Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #24
Produced in collaboration with Voices: Journal of New York Folklore
Guest blog by Seth Schonberg, forthcoming in the next issue of Voices.
When City Lore’s archivist, Seth Schonberg, received a request from a woman who believed that we might have a photograph of her mother in our archives, we had no idea of the story that was about to unfold. The image she was looking for depicted her mother working at their family-owned vegetable stall in New York City’s Chinatown, shortly after her parent’s immigration from Hong Kong in the 1970s. This was an unusual request because the image was taken way back in the 1970s, 10 years before City Lore was founded in 1985. But it made sense, because the wonderful photographer, Katrina Thomas, who photographed local traditions in New York back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, generously contributed her “Ethnic USA” photographs to City Lore when she retired. It was also serendipitous because Seth, who began as an archival volunteer and subsequently enrolled in a Library Science Program at Queens College, has become our first dedicated archivist. Seth was present to answer the call, and he described her visit this way.
A Visit to City Lore’s Archives
by Seth Orren Schonberg
This September City Lore, located in Lower Manhattan, had a visitor who told us that she believed we might have a photograph of her mother in our archives. The image she was looking for showed her mother working at their family-owned vegetable stall in New York City’s Chinatown, shortly after her parent’s immigration from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Fortunately, she knew who had taken it.
In the City Lore Archive there are 3 long lateral filing cabinet drawers dedicated to the Ethnic USA Collection of photographs taken by Katrina Thomas (1927-2018) from 1971-1983. Thomas was a Lindsay-era independent photographer who began capturing examples of ethnic life in New York City in 1971. She documented a range of festivals, parades, religious ceremonies, street scenes, family and holiday celebrations, and folk music and dance performances. The collection provides evidence not only of the diversity of neighborhood, ethnic, and immigrant life in the city, but is also an important documentation of the rise of ethnic identification and heritage celebrations that took place across the United States in the 1970s. The communities captured in these images were in the midst of an expansion thanks to the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which inaugurated a new era of immigration from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. Thomas generously contributed the collection to City Lore in 2002 before she retired and we have stewarded it ever since.
However, the collection consists of 5,000 color slides (in addition to a number of prints and many more negatives), approximately 550 of which are dedicated to the Chinatown community. In order to find the photograph in question I needed more information to go off of!
Remarkably, our visitor told us that she had discovered the photograph in question while reading her 3rd grade Social Studies textbook! While sitting in class at Transfiguration Catholic School in the mid-1980s she turned to page 35 of Holt Social Studies: Communities (©1983 Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers) and saw the photograph of her mother. She held onto the textbook this whole time knowing that at some point she would want to find out more. In our visitor’s own words:
“My parents are now in their late 70’s and I am in search for everything to document their amazing journey. Everyone has a great immigration story somewhere in their history. I am fortunate enough to be generationally close enough to this story to have heard first accounts of the myriad of trials and tribulations that bring them too today.”
Our visitor shared with us her family’s journey to New York City:
“Growing up in Communist China on the wrong side of politics, my mom’s side of the family was left starved and persecuted. She found herself swimming from China to Hong Kong to escape and to find ways to feed her starving family back in China. My dad sailed the 7 seas to find the place where he would set roots and make his money. With just $11 and the clothes on his back, he left his coolie job behind on a merchant ship in New York City. Amazingly these two were childhood sweethearts back in China but were only able to communicate through letters throughout their 10 years apart. I have every single one of these letters and have treated them like my precious treasures.”
Since the image in her textbook was credited to Thomas, she found out about the Arsenal Gallery, Central Park, photograph exhibit “Streets In Play: Katrina Thomas, NYC Summer 1968” that ran through this summer. There she was pointed in City Lore’s direction and, after checking our webpage, came to us.
With a photograph of the textbook page in hand, I was able to confirm that we did have that image in our collection and better yet, it was one in a series of 10 of her mother and their vegetable stall on the corner of Mulberry & Canal St. taken in April 1976. We scheduled an appointment and she returned with her elderly mother and father. In City Lore’s gallery space I set up a light table and brought out to the family 3 slide-pages (each page holding 20 slides) for them to peruse.
Looking over the slides through a magnifying glass, the father found photographs of himself working alongside his wife at their vegetable stall, and after a moment the elderly couple, with their daughter’s help translating, were excited to point out to me a photograph of their daughter as a baby, no more than a year old, strapped to their mother’s back! Across another slide-page they found 6 more images of their family working at their stall. It turns out that these additional photographs were from later the same year, in August 1976, and were taken when Katrina Thomas stopped at their stall on her way from photographing the Chinatown Cultural Festival, in Manhattan’s Columbus Park.
Despite the long and dangerous paths that brought this family from China to New York City, the inspiration behind an intrepid photographer’s wandering through Chinatown, the various connections and serendipities that led to a captured moment being shared and rediscovered, and ultimately the location of the photograph here at City Lore, the story is not yet over. Following the family’s visit they asked me to digitize the slides so that they may be printed and hung on the elderly couple’s apartment walls. We were happy to comply and I expect these images will now help share the family history for years to come. I am honored to have played my part in this story and, after all, this is what Archives live for.
BIO: Seth Orren Schonberg is Archivist at City Lore where he helps catalog and preserve the New York City urban quotidian. He has a background in music archiving and exhibit curation, and is currently pursuing his MLS at CUNY Queens College.
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