The history of a community is continually written and rewritten as new people arrive and new stories emerge. We preserve and interpret those buildings and landscapes that we believe are important to us individually and collectively.
In the past, we often focused on sites that addressed specific moments in history, often those commemorating national events. For example, George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, New York, tells the story of the months that Washington spent at the house during the Revolutionary War but gives little mention of what happened at the house either before or after his arrival.
In recent decades, however, there has been a growing awareness of the value of telling a broader, more complete history. This often means giving a voice to those who had previously been marginalized from our consciousness, their important stories overshadowed by a narrow definition of history. In New York City, the Tenement Museum tells the story of several immigrant families who lived on the Lower East Side in the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum helps us to understand that sense of place is about life and events happening over time. And it brings this story into the 21st century by addressing current immigration issues in its programming.
Other institutions and historic sites have reinterpreted their own histories in order to more accurately address the realities of the time and place. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, the stories of the slaves who lived and worked behind the scenes are now told through tours, signage, brochures, and other literature at the site.
While stories from the past are being rewritten, what’s happening to the stories of today? Many voices are still left out of the historic narrative, and cultural activists, historians, and others are working to promote diversity by acknowledging these stories as they unfold. The New York City-based organization Place Matters is in the vanguard for identifying sites that “connect us to the past, host community and cultural traditions, and keep local environments distinctive.” To do this, they launched the Census for Places that Matter which “identifies places of public significance and helps us understand how and why ‘place’ is meaningful to people.”
One example of a place identified by this census is the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Queens. Founded in 1910 and now one of the last original beer gardens in the city, the Hall is run by the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria, whose mission is to preserve and promote the Czech and Slovak heritage in the area. After its recognition, the Hall emerged as a favorite spot for Astoria residents of all types. Another site is the Big Pun Mural in the Bronx, commemorating a Bronx-born Puerto Rican hip-hop artist.
As demographics in communities continue to change, so too do the identities of these places. Today we see a growing Hispanic population on Long Island, a Sri Lankan community on Staten Island, and Indian communities in Jackson Heights and Hicksville. These communities often bring change to a neighborhood but they need not be perceived as replacements of what was there. Places are layered with experience and events. As Place Matters says: places hold memories and anchor traditions for individuals and communities, and help tell the history of the city as a whole.