History

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Tuesday, March 22, 5pm: A lecture celebrating the publication of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City, by Carla Peterson, Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Co-sponsored by the Departments of English, History, and Social and Cultural Analysis, the Program in Archives and Public History, and the Humanities Initiative

 

Location: 20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor. Open to the public.

 

From the publisher: Part detective tale, part social and cultural narrative, Black Gotham is Carla Peterson’s riveting account of her quest to reconstruct the lives of her nineteenth-century ancestors. As she shares their stories and those of their friends, neighbors, and business associates, she illuminates the greater history of African-American elites in New York City.

Black Gotham challenges many of the accepted “truths” about African-American history, including the assumption that the phrase “nineteenth-century black Americans” means enslaved people, that “New York state before the Civil War” refers to a place of freedom, and that a black elite did not exist until the twentieth century. Beginning her story in the 1820s, Peterson focuses on the pupils of the Mulberry Street School, the graduates of which went on to become eminent African-American leaders. She traces their political activities as well as their many achievements in trade, business, and the professions against the backdrop of the expansion of scientific racism, the trauma of the Civil War draft riots, and the rise of Jim Crow.

Told in a vivid, fast-paced style, Black Gotham is an important account of the rarely acknowledged achievements of nineteenth-century African Americans and brings to the forefront a vital yet forgotten part of American history and culture.

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With our spring courses starting up — the Writing New York lecture Cyrus and I have team-taught since 2003 and my honors seminar The Port of New York, which I’ve taught periodically since 2006 — perhaps it makes sense for us to call our students’ attention to our favorite blogs that intersect with the study of New York literature and cultural history.

The blogroll to the right includes all of these resources but also aspires to some degree of comprehensiveness, so forgive me for being a little more particular here. Also, I’m less interested for the purposes of this post in professionally produced resources than in blogs, which we see as producing an extraordinary amount of vital, open-ended writing that aims to interpret and preserve the city and its literary and cultural traditions. For a set of more traditional library-based resources, see Bobst’s suggestions for approaching research on New York. CUNY’s Gotham Center also has a terrific website also worth exploring. And, of course, our own Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York contains essays and reading suggestions that will guide those who have specific literary historical questions or concerns.

What follows is a set of blogs/Twitter feeds we find essential for students of New York history on the ground — material produced by ordinary New Yorkers who are attuned to noticing traces of the past still visible, or perhaps recently vanished. Some are written by academics or professional journalists, but many aren’t. We’d love to think this site aspires to be like some of these when it grows up. We’ve left historical societies and museums off this list, though we encourage you to look those up. You’ll find a longer list of our top 25 NYC Twitter feeds here. And I have a set of links on my personal website that more or less duplicates our blogroll but also includes resources for studying American culture more generally. Have fun exploring our blogroll too, which includes dozens of neighborhood- and news-oriented blogs. Please let us know if you’re aware of sites we’ve overlooked that obviously belong here. The only thing I won’t add are cupcake blogs. Sorry, SatC fans. Just the way it is.

The Bowery Boys — This is, simply, the best NYC history blog out there. They take their name from a nineteenth-century street gang and, later, the stars of film shorts, also known as the Dead End Kids, who typified for many Americans the insouciant attitude to be found on New York’s streets. Daily posts take up a range of topics, often but not always related to current events. Weekly podcasts go into greater depth, take you on the scene. Their archive is a treasure trove of NYC neighborhood/historical resources. Twitter: @boweryboys

Walking Off the Big Apple, a blog written by Villager Teri Tynes, updates the Baudelairean tradition of the flâneur, or city walker. Offering a series of self-guided tours, many with literary orientation, as well as gallery and museum guides, Tynes also takes you through the nooks and crannies of multiple neighborhoods and the ordinary workings of urban life. Travel sites pitch her as a resource, but locals should be checking her every day as well if they already aren’t. Twitter: @TeriTynes

Built Manhattan is a relatively recently launched blog by Michael Daddino, who formerly wrote one of our favorite NYC architecture sites, The Masterpiece Next Door. That project aimed to index Manhattan’s landmarked buildings. Built Manhattan is working its way through the city’s architectural history one year at a time, at least for years that are represented in the standing city. It’s a fun ride so far. Twitter: @epicharmus

Lost City is the Brooklyn-based granddaddy of NYC’s anti-gentrification blogs. Written by the pseudonymous Brooks of Sheffield, a freelance journalist and longtime city dweller with particular affection for old-time eating and drinking establishments. Last summer Brooks rocked the NYC blogosphere by announcing his site’s retirement. Luckily for us it seems to have been only temporary; for now, at least, we still have the opportunity to let Brooks look around and tell us what we may be missing soon, himself included. Twitter: we wish!

Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York works in the same vein, though he’s holed up closer by, in the East Village. Like most prophets, he’s got followers as well as people who reject his message, but that message is clear: recent decades have seen development on such an unprecedented and reckless scale that the very character of our city is in jeopardy. In the process of documenting closings and brushes with redevelopment, Jeremiah Moss (who started on the site as a fictional character created by the anonymous blogger) has done us all an enormous service by preserving an extraordinary amount of information and emotion about parts of the city that have disappeared or may soon be gone, from the Meatpacking District’s leather scene from decades past to Coney Island’s dive bars. We interviewed Jeremiah along with his compadre EV Grieve here. Twitter: @jeremoss

Inside the Apple is the companion blog to Michelle and James Nevius’ clever and handy historical guidebook to the city. The book contains 14 walking tours along with a wealth of key details and quirky anecdotes. The site specializes in the same, calling our attention to important anniversaries and to odds and ends that might otherwise end up in history’s dustbin, such as the fact that when the World Trade Center topped out it screwed up TV receptions in multiple boroughs. Print and web are both important companions. Twitter: @insidetheapple

Ephemeral New York operates on a simple principle: Its writer takes some scrap — a newspaper ad, an old postcard, a fading ad on the side of a building — and extracts a bit of information about the time and place that produced it, perhaps something about the people who were involved as well. The posts are short; the stories stick. She describes her own project as “chronicl[ing] a constantly reinvented city through … artifacts that have been edged into New York’s collective remainder bin.” A consistently delightful and informative blog. Twitter: we can only hope she’ll come around!

Forgotten New York is Kevin Walsh’s companion site to his stellar guide of the same name. His approach and concerns don’t overlap so much with the Nevius’, so don’t be deterred from checking out both books. Walsh does overlap with all of the above, however, in simple acts of noticing: seeing what’s still here that offers us little trails to follow into the city’s past lives. Walsh also leads walking tours of various hidden corners of the city–more information on his site. Twitter: @forgottenNY

Let us know what you think — and what resources, blog-based or otherwise, you find most useful.

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This summer’s New York novels to date — the books, that is, I’ve
consumed on my vacation: Richard Price’s Lush Life, Don DeLillo’s
Falling Man, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and about half of Kevin
Baker’s Dreamland.

All but the last are post-9/11 novels; I’m thinking hard, in
particular, about similarities and differences between DeLillo’s and
O’Neill’s — why the prose is more satisfying in one but the other more
satisfying overall, and what they each do with 9/11.

Delillo_bronx_1207576419.jpg
But reading Baker, finally, has me thinking, too, of fiction and
history, one of DeLillo’s favorite topics (and mine too). I’ll have
more to say about all of the above novels over the next while, but for
now here’s a bit from an essay DeLillo published in the Times Book
Review
back in ’97, around the time Underworld came out. I’m trying to
think about how well his description holds up in a new century, when
poststructuralism has finally started to lose its grip on academic
imagination but when DeLillo’s old ruminations on terrorists and novelists are heralded as prophetic and prescient (even as his new, post-9/11 novels are panned); and I’m trying to think about how well his ideas apply to
fiction — Baker’s, say — that unabashedly takes on the generic label
“historical fiction.”

Fiction does not obey reality even in the most
spare and semidocumentary work. Realistic dialogue is what we have agreed to call certain arrays of spoken
exchange that in fact have little or no connection with the way people speak. There is a deep density of convention
that allows us to accept highly stylized work as true to life. Fiction is true to a thousand things but rarely to clinical
lived experience. Ultimately it obeys the mysterious mandates of the self (the writer’s) and of all the people and
things that have surrounded him all his life and all the styles he has tried out and all the fiction (of other writers)
he has read and not read. At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession,
superstition and awe.

Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history.

. . .

Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s
life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional
re-creation.

Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers
us, paradoxically, from history’s flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that
allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate.

The language of a
novel — E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” say — can be so original and buoyant that it necessarily transforms the past.
The tonal prose creates its own landscape, psychology and patterns of behavior. It is stronger than the
weight-bearing reality of actual people and events. It has a necessary existence, while the source material is
exposed as merely contingent. In “Ragtime,” history and mock history tool along together. They form a kind of
syncopated reality in which diverse human voices ultimately come into conflict with a single uninflected voice, the
monotone of the state, the corporate entity, the product, the assembly line. In this novel, language is a democratic
experiment.

Find the full essay here.
To be continued … maybe when I’ve consumed a few more 9/11 novels, or
at least when I’m ready to come back to Baker’s thoughts on similar
topics, as promised way back when

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