Oral Histories of the Lower East Side

Part 1: How Neighborhoods Remember

cb3-map-google-search-2This summer, I collaborated with FABnyc on an oral history project focusing on small business owners in the Lower East Side. We focused on the neighborhoods that constitute the catchment of Community Board 3: the East Village, Loisaida, the Lower East Side, most of Chinatown, and Two Bridges (collectively referred to as the Lower East Side here). I set out to speak with small business owners, long-time residents, and community organizers who have witnessed the effects of extensive change in these neighborhood

As a semi-recent transplant to New York, I have become increasingly concerned with recording social memory. I was originally drawn to New York because of its array of diverse neighborhoods. It appeared as though there existed here a reciprocal relationship between space and the formation of identity – the two impact one another continuously. This was exciting to me; it promised an interaction with space I had not yet experienced growing up in a Californian suburb. Although I feel this space-identity relationship is foundational to our city’s cultural fabric, many of the spaces in which this interaction plays out are struggling to be recognized as important and valid cultural establishments. In the face of gentrification (fueled by an increasingly global market, new real-estate interests, and rapidly changing population demands), many neighborhoods are losing some of their most well-loved spaces central to New York’s history.

Small, independently-owned businesses are pivotal spaces in which local identities, key to the cultural fabric of the city, are created as collective social memory is formed, shared, and preserved. However, this remains largely unnoticed. Popular narratives of culture are often driven largely by institutionally recognized people and their stories. Only certain narratives are inscribed in a canonical way and most often these are derived from the perspective of a dominant group with the most social capital. Those with the most social mobility and autonomy are heard and seen most, creating an unequal distribution of perspectives that comprise popular “history.”

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Although I believe many people are aware of the process of gentrification taking place in their neighborhoods, I think there remains a confusion regarding how to confront it. It is crucial, especially for new community members, to understand the pressure they exert upon their neighborhood. Patronizing local business is a direct investment in your community. It both supports the spaces in which subversive histories exist and advocates for the continued place of business owners to live and operate within their communities. It represents a recognition and appreciation of the many benefits local businesses offer their community apart from their advertised trade.

 

icon-poster-1-mollyBonnie Slotnick, who has lived in the Village for forty years and has operated a cookbook store there since 1997, described how she relied on neighbors to help her move in, and then out of, her second retail space, “Somebody who lived in the building on 10th Street was a carpenter and a contractor. He installed them all. 15 years later, I was set to move. He removed them all. He’s the only one who knew where all the screws were because I painted over them. He supervised the move in. He reinstalled them all here.” Relationships such as these are often unseen and unheard but create the sort of communities that preserve New York as a place for more than the select few.

In the forthcoming blog posts you will have an opportunity to read selected transcriptions from the oral histories I have conducted. Many of my conversations have been focused on the experience of operating a small business, what the changes in the neighborhood represent, and what we as community members should do to better protect our neighborhoods from losing people and places integral to our history.

This blogpost is written by former FAB intern Molly Taylor, an NYU student from California, who has worked with FAB numerous times over the years.  

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