Many people in New York’s history community work every day to affirm, interpret, and present the stories of the distinctiveness of their communities and their histories. Local history is very powerful. “Local history allows many interpretations,” write Carol Kammen and Amy H. Wilson in the introduction to the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Local History (2013). “It is flexible and it is not just national history writ small as some have suggested. Local history is the study of past events, or of people or groups, in a given geographic area – a study based on a wide variety of documentary evidence and placed in a comparative context that should be both regional and national.”
There is considerable recent evidence of the continuing power of place.
Andrew Carroll’s new book, Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History (2013) describes the sites where important, but often forgotten, historical events took place. Carroll researched the events, then traveled across the country to visit the sites. He describes visits with local historians, librarians, and other local residents who told him about what happened at the sites, sometimes confirming their importance, other times confirming that the historical events were all but forgotten.
Carroll recounts a failed plot by Confederate infiltrators to set fires in New York City in November 1864 using a highly flammable phosphorous liquid known as “Greek Fire.” He visited the home of a prominent federal Prohibition agent, Richard “Two Gun” Hart in Homer, Nebraska, and describes Hart’s career, also explaining that Hart had changed his last name as a young man – he was actually the older brother of infamous gangster Al Capone. The book is full of historical surprises. Carroll travelled to Saluda, Virginia, where an African-American woman was jailed in 1944 for refusing to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus, prompting a U.S. Supreme Court desegregation case. This was over a decade before Rosa Parks’ arrest.
The book’s website (http://hereiswhere.org) tells us that sites where important historical events took place are “Everywhere. Unmarked historic sites are in every state and located near, in, or around old buildings, public parks, vacant lots, hotels, places of worship, taverns, apartment complexes, tunnels, cemeteries, restaurants, hospitals, prisons, courthouses, farms, private homes, and countless other places we walk and drive by every day. Some sites are easy to find, while others are hidden from view. But the vast majority are right in front of us, waiting to be found.”
Geographic location is important for many reasons. Researchers at Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley have completed a project they call The Equality of Opportunity Project on inter-generational mobility. One of their key questions is: what are the odds of children in the bottom fifth of the economic spectrum reaching the top fifth? They found a good deal of variation in comparing metropolitan areas across the country. In Atlanta, GA, for instance, the odds are 4.0%, in Buffalo 7.3%, New York City, 9.7%, in Salt Lake City, UT 11.5%. Variation in tax expenditure policies is one partial explanation, they authors say, but more study is needed to determine other factors. A useful summary was provided in a New York Times article on July 22, “In Climbing the Ladder, Location Matters.”
Here in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated attention to region and place, for instance, through the Regional Economic Development Councils and the Path Through History initiative. Announcing the third round of regional economic development grants on May 15, he noted that the regional initiatives have been “transforming our state’s approach to job creating from a traditional Albany top-down model to a community-based, bottom-up process.” On July 15, he announced grants to over 100 communities affected by recent floods to develop comprehensive and innovative rehabilitation plans. These are expected to vary from community to community, depending on local ideas. The initiative guidelines, “New York Rising Community Reconstruction Plans: Planning to Succeed” [pdf] indicate that each plan “should reflect more than just building back what was there before the storm – it should reflect a vision of what the community could be, while improving its resilience to future storms.”
This new initiative may offer opportunities for local historians, for instance:
• Provide information on past natural disasters
• Describe the community’s reactions and the development of government policies in reaction to those events
• Explain why historic houses, historic sites, and historically sensitive areas warrant special attention in any local plan that emerges from this new initiative
• Remind local officials of the role of local historians in providing historical perspective on current public issues
Photo: A public installation by a German artist, Aram Bartholl.