Flamingos in NYC: Lower East Side

What do a flock (excuse me, flamboyance) of flamingos look for in a NYC visit? We visited The High Line, the amazing elevated railroad rehabilitated into a public park, which feeds the urban planning interest among us. We also spent time in the Lower East Side, exploring with the Lower East Tenement Museum and on our own.

A good museum isn’t always easy to find, but the Lower East Side Tenement Museum had been on our preservation-visit wish list for years. It did not disappoint! It is not your typical museum. With a baby flamingo & stroller in tow, we were unable to take an interior tour, so fortunately the weather cooperated and we enjoyed an “Outside the Home” tour. With an engaging, knowledgeable guide, the group walked the Lower East Side neighborhood, learning of the history of its residents and buildings. Did you know that a “tenement” is any building with more than three families in it? However, it’s the connotation that most of us know.

Behind this facade is one of the oldest buildings in the lower east side.

Behind this facade is one of the oldest buildings in the lower east side.

The fire escapes are so interesting.

The fire escapes are so interesting.

One of the schools. (The playground is located on the rooftop, if you're wondering.)

One of the schools. (The playground is located on the rooftop, if you’re wondering.)

Looking up in Chinatown.

Looking up in Chinatown.

A former movie theater house was located in the center building. What a beauty!

A former movie theater house was located in the center building. What a beauty!

Our regret was not being able to take additional tours. The tickets for the 90 minute tours are about $20 each, which seems expensive; however, it is worth the money. Let us not forget that museums require money to operate. And it’s an amazing story of the women who found 97 Orchard Street and established the museum for all to learn about the immigrants in this neighborhood.

Speaking of money, the gift shop is one of the best. (Aren’t museum gift shops always greatt?!) We browsed around for a while as we waited for our tour time.  You can buy your tickets ahead of time, or buy them on site, though some of the tours fill – so plan accordingly.

Inside the gift shop/book store. Good stuff.

Inside the gift shop/book store. Good stuff.

After our museum visit, we strolled around the neighborhood and stopped by the Saturday Hester Street Fair for lunch and browsing. Tents were filled with homemade food (ice cream sandwiches, small plates, pie, smoked meat, ice pops, noodles, soup – all sorts of options) and other tents featured homemade jewelry and other crafts.  It was a nice way to pause between our walking and mass-transit adventures.

Hester Street Fair.

Hester Street Fair.

One of the Hester Street Fair finds.

One of the Hester Street Fair finds.

Strolling the LES.

Strolling the LES.

If you are in New York City, plan to spend some time in the Lower East Side. There’s much more than just museums and fairs, and it deserves much more time than we flamingos had to visit.

Lunchtime at the street fair.

Lunchtime at the street fair.

An Audio Tour at the Newport Mansions

There are house museums and then there are the Newport, Rhode Island mansions. No matter what you think of historic houses, house museums, and tours, it is impossible to be unimpressed by the Newport mansions. This is particularly true about The Breakers, the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt and family, the quintessential home of the Gilded Age.

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Recently, a dear preservation friend and fellow UVM alum, Katie gave me a weekend tour of Newport, which included a visit to The Breakers. The tour was an audio tour, a new experience for me. Each guest is given a headset and small audio device. Signs guide you from room to room along with directions narrated on the recording. Each room has a separate audio track. All you have to do is press play when you are in a new room. You can listen and move about the room, and linger until you are ready to move. Supplemental tracks give more information to those interested. Katie and I did our best to press play at the same time. A few times we had to correct the track, but all we had to do was type in the track number.

You know what? The audio tour was excellent. It was clear, informative, interesting and included oral history excerpts. Often in historic preservation we talk about the lack of accurate sounds for historic houses – and audio tours solve that. I loved it. Granted, I could have been entertained with very little in The Breakers, but I am glad to have taken the audio tour.

The Breakers is breathtaking and almost left me speechless. The opulence is evident in every single inch of the mansion from floor to ceiling. They look impressive on the exterior yes, but the interior – my goodness, I cannot do it justice. The lifestyles are fascinating – what a unique period of time and social class in American history, one that will never happen again (the Gilded Age was prior to the income tax). Most of us cannot fathom such a life.

But how grateful we should be to the Newport Preservation Society for preserving and sharing these mansions and this history with us, and for providing us with the opportunity to imagine the life of the Gilded Age.

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By all means, visit the Newport mansions when you are in Rhode Island. And do tell, what do you think of audio tours?

Historic Sites, Modern Dilemmas

The collision of historic sites and the need for modern amenities is certainly not a new topic, yet it remains in relevant discussions about historic preservation and heritage stewardship. I’d like to continue that discussion and hear comments from others.

Where is the line between accommodating present visitors and maintaining the historic atmosphere? How much can you “get away with” on either side of the line, and how much is appropriate? By our American standards, insurance, and regulations, buildings (including historic sites) require up-to-code utilities and parking and accessibility modifications. It is our understanding that these amenities attract visitors, perhaps even those who are not typical historic site goers. At the same time, it is also our subjective opinion that telephone wires, parking lots and 21st century vehicles terribly detract from the setting and feeling of the historic site and landscape. Yet, we cannot have a profitable site without modern amenities. We need them. What do we have here, but a Catch-22 situation?

The question is: how do we enjoy our significant heritage sites while protecting their historic integrity at the same time? It is a very fine line, because change happens in unnoticeable increments. Before long, the site or building could look completely different. A few generations from now, preservation professionals may wonder just what we thought we were doing.

As to successfully integrating historic and modern, is the problem our perception? Maybe when we think of historic and modern, we should be thinking of it as a continuum of time rather than having a distinct boundary. The past connects us to our ancestors; it doesn’t separate us from them. Though, do we like historic sites as a way to step out of the present? Do we often perceive historic sites as removed from the present? So perhaps the problem lies wherein we begin to separate the past and the present too much, which creates that bubble of nostalgia. But, is there a proper way to look at history? If so, who gets to determine the etiquette? Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate methods for presenting history, but how someone considers it is an entirely different subject.

Consider parking lots again, in terms of perception. If you are looking at photographs of a historic site from, say, the 1940s, do you find the cars less obtrusive than those in a picture from 1990 or 2000? Pretend it is an early nineteenth-century historic house. Are you losing the historic feeling with the cars nearby? If not, is that because the 1940s are further removed from us and therefore, more believable as historic? Does 1990 seem like it will ever be historic? Of course it will, but it seems strange to think that, doesn’t it? And if the cars bother you no matter what the decade, why, do you suppose, has no one figured out how to integrate the clashing cultures?

Let’s take a step back. An important distinction, which I’ve yet to make in this post, is between historic properties that are museums and historic properties such as your house on the National Register. Both are significant, but have very different audiences and purposes. Excuse the generalization, but I will simplify the distinction to museums and non-museums.  Museums will exist in their own bubble of history, whereas non-museums must be incorporated into their surroundings.  Thus, there will be more restrictions on museum environments and more give-and-take outside of the non-museum world, of course. Non-museums, those that aren’t public buildings, are not subject to all amenity requirements.

But, distinction aside, how much “interference” of modern amenities is too much and how much is acceptable? Should there be cases in which nothing modern is introduced? And then, do we run the risk of ostracizing our sites because they are not welcoming to present day visitors? Is our view of historic sites entirely an American point of view?

Some more questions for thought: Have you been to historic sites that are sorely lacking in welcoming amenities or sites where the line has been crossed and integrity harmed? Parking lots may be the biggest offenders, but how can we visit sites without them – at least in this autocentric country? How can we train ourselves and each other to see time as more of a continuum, one that blends past and present?

This remains an important topic of discussion because historic preservationists often get accused of preventing progress and disliking change, when really we carefully consider what is appropriate change. Of course we cannot be opposed to progress; that’s ridiculous. Our existence is part of the world’s progress, if you will think so boldly. Preservationists recognize that change without thought is careless and results in a negative quality of life. Thus, we must be alert as to what to protect and what to adapt with the rest of progress. If every site accepts all aspects of modern amenities, how will we know how it used to be?

Your turn: what do you think of the collision between historic sites and modern amenities? Ramble on.

Interpretation and Bias in Public Memory, Part Two

A pair of posts shared by Andrew Deci, which can also be read on his personal website.
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By Andrew Deci

PART TWO

NOTE: The following post is an excerpt/compilation of excerpts from an essay I prepared for class at the University of Mary Washington. The class, “Public Memory” was a senior seminar which explored interpretation of history and how preservation interacts with that interpretation. It was perhaps my favorite class in college. The readings were focused on two books, Sense of History by David Glassberg and New History in an Old Museum by Richard Handler and Eric Gable.

This is the second and final half of my ramblings on bias, interpretation, and public memory in America. See part one here.

Perhaps one of the most controversial of interpretations in recent history has been the display and exhibit related to the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution. It was controversial because it presented a history that many considered to not honor the valor of WWII and the ‘patriotic’ choice of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

As originally planned, the exhibition of the Enola Gay was to present not only the plane itself, but a context of information discussing the reasons that the bomb was going to be dropped; the saving of American lives and resources and the avoidance of a ground conflict in Japan. In addition to this background information, the exhibition was also to present the aftermath of the dropping of the bomb; the incineration of innocent civilians and the new knowledge of nuclear power.

Veterans groups were not happy with the presentation of the aftermath. They saw the decision as being a way for Americans to preserve the American way of life; not as a ‘horrific’ option chosen by a ‘bad people.’ Many of the exhibit designers (the others) wanted to present both sides – exposing the fact that the Enola Gay did more than just end the war, it ended lives. The orthodoxy defined this as being an unpatriotic stance, especially because the Smithsonian is a formal presentation of American history, on behalf of the American government.

In general, the controversies surrounding the exhibition of the Enola Gay revolved around the interpretation of the dropping of the bomb, patriotism, and ‘unpatriotic actions.’ The patriotic orthodoxy ultimately controls the national history and notion of revisionism.

Our national history is controlled in two main forums, the formal academic and cultural centers of our nation, and the informal memories of our own minds. We, as individuals, keep a rolling history of what we have experienced and the stories of the past that we have gotten from past generations (either directly through stories or indirectly as primary source documents).

Often times it is easier for us to remember the good times, the good choices, and forget about the bad times, and the bad choices. The formal, academic preservation of history acknowledges this personal bias and often tries to represent the bad choices and the bad times within our history. A celebratory history is one in which we can revel in the things that we have done well and acknowledge our predecessors as good people. The orthodoxy would certainly present a claim that any intention by an individual or institution to represent the past outside of this narrow framework is unpatriotic and revisionist.

Besides this tight political control on how national history should be remembered, there is friction between ‘normal citizens’ and the ‘cultural elite.’ We, as individuals, may hold disdain for a group of academic elites pressing upon us a way of thinking and a view of our own history.

Until the public realizes that history is not always a wonderful occasion, that new evidence may present past ‘good actions’ as ‘bad actions,’ and that the academic world of history is not trying to apologize for past actions, there will always be tension between a national, celebratory history and a real history.

While discussing the Enola Gay controversy in class, I stumbled on to a comparison that I have grown especially fond of – the museum as newspaper, and bias as editorial control. I like to use this comparison as an easy way of explaining the (often) unknown bias in museums.

Just as newspapers are controlled by a group of individuals that make decisions, have opinions, and present their stories to the public, museums also are controlled by a group of people with ideologies, have opinions and present their exhibits to the public. Exhibits are forums in which a group of people represent a historic time period, theme, or person in order to inform the public. News stories try to teach the public about an event, person, or place that has done something or that is doing something. Editorial control within newspapers and museums are similarly held by a small group of individuals; ultimately final decisions are made by a leader, editor, or curator.

Especially in the last half-decade, political scientists have been examining the role of media in politics and bias in the