Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Historian Knows, and Walks, About Queens by Isolde Raftery - City Room Blog -

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Jack Eichenbaum leading a walking tour of Astoria in 2007. Mr. Eichenbaum was named the Queens borough historian Tuesday. Photographs by Uli Seit for The New York Times

Before the news conference at Queens Borough Hall on Tuesday, Jack Eichenbaum, the newly minted borough historian, pulled fliers from his backpack and handed them out.

The fliers advertised his walking tours around his native Queens, including one scheduled that evening, from Long Island City to Old Astoria.

Mr. Eichenbaum, 67, a retired city assessor with a Ph.D. in urban geography, beat out six other candidates to join the ranks of official New York historians. He follows Stanley Cogan, the borough’s historian since 1999, who recently stepped down because of health problems.

In 1919, the state of New York passed a law requiring counties, cities, towns and boroughs to appoint historians to office. The positions are unpaid, or, as the Brooklyn historian, Ron Schweiger, said, “Our salary is one dollar less than Mayor Bloomberg’s.” (Not that Mr. Schweiger minds. He is, as one might expect, a bit of a Brooklyn wonk. He has 3,000 slides of historic Brooklyn images, and one-third of his basement has been taken over by Brooklyn Dodgers paraphernalia.)

As for Mr. Eichenbaum, who was born in Flushing and grew up in Bayside, his new title legitimizes a hobby and gives him something else to fill his time.

Mr. Eichenbaum at his new pulpit at Queens Borough Hall on Tuesday.

He said that he hoped to appeal to the younger newcomers to the borough by organizing “rejuvenating tours.”

“There are cheaper apartments, lower-density living — the kinds of things that attracted people here a hundred years ago,” he said. For students of high school age, he intends to organize scavenger hunts.

The job description for borough historians requires that they offer recommendations on preserving records. If documents disappear, it is their duty to track them down. And at the end of every year, they are supposed to prepare a report for the New York State historian that outlines what they have done.

Informal duties include walking tours, of course, making appearances in documentaries and fielding questions from reporters. And, when time affords it, getting together with the four other borough historians to discuss their goings-on.

Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City, said the city was home to hundreds of amateur historians mired in the minutiae of their home. In Queens, for example, there are about 20 historical societies.

“The city is blessed with these people who love their city,” Professor Jackson said. “I suspect there are more of those here than anywhere else in the United States.”

At Queens Borough Hall on Tuesday, Helen M. Marshall, the borough president, praised Mr. Eichenbaum’s passion “for all things Queens” and said she hopes he helps to put Queens on the map.

Ms. Marshall and Mr. Eichenbaum then took questions from the press corps, which consisted of two reporters and a photographer, before meandering down memory lane together.

Ms. Marshall, 80, told Mr. Eichenbaum about her school days when she was on the cheer squad, and about how she met her husband of 60 years. Mr. Eichenbaum, ever the geographer, asked about specific areas where she lived.

“I tell my staff, ‘You see Queens, you see the world,’ ” Ms. Marshall told him. She pointed to the pin he had been given with a similar motto. Then she got up to leave for another engagement — Philippine Independence Day festivities were taking place down the hall — and Mr. Eichenbaum zipped up his backpack. He had a walking tour to guide.