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December 2001

An Integrated City University Responds to the WTC Crisis

Bold, High-Tech TV Magazine Invites "Study with the Best"
NYC Past in Full Array At Inaugural History Festival
CUNY Community Colleges: Vital to City Economy
Arthur Miller Drops Back In for Finley Award at CCNY Dinner
Archaeologists Research Vikings
Faculty Experts Join Collaboration on World Trade Center Future
New Research Foundation Head
Asthma Initiative at BCC Registers Major Success
Oysters Reintroduced to Bay
York Grad Makes Naval History
Managing the 9/11 Crisis at BMCC
Hunter Cartographers Prepare Vital Ground Zero Maps For Rescue
CCNYĺs Rosenberg/Humphrey Interns Continue Public Service Tradition
City Tech Prof Sheds Light on Titanic
New Device for Medical Diagnonis
Mina Rees, Pioneering Military Scientist
Annual Perspectives Nears 25th Anniversary
University to HIV Children: ôToys (and Lots Else) Are Usö
 
 
New York City Past in Full Array
At Inaugural History Festival


Martin Scorsese and Mike Wallace
An amused Martin Scorsese, left, with Gotham Center director Mike Wallace at a screening of parts of his forthcoming film Gangs of New York.
In early October, the Gotham Center for New York City History, which resides in the CUNY Graduate Center, sponsored the first Gotham History Festival. The 10-day affair kicked off with an October 5-7 conference that explored such far-flung topics as Building Sports Stadiums in New York; Breweries, Saloons and Taverns from 1840 to 1930; Gotham˘s Garbage; and Mambo to Salsa: Latin Music in the South Bronx. Following this, myriad panels, performances, walking tours, exhibitions, and screenings took place through October 14, creating what Festival planners called "a citywide jamboree for citizens and tourists alike to celebrate the City˘s magnificent but under-appreciated historical resources." Clio, the muse of history, must have been delighted. During the Festival, Mike Wallace, Pulitzer-winning co-author of Gotham, the book (Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898) and founding director of Gotham, the Center, spoke about some of his personal highlights on Metro Channels TV. Following here, adapted for CUNY Matters, are excerpts from his remarks.

The Gotham History Festival, which we hope to mount every two years, is intended to pull together scholars and museum curators, film-makers and video artists—indeed, history makers in all media—with an eye to the non-scholarly audience, and it seems to be working very nicely. There is a splendid mix of ordinary folks, history buffs, union members, civil rights activists, even some tourists just down from the Empire State Building.

Our desire at the Gotham Center to place a wide range of contemporary issues in historical perspective was, as you can imagine, put to the test by September 11. The city's history never stands still, and the Festival could not afford to either. So we offered two well-attended sessions, one that set the attack in a larger historical context, and one that examined the history of murderous fantasies about destroying the city. Why, for over a century, has Gotham served as a target?

The latter panel, "To Demolish New York: Precursors of September 11 in Fact and Fiction," reminded us that 19th-century novels pictured an apocalyptic heap of 250,000 corpses arrayed in Union Square, or the destruction of the Metropolitan Life Building. Then there were the bombings of Wall Street in 1920. My guess is that this fixation has something to do with our being the center of capitalism.


Other events planned long before took on a new resonance—for example, for obvious reasons, a panel on "The History of the Arab-American Community in New York City." Cultural myths and misconceptions go back a long way in our city; one of the panels, in fact, dealt with the city when it was New Amsterdam and misconceptions about the Dutch. Another panel on the destruction and resurrection of buildings in the South Bronx also became more of-the-moment. Did we think of canceling the Festival? For about a second and a half. Quite apart from the Mayor and the President urging us to return to our lives, I thought the Festival was the perfect opportunity to get away from the TV and connect with other citizens on a subject we so obviously have in common: Gotham. In effect, we wanted to say (borrowing the title of E. B. White˘s now-famous-again book), "here is New York!"

Speaking of attacks on New York, one Festival event offered a documentary, The Brave Man, with a twist that explored one of the greatest crises the city ever experienced—the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776, when the British mounted the largest amphibious assault in the history of warfare. If it had succeeded in trapping George Washington˘s army against the East River, that would have been it for the revolution! Our panel recalled the brave men who held the British off long enough to float over to Manhattan. The documentary begins in the present with an actor playing one of the American generals, and it is set at the location in Brooklyn now—in the middle of the street, with cars whizzing by. Then he is seen in a wig, then an 18th-century military hat, and finally in full battle costume, acting out the battle.

Our venues have been jammed, and this delights me, since I firmly believe that most people do not get their historical knowledge from school, but rather from museums, documentaries, historic sites, from the History Channel. For a long time academic historians did not pay attention to this; it was somehow beneath them. I˘ve always thought it was important for scholars to work with museums and film-makers.

Speaking of which, I was thrilled and delighted that born-and-bred New Yorker Martin Scorsese was generous enough to share with us clips from a film which has not even been completed yet. That is extremely rare. He˘s not only a master cinematographer, he is a historian of New York City. This new film, Gangs of New York is the farthest he has gone back in time, one step farther than his The Age of Innocence (set in 1870s). Now he is offering us New York in the 1850s and '60s. Another extremely interesting panel was "New Perspectives on the Movement for Civil Rights in New York." Say "civil rights movement" and we immediately think of the South and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern schoolhouse steps and buses. But I would argue New York City was very important too, not only in terms of financial support but also activists like Bayard Rustin, who actually connected King with Gandhi˘s movement in India.

In fact, our city was a hotbed of civil rights protest long before the '60s. The civil rights movement here is arguably 150 years old, if you think of the anti-slavery movement largely led by local blacks, Christians and white ministers. Or take the NAACP—it started, after all, right here. Or consider the race riot of 1935 in Harlem, which accelerated the movement and led to significant activity in New York City in the '40s.

Another panel, "Building New Subways in New York," underscored what must be a constant concern for all New Yorkers: infrastructure. Just around the corner is the 100th anniversary of our subway system. It is still amazing to think that the first subway was built in a mere four years, opening for riders in 1904. This panel offered a context for rethinking our transportation system in light of the WTC attack. Do we want to build a Second Avenue subway, for instance, that will connect lower downtown with the south Bronx? Do we want to begin to expand out into the wider region? Do we want to develop the kind of rail/transit system that Paris has, that London has, that almost every great city has, so that we can be less reliant on the automobile?

One other superb Festival event left me feeling bittersweet: "Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: 100 Years of Work in New York City." This exhibition of very powerful images of every-day working people in the communities and at their workplaces reminded us that, up to World War II and even the 1950s, our city was predominantly a blue-collar town. With the massive growth of the professional, corporate, and financial sectors, humbler laborers have receded somewhat from the mental landscape of the city. Not that our blue-collar folks are not here, as the hundreds of victims of the WTC attack—notably firemen and policemen—have shown!

Debra Bernhardt curated the exhibition and wrote the companion book. She was an extraordinary woman and died this spring, at a sadly early age. She was the Director of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, and one of her missions was to put working people back into the civic consciousness—to, as she said, "document the undocumented. We dedicated the conference to Debra.

Finally, I would say that the History Festival—well, history itself—is important because (as historians are duty-bound to point out!) knowing about it can help us prepare for the future. Take the economic depression that is now being touted as imminent in the city. We have had them many times, and if you know that there were depressions in the city (and the rest of the country) not only in the 1970s but also in 1817 and 1837 and 1857 and 1873 and 1894 and 1907 and 1929, you can begin to see there is sine curve built into the workings of a capitalistic economy and that such an economy will routinely behave this way. Then you can begin asking the right questions—not only about how immediate events (the WTC attack, for example) contribute to the problem, but also what deep structural issues have been at work for a long time? Only a knowledge of history can give us a handle on the way the world works, and we hope to be polishing that handle for a long time to come at the Gotham Center.

Now, if that is a bit too "theoretical," I would add that studying New York City history is a way to learn about the ground beneath your feet and get some traction on daily life.

You can get from point A to point B in the city if you know the address and the transit system. But if you just begin to listen to the names on the street signs or subway stations—Rector, Duane, Beekman, Morris, Jay—you begin to recognize they are invoking moments, places, sights, people and events of the past. Knowing this stuff isn˘t vital, but I think that, at the very least, it lends some richness to our everyday life. And New York City's history can be fun. You ask, "Was the Brooklyn Bridge ever really sold?" and I will say it's an apocryphal story. Still, the cliche says something about us—how we revel in the vision of ourselves as hustlers and con artists. We also revel in insults hurled at us. Take "Gotham," for instance. Our nickname came from a little town in England near Nottingham, of Robin Hood fame, that was a proverbial village of idiots in the Middle Ages. Then Washington Irving, snottily putting down New York society, applied Gotham to New York in his Salmagundi Papers early in the 19th century. His intent was malicious, but New Yorkers took to the name Gotham and made it their badge, beginning a tradition of re-inventing ourselves that continues today!