” from “How does the 1930s apartment look different from the 1870s apartment?” to “How did your own ancestors get by in the Depression?”

Throughout the tour, the interpreter was clear about what facts the museum did and did not know, even passing around the documents that were the basis for the museum’s research. She encouraged visitors to fill in the gaps between these facts with their own conjectures and experiences, as opposed to fabricating a narrative undifferentiated from fact. It was unclear whether the furnishings and objects in the apartments were original artifacts (although the guide later clarified that many were), and these objects were often not identified or interpreted. The goal of the tour was not to experience individual elements of the apartments, which again were quite small, but to experience each space as a whole. The few objects with which visitors interacted—turning the light switch to experience the hallway in historically-accurate darkness, passing around a sad iron to feel its weight—were used to produce the effect of simulation and help visitors to better relate, even at a corporeal level, to the families whose stories they were hearing.

the Baldizzi kitchen, courtesy of the Tenement Museum

This sense of connection reached a climax when the interpreter paused before leaving the Baldizzi apartment to play for us a bit of oral history from the Baldizzi daughter Josephine, now an older woman. As we stood in the kitchen, Josephine described concrete memories of how her family used that space, while the interpreter subtly directed our attention to the objects to which Josephine was referring—Linit Starch, a gas heater, a set of Chinese checkers. Through these multiple means of interaction, interweaving documented facts, visitor-driven speculation, object-based simulation, oral history, and personal reflection, the Tenement Museum has addressed the challenges of engaging visitors, appealing to universal themes and to both emotions and intellects, and guiding visitors to discover their own sense of the significance of this historic place. In the end, the visitors from Texas, California, Australia, and the native New Yorkers on the tour with me could all relate to the families who had lived in the tenement. The comments that I heard afterward multiple times were “great research” and “great story;” I think that both were key to the Tenement Museum’s interpretation plan.