If you haven’t visited an historic site lately, you may be under the impression that house museums are infused with the smell of mothballs and that historic landscapes have not been tilled or nurtured for generations. But with visionary leaders at the helm, today these sites are being reactivated to enrich communities and at the same time are serving as catalysts for change.
Weeksville Heritage Center
For decades, this unique enclave of 19th century clapboard cottages lay fenced off from the surrounding Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, in New York City. These forgotten houses were the last residential remains of the free African American community of Weeksville—one of the nation’s earliest communities of freed slaves. As the city grew around it, the neighborhood, once teeming with schools, churches, and social organizations, was slowly erased from both the street grid and the public consciousness.
The houses were rediscovered in the 1960s but shortly thereafter were threatened by urban renewal plans for the area, which, at the time, was plagued by intense racial and social tensions. But the Weeksville Society was formed by community members, who ultimately succeeded in preserving the buildings by fighting for and gaining designation as a city landmark district.
In 2005, the Weeksville houses were restored and opened to the public—not as a static house museum complex, but as a cultural institution that encourages visitors to look to the past to envision the future. Today, the Weeksville Heritage Center has a seasonal farmers’ market; six contemporary art exhibitions every year; cultural programs; and music, dance, theater, and literary performances, which represent innovative, contemporary interpretations of African American history. The Weeksville Heritage Center’s Executive Director Pamela Green believes that “in order for an historic site to be relevant, it has to have a role in the community.” And Weeksville has certainly found its place in the community.
Ms. Green believes that one of Weeksville’s important historical stories is how people with few resources were able to improve their lives when they banded together as a community. That lesson of entrepreneurship, self-sufficiency, and creativity is very much felt at Weeksville today through education, the arts, and civic engagement.
Every program—music, dance, drama, oral history projects, and more—is rooted in Weeksville’s history. Musicians from the popular Garden Party Summer Concert series, which draws visitors from all over the city, are asked to give tours of the site before they perform and many incorporate the history of Weeksville into their performances. Weeksville also utilizes its historic assets to benefit the community. Nearly six years ago the organization initiated a program to grow produce on the grounds of the historic site. Today the Farmers’ Market and Sustainable Weeksville programs offer fresh locally grown produce at affordable prices and teach young people about urban farming. Because it promotes healthy food choices, Weeksville is listed as a Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens site—a comprehensive initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and dedicated to solving the problem of childhood obesity.
Like their urban counterparts, rural historic sites are also trying to engage audiences in the past in order to address the needs of today. As might be expected, the needs of these communities are often quite different than those of urban areas. Many historically rural areas are struggling with concerns about losing farmland to development and this is especially true on the east end of Long Island.
Sylvester Manor, a 243-acre historic plantation and farm on Shelter Island, has reinvented itself as a nonprofit educational farm that’s open to the public. The organization’s mission is “to cultivate, preserve, and share these lands, buildings, and stories—inviting new thought about the importance of food, culture and place in our daily lives.”
When Bennett Konesni, the Executive Director of the project and also the 15th generation of his family to live on the property, moved back to the farm in 2007, he wanted to connect its agricultural history with the needs of the community. Mr. Konesni began to organize classes and workshops to help children and adults understand the connection between the land and food. His big vision for Sylvester Manor is for the landscape to be alive with people, connecting them to the agricultural heritage of eastern Long Island. “It’s not about locking something up, but rather it’s about cultivating and sharing.” He believes saving the land from development involves people taking action—and in this case people are taking action by actively cultivating the landscape. He urges people to think about stewardship and preserving and cherishing a sense of place. And for him, one way to accomplish that is to actually be on and of the land—touching, tasting, feeling, smelling, breathing and eating.
Historic houses and their landscapes—whether in urban, suburban, or rural areas—need not be stuck in the past. With innovative programming that both preserves and presents their histories, these sites are again integrated into contemporary life and provide venues for communities to come together.