Some useful resources.
The corner store. The beauty shop. The basketball court. The Grange Hall.
Every town or neighborhood has one or more of these local landmarks, places that play a prominent role in everyday community life. They serve as informal and formal gathering places, economic anchors, or symbols of history and identity. They may or may not resonate beyond their immediate community, but their loss can provoke a deep mourning and, in some cases, real consequences for that community’s well-being.
These places are not typical candidates for historic preservation. While their significance derives from several factors – such as architectural design, location and context, and historic or cultural associations – it is often their long-standing use that is most meaningful. Therein lies the preservation challenge.
There are few tried-and-true strategies for preserving places significant for their long-standing use. The locally-owned economy movement is gaining momentum in protecting community character, using zoning or special ordinances to stop chain store development, or using cooperatives to strengthen independent businesses. There are even fewer options in the historic preservation toolbox. This case study will focus on one that is helping to expand our notions of why long-standing use is significant, and how it affects preservation decisions: National Register Bulletin 38, “Guidelines for Documenting and Evaluating Traditional Cultural Properties.” This case study also will illustrate how particular building types play a role in sustaining community-based uses, and hence the need to incorporate strategies based on typologies into historic preservation practice.
Bohemian Hall & Park, Astoria, Queens, New York
Since its construction in 1910 by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society, Bohemian Hall & Park has been home to several New York City Sokol leagues (traditional gymnastics), a Czech language school, and a range of local clubs, from choral societies to civic groups. In the 1930s the Society added a European-style beer garden and bar, filling a walled courtyard with Linden trees, the national tree of the Czech Republic. Today, Bohemian Hall’s beer garden is the last in the city; its Czech School is the last of its kind here; and its Sokol hall is one of only two remaining in New York City.
While the Czech community of Astoria has dwindled during the past 40 years, Bohemian Hall remains a lively center for Czech culture and is a destination for Czech Americans throughout the metropolitan region. Seven annual events draw hundreds of former residents of New York’s Czech neighborhoods, as well as new immigrants from throughout the region. The Hall’s survival and revival over several generations is connected to patterns of Czech immigration to the United States. Each new wave of immigrants, varying in number, character, and influence has had a desire to socialize with like kind and so has brought new energy to Bohemian Hall.
Equally important to the Hall’s survival and present-day vitality is its use as a hall-for- hire by other ethnic groups. Since the 1950s, Italian, Hungarian, Croatian, South American, Cypriot, and many other groups have held regular communal events here, while a Greek senior center and the Emerald Society of Irish Police Officers are among the local organizations that rely on the hall for meeting space.
Bohemian Hall is a tangible reminder of New York’s Czech enclaves of the early 20th century. Its connection to this past fosters an understanding of how cultural groups assimilate while retaining and reshaping their cultural identity in a new environment. As a symbol of the collective experience of several generations of Czech immigrants, and with most of its early traditions intact, Bohemian Hall demonstrates the role that long-standing use plays in supporting the cultural continuity of one group. The Hall’s spatial elements as a hall-for-hire (with an auditorium, dining hall, and outdoor courtyard) demonstrate the role that architectural form plays in sustaining a range of community activities.
National Register Bulletin 38: “Guidelines for Documenting and Evaluating Traditional Cultural Properties”
In 1999, as part of its Millennium Initiative, New York’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) invited Place Matters to help identify significant “non-traditional” properties in New York City. Bohemian Hall was one of three properties listed on the State and National Registers as a result.
The SHPO found that Bohemian Hall met the Register criteria for significance in the following categories:
- Criterion A: for association for events in the history of Czech and other Slavic immigrants; association with ethnic heritage and social history of New York City; association with history of recreation as home to Sokol organizations for 90 years.
- Criterion C: for embodying the distinctive characteristics of early 20th-century meeting hall design serving social, cultural, and recreational needs; the beer garden is important as the only surviving landscape design of its type in New York City.
- In addition, the property was designated a Traditional Cultural Property under the guidelines of Bulletin 38.
The Traditional Cultural Property designation has both symbolic and practical implications for Bohemian Hall. By acknowledging the activities, customs, and attitudes of the Czech community who own and operate the Hall, listing on the National Register validates their cultural contributions to New York’s history. Bulletin 38’s culturally-based interpretations of significance, integrity and period of significance validate the Hall’s vernacular design and the need for functional alterations common to places of long-standing use.
The precepts of Bulletin 38 bring a wholly new perspective to the National Register standards for assessment. In brief:
- significance derives from “the role the property plays in a community’s historically rooted beliefs, customs and practices”
- integrity can be evaluated within the context of use over time– i.e., when physical alterations have been made in response to functional needs, to accommodate traditional activities, they are not considered to have had a negative impact on the property’s integrity;
- period of significance can extend into the present day (well beyond the usual 50 year cut off date), acknowledging the importance of continuity as well as history
These guidelines allowed the SHPO to evaluate Bohemian Hall’s significance from the perspective of its users – both that community’s historic origins as well as its present-day expression. The guidelines allowed the property’s integrity to be assessed within the framework of continuity of use. For example in the 1970s, the auditorium was altered to better serve the thriving Sokol teams, with the removal of a large proscenium stage which was no longer used by the theatrical and choral societies. And the period of significance was determined to be “1910 to the present,” as the property continues to be central to the traditions and identity of New York’s Czech American community.
Bulletin 38 was written to address issues of preservation related to Native American properties, and has rarely been used to evaluate other types of property. Bohemian Hall’s designation is one of only a few for non-Native American properties in the country. The National Register staff are interested in, albeit cautious about, expanding the use of this tool. So it offers practitioners one way of approaching the preservation of long-standing use.
Interpreting the Story: Mambo to Hip Hop in the South Bronx
Place Matters’ Mambo to Hip Hop project is a good example of how interpreting the story can contribute to public knowledge while supporting historic preservation and cultural conservation. It also demonstrates how local cultural assets can be recovered and used as a resource for instilling pride of place and fostering renewal of the physical environment. While not all U.S. communities may claim the same degree of cultural influence as the South Bronx, most places offer rich stores of cultural assets that simply are waiting to be mined.
The project revolved around the partnership of Place Matters and a South-Bronx based nonprofit, THE POINT Community Development Corporation. The theme was popular music in the South Bronx. Our project evolved over a three year period to tell the story of how multiple generations of predominantly Puerto Rican New Yorkers created artistic expressions that were at once culturally specific yet universally appealing. Focusing on the mambo, salsa, and hip hop generations and the South Bronx neighborhood that has been both celebrated and demonized, the project revealed how creative expression helped foster and sustain community in the Bronx, and when the landscape looked bleakest, served as a resource for strength and community rebuilding. The story, as it was communicated in community conversations, musical events, and publications, captured the historic interplay of people, place, and music that produced internationally significant cultural movements from the late 1940s through the present in one of the world’s least likely places.
The two organizations came to the project via different routes. Pursuing their aims of community empowerment and economic development, THE POINT had begun to consciously revive the musical legacy of the area by holding tribute concerts at their facility to honor legendary local musicians. Place Matters learned about the creative history of the South Bronx from two separate responses to our ongoing cultural resource survey: the Census of Places that Matter. In particular, music historian David Carp led us to interviews and passed on written and visual records. What galvanized our interest in particular was the notable role of place in the story. It seemed to be the critical mass of clubs, dance halls, local bars, candy stores, playgrounds, rooftops, and home party-giving in the neighborhood that helped to stimulate critical bursts of creativity and create a community of supporting fans for the new musical styles. Looking further into the story, we learned about THE POINT and discovered our mutual interests. Place Matters’ goals–to promote and protect the places that connect us to the past and support vital communities–complemented those of THE POINT, and we decided to collaborate.
Place Matters staff conducted almost three-dozen oral history interviews with musicians, dancers, industry figures, and fans. We consulted with humanities scholars, read historical texts, and conducted building research to determine the history of relevant buildings. All this research formed the basis for a variety of projects that aimed to publicize this history and preserve this creative legacy in popular memory. The story emerged as follows.
From the late 1940s through the 1960s the Melrose, Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point areas of the South Bronx were, according to its residents, a hotbed of Latin music. Hundreds of Latino musicians grew up in or moved to this area from East Harlem or directly from Puerto Rico and Cuba. It was a time popularly known as the mambo era. Percussionists, singers and dancers practiced and played in apartments and hometown social clubs, in dance halls and theaters, on rooftops and street corners. Scores of these musicians, including Marcelino Guerra, Vicentico Valdez, Tito Puente, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Manny Oquendo, Barry Rogers, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto, were the creative bridge through which the prevalent Afro Cuban rhythms, music and dance styles such as son, son montuno, mambo and cha-cha-cha, were transformed into a distinct New York Latin music sound that was labeled salsa late in the 1960s. People came from neighborhoods throughout the city to listen and dance to some of the greatest names in Latin music at some of the city’s most elegant venues.
A Latino Bronx took shape after World War II. In the early years the new residents shared space with previously established Jewish, Italian, and Irish enclaves, but by the mid 1950s the area now called the South Bronx was the largest Puerto Rican settlement outside of the Island. The Latino South Bronx grew into a thriving community with social, political, cultural, and economic infrastructures. Existing entertainment venues were adapted by the Puerto Rican community to their own needs and expressive styles. These venues, and a concentrated population of creative people in a small geographic area fostered an explosion of musical creativity and activity that simultaneously nostalgized the past for the migrant generation and forged new directions that proclaimed Nuyoriqueñidad for those raised here and seeking their own cultural voice.
By the start of the 1970s, a deadly combination of factors precipitated the decline of the South Bronx community. The fires that tore through the southern part of the Bronx in the early 1970s ripped it apart. Nonetheless, its legacy remains a deeply rooted part of Latin music history and continues to live in the memory of musicians and audience alike for its unparalleled decades of intense creativity. Moreover, out of the fires emerged a hard-edged urban hip hop rooted in the streets, playgrounds, and burned-out lots of the South Bronx in the early 1970s. During the height of the destruction, Latino and Black teenagers, like the mambo and salsa musicians before them, held parties and jams in schools, basements, parks and playgrounds. Tying their turntables, speakers and amps into lampposts for power, teens gathered to rap, break, spin and scratch records. They reclaimed their spaces and, as their parents and grandparents had done in the 1940s and ‘50s, made the spaces work for them.
Interviewing participants to document the past brought a host of benefits. It uncovered the universe of places that supported the local music scenes. It legitimated the life experiences and creative contributions of many former and current Bronx residents. And it helped us compile a wealth of rich memory material that could be shared with the larger public. In fact, we extended the interviewing process to larger neighborhood public settings to create opportunities for intergenerational panels and audiences. We knew our approach was working when a young, female break dancer, participating in a panel with older musicians, made an emotional statement to the audience about the new connections she was making between her own musical attitudes and aptitudes, and those of her parents’ generation.
In addition to a transcribed series of oral histories, the Mambo to Hip Hop project generated these events and products.
- We held four local community conversations, in which panels of participants in the Bronx music scene shared memories, ideas, and concerns with other community members and the general public. We arranged similar events outside of the community on two other occasions—once at a New York City history conference and once at a prominent Latino cultural institution in Manhattan. Topics for all the programs focused on different aspects of the music history, and most of the events also featured mini-performances. Panel members included practitioners, music industry figures, professional scholars, and—to use a useful term from folklore—community scholars (local experts who have not had academic training). Place Matters recorded each of these events to collect information about the individual places and the ways in which they collectively contributed to the music’s development.
- For the building housing Casa Amadeo, we wrote the nomination for a successful listing to the State and National Registers for Historic Places. Casa Amadeo is the oldest, continuously operating Latin music store in New York City. It opened in the early days of Puerto Rican settlement in the Bronx, survived through the borough’s most devastating years, and continues to serve as a treasure house of Latin music and musical expertise. The Register listing and related press attention has given the enterprise some added political clout, recently facilitating a downward negotiation of rent when a prohibitive increase threatened the store’s existence.
- Using the results from all of our research, we created and published a Mambo to Hip Hop map/brochure. This illustrated map is accompanied by an essay, profiles of places and people, and quotes from the oral histories. It’s the first publication to lay out a Latin music and hip hop heritage trail of key music sites in the South Bronx and East Harlem.
- Inviting the Bronx Tourism Council to join us, we used the research to develop a walking and bus tour of the heritage sites. We created tour scripts and trained local tour guides—one of whom has taken over the operation as a new entrepreneurial enterprise. Our start up efforts attracted the attention of a larger nonprofit that had organized to promote sustainable tourism, so we benefited too from their technical assistance and marketing.
- We presented a reunion concert of musicians who had graduated from the local elementary school PS 52. Not all elementary schools can boast graduates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and legendary musicians Ray Barretto and the Palmieri brothers! PS 52 had these and more; enough, in fact, to send over 25 musicians to the concert stage. The PS 52 All-Stars performed one summer night in the park across from the school. Ray Barretto and other legendary locals showed up. Both sites—the school and the park—were significant to the music history as well as being important community landmarks.
- When our research revealed that one of the music sites—an old theater turned church—was a central location for the development of Spanish-language vaudeville, we decided to recreate an evening at the theater. A Night at Teatro Puerto Rico played for a sell-out audience in the theater at THE POINT. (We unfortunately could not work with the original site.) In a curtain talk before the show, an historian placed theaters like Teatro Puerto Rico in the context of New York’s theatrical history. Then young performers from the neighborhood, along with older performers who actually had played the site, recreated a night of Mexican films, comedy, music, dance, and passionate poetry. Famous cuatro player Yomo Toro performed with his band. One of the most popular emcees at the real Teatro Puerto Rico emceed on our stage. It was a marvelous night. We suspect that nobody who attended will pass by the old theater without remembering its history and role in community life.
All of these efforts generated word of mouth, press attention, and funding. In the end, funding for the above projects came from the New York Foundation, E.H.A. Foundation, American Express Company, National Endowment for the Arts, the Cultural Tourism Initiative of the New York State Council on the Arts and the Arts and Business Council, and Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel.
To explain why so much of the Mambo to Hip Hop project focused on interpretation of the story, rather than on historic preservation or retaining long standing use, it is important to know that much of the 20th century physical infrastructure of the South Bronx was lost to the fires and political and property abandonment of the 1970s. Of the surviving structures that once hosted music and dance—playing a role in cultural movements of international stature—only Casa Amadeo continues the tradition. One would never wish for this kind of historical experience. But what the Mambo to Hip Hop project usefully demonstrates is that historical interpretation can contribute significantly to public knowledge, to the revival of pride of place, and to a community’s positive hold on the future.
Use these questions as desired for interviews about places that matter.
1. About the Interviewee (to understand the interviewee’s relationship to the place)
- Where were you born?
- When did you first begin working/living/spending time in this place?
- What is your association with this place?
2. About the Traditions (to understand how the place is used and note special activities)
- What special events or activities happen here? Have they evolved over time?
3. About the Past (to understand what has happened here)
- Can you tell me some of your favorite stories about this place — either your own, or ones you’ve heard from others?
- What is your most vivid/happy memory of the place? Do you have any sad memories?
- What happened here that was unusual or meaningful? (maybe the place recalls an event, a time period, a way of life from the past?)
- In what way does the place help us better understand the way things have changed over time?
4. About the Place as a Public Space (to understand how the place has fostered public congregation)
- Is this a place where people congregate?
- What ethnic, gender, or age distinctions exist among the people who gather here?
- What attracts people to this place? Why and how often do they come together?
- How does this place enliven public life?
- To what extent do the users of this place share it comfortably? When and where are there (or have there been) conflicts?
- How does the place contribute to the neighborhood’s character? Is it considered a local landmark?
- If it is not currently in use, when and why did it close down? Are there plans to reopen it?
5. About the Physical Features (to understand what the structure can tell us)
- Can you identify any of its architectural features that help to convey the story/ies about the place that make it important?
- What are the physical features that make it comfortable or useful to the people who use it?
- In what ways does its design represent the values of those who built it or now use it?
6. About the Surrounding Neighborhood (to tell us more about how the place fits into its surroundings)
- Who lives near whom here?
- What is/was the ethnic composition of the neighborhood?
- Who owns/owned the stores and businesses?
- In what ways has the neighborhood changed?
- How do/did new and old communities interact? Which streets, street corners, shops, restaurants, bars, cafeterias, churches, union halls, theaters, etc. are/were favorite gathering places?
- How do people identify themselves here? By street, neighborhood, ethnicity, race?
7. Questions to Ask at Every Interview
- What, if anything, currently threatens the site?
- If this place were to disappear, what would be lost?
- What would you miss most about it?
- Are there other people in the area who can give testimony or tell stories about this site?
- Can you direct me to any photos or archives of the site?
Interviewing as a tool for oral history and community-based research
Interviewing is an exciting way to gather information about people, places, and events. An interview is like a conversation, except that the interviewer does most of the listening, and the person being interviewed (the narrator) does most of the talking. Your job as an interviewer is to put the narrator at ease, listen carefully to his or her responses, and ask questions that elicit rich detail and interesting answers and perspectives on the topic you are researching.
What interviews/oral histories can provide:
- Learning about an event, either historical or contemporary, through the eyes and experiences of ordinary people makes the story more compelling.
- Gives us an insight into the perspectives of ordinary people who are often not in our history books, or interviewed in our newspapers or television/radio shows
- Provides accounts of historical events from the perspectives of people who witnessed those events.
- Provide multiple perspectives and reveals attitudes toward events, not just the facts. (What people think influences what they do, so this is important).
- Provides rich material for writing and for artistic expression
- Interviewing helps develop listening, speaking, and writing skills, as well as skills in being interviewed
- Provides interviewers with an opportunity to get to know people they see every day, but with whom they have not had a long conversation, including their own families
- “Oral history is not only about wars and national events, but also about people who struggled to meet the day-to-day challenges wrought by difficult times as well as the joys brought on by realized dreams.” – Homespun
Preparing for the Interview
- Think about the purpose of your interview. Ask yourself, “What do I want to know?” “Who is the best person to interview for the information and perspectives I need?”
- Do background research on the topic before the interview.
- Prepare a set of focused questions from your research and a list of topics to cover. Find out as much as you can about the person you plan to interview. If you are conducting the interview to produce some kind of product (such as essay, radio program, exhibit, visual arts project, song writing, etc.) keep in mind the kind of information you will need as you prepare your questions.
- Talk to the person you plan to interview ahead of time. Briefly describe your topic, why you chose him or her to interview, and how you plan to use the information. Giving the person a few days to think about the topic may result in a richer interview. Reassure the person that you’re not looking for an expert on your topic, but rather for his or her perspective, personal experiences, and memories.
- Test your equipment. If you plan to record the interview, test your equipment before you go to the interview. If your tape recorder uses batteries, always bring a spare set.
Conducting the Interview
Asking Good Questions:
- Two types of questions are essential to a good interview:
- Closed-ended questions get “yes” and “no” or one or two-word responses and help you gather basic information. These questions often begin with the words:
– WHAT (is the name of the town where you were born?)
– WHERE (were you stationed during the war?)
– WHEN (did you family come to the United States?)
– DID (your family enter the United States through Ellis Island?)
- Closed-ended questions get “yes” and “no” or one or two-word responses and help you gather basic information. These questions often begin with the words:
- Open-ended questions give the narrator a chance to talk at length on a topic. Devote more time to open-ended questions, which often begin with the words and phrases:
– TELL ME ABOUT (your experiences working in the mine).
– WHAT WAS IT LIKE (living on the Lower East Side at that time)?
– DESCRIBE (a typical day of work on the farm).
– EXPLAIN (how you shear a sheep).
– HOW (did you feel leaving your family behind?)
– WHY (did you decide to take a job in the factory?)
- Inform your interviewee about the purposes and uses of the interview. Respect their right to refuse to discuss certain subjects.
- Listen carefully to your narrator’s responses and ask follow-up questions to clarify or probe more deeply into a topic or to get more specific and detailed information.
- Avoid asking leading questions. Ask questions that encourage the narrator to answer in a way that reflects the narrator’s thinking, not your thinking. Instead of asking: “Don’t you think it was wrong to close the factory?
-Ask in a way that does not reveal your opinions: “How did you feel about town’s decision to close down the factory?
- Ask the narrator for specific examples and stories to illustrate the points he or she makes.
– If the narrator says, “We used to get in trouble for playing games in the alley,” you could ask, “Could you describe some of the games you played in the alley?” or “Do you remember a time that you got in trouble?”
- Ask for detailed descriptions of people and places and events.
- Use your list of prepared questions as a guide, but be flexible and change the order, ask new questions, or explore different topics that come up during the interview. If the narrator starts to talk about subjects not relevant to your topic, politely move back to the topic with a new question.
- Especially if you plan to publish parts of the interview, ask your interviewee to sign a release giving you permission to use the material.
- Be a good listener. Show that you’re listening by making eye contact, not repeating questions, waiting until the narrator is finished answering before asking another question, and asking good follow-up questions that show you are interested and are paying attention.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Inexperienced interviewers often rush to the next question when there is silence. Give the narrator and yourself time to pause, think, and reflect.
- Think of your interview as having a beginning, middle, and end.
– Before the interview, talk informally to help both you and the narrator relax and feel comfortable talking. Explain your topic and how you plan to use the information (even if you have done this on the phone).
– Begin with easy questions that are not too personal or threatening. This gives the narrator time to get to know you, understand what you want to learn, and decide if he trusts you enough to share personal information.
– Move to more open-ended questions and questions that probe more deeply into your topic and your narrator’s personal experiences.
– When you have finished, ask, “Is there anything you would like to add?
- Thank the narrator before leaving and ask if he or she would mind if you call for additional information after you have had time to look at your notes. Follow up with a thank you note.
After the Interview
- Label the tapes. Unlabeled tapes are easily lost, recorded over, etc. Label tapes with name of interviewee, date, tape number (if more than one used), and other information relevant to your situation.
- For recorded interviews, listen to the recording and make a list of the key topics. In you have time, transcribe the interview, or outline the interview and transcribe only interesting quotes and information that you may want to use in your final project.
- Analyze your notes. Look for evidence of: the narrator’s point of view, thematic connections between different parts of the narrative, interesting quotes, connections between the narrator’s personal story and larger historical narratives.
- Contrast and compare the perspective and experiences of this narrator to others you have interviewed and to written records. This will help you to check for accuracy and also to see how unique or broadly representative this narrator’s experiences and perspectives are.
- Treat the evidence with care. Apply the same standards for citation and use of oral history materials as you would with other types of historical evidence. You have a responsibility not to misrepresent the interviewee’s words or take them out of context.