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NYC Cultural Institutions Preserve Pandemic Memories in Real Time

People talk to each other on the Coney Island Boardwalk in April while following social distancing guidelines.
People talk to each other on the Coney Island Boardwalk in April while following social distancing guidelines.
Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society

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A tribute to a Jackson Heights bike shop, a diary entry from a teenager and a rainbow painted by 4-year-old “Lizzy” are among the items, stories and oral histories being collected by some of New York’s cultural institutions to capture life in the city during the pandemic.

With every day in flux and guidance evolving on how to conduct life, researchers, oral historians and archivists say it’s essential to document snippets of the wide range of experiences New Yorkers are having.

“This is a monument in real time to what we’re going through,” said Meral Agish, a community coordinator with the Queens Public Library’s archiving project Queens Memory, which has been compiling messages and interviews, and publishing them on an interactive map hosted by Urban Archive.

“We are all in this pandemic but the reality is everybody is living a very different experience,” she added. “There is no one life in quarantine…. Historical narrative is always complicated.”

Others said that hearing stories from across the city helps build empathy.

Storm Garner, an independent oral historian and co-author of the Queens Night Market’s forthcoming cookbook, “The World Eats Here,” first began interviewing the market’s vendors last year to document the “the power of this spontaneous super-diverse community.”

She’s pivoted to also record how they’re doing during the pandemic and will submit the results to the Queens Memory project.

“I think it’s incredibly comforting to know someone is going through something similar to you, and enlightening to people who are comfortable right now to understand what people that are less comfortable are going through,” Garner added.

‘A Privilege to Hear’

Efforts to catalog the disparate and rapidly developing effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on communities reach into every borough.

Columbia University is aiming to conduct 200 oral history interviews with New Yorkers from different neighborhoods and industries. The goal is to better comprehend the pandemic and learn how to respond to it, said Amy Starecheski, director of Columbia’s Oral History program and a co-director of the COVID-19 project.

“Our understandings of what’s happening are … constantly being revised and it makes it difficult in any given moment to remember what we thought was happening a month ago or six weeks ago,” Starecheski said.

Many New Yorkers designed and produced homemade masks during the coronavirus outbreak.
Many New Yorkers designed and produced homemade masks during the coronavirus outbreak.
Heidi Nakashima/New York Historical Society

“Looking back, we can remember how our expectations changed over time.”

The conversations help people process what they’re going through, Starecheski noted.

“What they’re dreaming, hoping for, that’s been a real privilege to hear,” she added.

This archive will eventually be stored at the university’s libraries and be accessible to the public.

‘Reflect, Engage and Mourn’

In Brooklyn, both the Brooklyn Public Library and Brooklyn Historical Society are asking borough residents to share their pandemic stories.

The library is focusing on recording stories with members of communities that aren’t traditionally represented in its oral history archive — including frontline workers in industries like health care and hospitality, said Virginia Marshall, a podcasting associate at the library.

So far, they’ve heard from about 50 individuals, including nurses and delivery workers.

“We wanted to capture the moment right now, because Brooklyn is so deeply impacted by COVID-19,” Marshall said, adding that submissions will eventually be stored in the library’s archive and be featured in a forthcoming interactive map.

From photos and videos, to fliers, face masks and other trappings of the pandemic, the Brooklyn Historical Society is fielding all items — both digital and physical — for possible inclusion into its permanent collection.

Since the project’s launch last week, the BHS has received more than 150 submissions — including photos of Ramadan iftar meals, home haircuts and rent strike materials, said Maggie Schreiner, the society’s manager of Archives and Special Collections.

“What we’re trying to do is obviously create a body of material that will allow people in the future to look back at this very difficult and hugely transformative time in Brooklyn and really understand what it was like to live here and how people adapted and coped and took care of each other,” she said.

The material, slated to be published online soon, is intended to promote future scholarship and creativity, as well as act as a “space in the present moment for people to reflect, engage and mourn,” Schreiner added.

Local institutions collecting physical ephemera and objects also include the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society.

Echoes of 9/11

Archivists said that the widespread efforts in New York City to memorialize the pandemic’s impact on daily life underscore that it’s a critical point in history, echoing documentation projects established in the aftermath of 9/11.

After the terror attacks, Columbia University recorded more than 900 hours of interviews with city dwellers, and the New-York Historical Society gathered many of the items that are now exhibited at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

An empty Madison Avenue during the coronavirus epidemic.
An empty Madison Avenue during the coronavirus epidemic.
Stephen Harmon/New York Historical Society

Jan Ramirez, the 9/11 museum’s chief curator, said the collective “instincts of curators” across the city and state were deeply influential in enabling the breadth of the collection, which counts more than 70,000 artifcats.

“Any one curator, any one institution, would have naturally come in with a certain bias or knowledge. It was really the fact that we did it as a consortium,” said Ramirez, who was the museum director of the New-York Historical Society in 2001. “It became stronger because of many eyes on this material, not just one pair.”

Margi Hofer, the current museum director at the New-York Historical Society, said the two events both dealt a “huge jolt to the city and to the country.”

“Where 9/11 was a turning point in many ways, I expect the pandemic will be, too,” Hofer added.

“It will change the way that people interact physically on so many levels, so I think documenting it will help us understand this, the momentous change, down the road.”

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