Myth, Memory, and Place in New York City History

AHA Session 120
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Sutton South (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Dominique Jean-Louis, New-York Historical Society
Freedomland USA: At Play in an Imagined Past
Molly Rosner, LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, LaGuardia Community College
Getting beyond the Buzzwords: A Diverse Borough as It Really Is
Natalie Milbrodt, Queens Public Library

Session Abstract

This panel reflects on the role of memory in the contemporary understanding of place in New York City. It takes as its framework the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s concept of Four Truths, as adapted for historic interpretation by Sites of Conscience. In each of the locations we examine--Freedomland, the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, and Queens itself--the history of these places are shaped simultaneously by multiple, distinct forms of truth: the Forensic Truth--facts and data about the place in question; the Personal Truth--individual memories of residents and visitors; the Social Truth--the aggregation of individual memories to create a dominant narrative or accepted wisdom about a place. Taken together, our papers examine the interplay of these truths and how they have shaped our sites. We also posit how our intervention as historians and interpreters can work to validate and challenge these three truths and work towards establishing the fourth type of truth, Restorative Truth.

Katie Uva examines the long afterlife of New York’s two World’s Fairs, and how they came to be seen as symbols of innocence and optimism in a postfair city. After a period of neglect, from the 1980s onward New York’s fairs were officially memorialized in retrospective events and museum exhibitions, embraced by architecture preservationists, and increasingly used to symbolize the cosmopolitanism of Queens. Politicians from John Catsimatidis to Michael Bloomberg gave speeches at the fairgrounds as a way to position themselves as ambitious and optimistic, as the fairs had been. But what is the impact of the fairs as political symbols? How does an interpretation of these events as innocent and hopeful cast the postfair city as hardened and cynical, and what impact does that have on the contemporary city?

Molly Rosner explores the uses of history at Freedomland, the short-lived American history-themed amusement park in the Bronx. Freedomland was largely a site for entertainment, but in rooting that entertainment in American history, what elisions and omissions occurred? How did Freedomland construct a conflict-free, inevitable-seeming picture of American progress directed toward a Cold War audience? How does that inaccurate interpretation of American history color the memories of people who visited Freedomland as children and continue to remember it fondly today? What are people nostalgic for when they are nostalgic for Freedomland, and what implications does that have for present-day New York?

Natalie Milbrodt shares the contributions of volunteer interviewers working with the Queens Memory Project to document the lived experiences of Queens residents. Queens Memory staff train volunteer interviewers to use questioning and listening skills with interviewees to achieve collaborative results. The aim of the program is in part to challenge the accepted mythology of Queens as a tranquil utopia of linguistic, cultural, economic and religious diversity, by mining for the specific and complicated lived experiences of interview participants. While it is statistically true that Queens is the most diverse borough in New York City, how does oral history complicate that fact?

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