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Session Profile: Learning from the Past 50 Years

Capturing Preservation Narratives to Inspire the Future

The 2016 Statewide Preservation Conference theme is Preservation50: NYS and is all about celebrating our past achievements and planning for the future of historic preservation in New York State. Join us in the Capital Region on May 5-7 as we mark the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.

For over 50 years, New Yorkers have fought to preserve their historic buildings. The stories of these struggles, the lessons and losses, the strategies and innovations, the tactics and triumphs, are the intellectual capital of the preservation movement, with the potential to instruct and inspire future generations of activists.

Denise Brown-Puryear and Deborah Young, cofounders of the Crown Heights North Association, pictured during their oral history interview. Photo by Anthony Bellov.
Denise Brown-Puryear and Deborah Young, cofounders of the Crown Heights North Association, pictured during their oral history interview. Photo by Anthony Bellov.

So often in the preservation movement, the perseverance and leadership of a few key people inspires the hard work and dedication of a whole community. Such actions are often left out of the headlines and unheralded regardless of how they have shaped the physical landscape of neighborhoods around us. Much of the events that compose preservation history are rooted in the memories of individuals rather than published written records.

The New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP) has worked since 1998 to reverse this tide of loss through oral histories that capture these stories in order to craft a nuanced portrait of the field and a better understanding of the past 50 years of preservation.

An archive of oral history records weaves together the learning experiences, advice, and personal motivations of preservationists with their memories of historic sites about what made them unique, beautiful, and meaningful that may not have been documented in any other way. This versatile primary source material can be utilized for myriad purposes from new preservationists seeking wisdom, to historians researching specific sites, to journalists uncovering important perspectives, to policy advisers consulting community concerns.

In this session, NYPAP will discuss how to plan, fund, capture, and share these narratives, with a focus on two new initiatives: one focusing on sites significant to minority communities, and one on preservation’s evolving legal framework.

Saving Preservation Stories: Diversity & The Outer Boroughs
The central focus of this project was to seek out preservation stories that had previously been underrepresented in New York City. Oral history interviews were conducted with leading members of historic preservation actions, who worked to save sites that were significant to minority populations, as well as sites in the four boroughs beyond Manhattan. Many of these sites’ preservation campaigns often go back decades.

Six generations of women in Yvonne Taylor's family have lived in the Coleman-Gray House, the oldest standing house in Sandy Ground, Staten Island. Photo by Leyla Vural. Yvonne is a founding member of the Sandy Ground Historical Society, the nation's longest continuously occupied African American settlement, dating back to 1828.
Six generations of women in Yvonne Taylor’s family have lived in the Coleman-Gray House, the oldest standing house in Sandy Ground, Staten Island. Yvonne is a founding member of the Sandy Ground Historical Society, the nation’s longest continuously occupied African American settlement, dating back to 1828. Photo by Leyla Vural.

“Documenting the unique challenges and innovative solutions of such campaigns is a valuable resource for future preservationists, but also brings to light many unsung heroes of the movement,” said Liz Strong, NYPAP oral history coordinator.

Through the Legal Lens: Interviews with Lawyers Who Shaped NYC’s Landmarks Law
With this project, NYPAP set out to capture the memories of influential legal figures in the evolution of New York City’s Landmarks Law. The New York City Landmarks Law was enacted in 1965 to protect historic sites and neighborhoods from decisions to destroy or fundamentally alter their character. The law also established the creation of a permanent Landmarks Preservation Commission, authorized to designate a building as a landmark, or an area as a historic district.

The Supreme Court Case: Penn Central Transportation co. v. The City of New York in 1978 upheld the Landmark designation of Grand Central Terminal and was a turning point in preservation history. Grand Central Terminal today, in a view from across 42nd Street. Photo by Tony Cenicola, The New York Times.
The Supreme Court Case: Penn Central Transportation Co. v. The City of New York in 1978 upheld the Landmark designation of Grand Central Terminal and was a turning point in preservation history. Grand Central Terminal today, in a view from across 42nd Street. Photo by Tony Cenicola, The New York Times.

“Fifty years later, numerous challenges to landmark legislation have been overcome thanks, in part, to the work of the individuals interviewed in this project,” said Strong. “As lawyers, they defended the administration of the law, argued decisive preservation-related court cases, and worked to secure the legal power that protects the city’s architecture.”

Session Speakers:

Matthew Coody, Executive Director, New York Preservation Archive Project
Matthew Coody is a co-founder of Preservation Greenpoint, a not-for-profit organization that works to protect the historic architecture and character of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He has devoted time working with many New York City preservation organizations, architecture firms, and city agencies, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission and FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. He is vice president of Preservation Alumni and is on the Board of Advisers for the Historic Districts Council. Coody is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and holds a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from Columbia University.

Liz Strong, Oral History Coordinator, New York Preservation Archive Project
Liz Strong is an experienced oral historian who is passionate about helping people and organizations share and document important stories. She has worked for the Columbia Center for Oral History Research, the Washington State Department of Commerce, and others. Strong earned a BA in Narrative Arts from Oberlin College in 2009, and recently completed her Master of Arts in Oral History at Columbia University. As an oral history consultant, Strong is managing the New York Preservation Archive Project’s current initiatives. “Through the Legal Lens: Interviews with Lawyers Who Shaped NYC’s Landmarks Law” and “Saving Preservation Stories: Diversity and the Outer Boroughs.”

 >>If you can’t miss this session, click here to register now!

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Session Profile: Learning from the Past 50 Years

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