Tuesday, June 22, 2010

No, I Am NOT the Borough Historian by Jeffrey A. Kroessler - Historic Districts Council Newsstand

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I applied to be the borough historian of Queens because I thought, oddly enough, that the post should be held by an urban historian. After all, I earned a Ph.D. in urban history, and my dissertation was a history of Queens. I authored the article on the borough in the Encyclopedia of New York State, and rewrote and updated the entry for the second edition of the Encyclopedia of New York City, as well as dozens of other entries about Queens. I wrote the centennial history of the Queens Borough Public Library and co-authored Historic Preservation in Queens. I’ve written quite a bit about Robert Moses and his parks and highways, and my latest book, The Greater New York Sports Chronology, naturally features quite a bit about Queens.

But no, I want to make clear that I am NOT the borough historian.

Jack Eichenbaum is the borough historian. He is an urban geographer, not a historian. He leads interesting and popular walking tours. But as he revealed in a recent interview with the Daily News, he has absolutely no interest in historic preservation, and is sadly misinformed about the role of landmarking in keeping New York a livable city.

Perhaps I am not the borough historian because I am an uncompromising advocate for historic preservation. My wife and I live in the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, and we worked hard to have our neighborhood designated. As a historian, I was well positioned to counter the misinformation put forward by opponents of designation.

I am disturbed that the man appointed the new borough historian wants to take the history out of historic preservation, calling the designation of historic districts a “frozen-in-time” approach. “A lot of historic districts are just so fussy,” he told the Daily News reporter. This statement displays both a profound ignorance of how landmark designation protects a neighborhood and contempt for those residents of the borough who are working toward such designation in places like Addesleigh Park. Such remarks belong to the Donald Manes era, not today.

Sadly, Mr. Eichenbaum is poised to continue the ineffective pattern set by his predecessors, Hank Ludder and Stanley Cogan. During their tenure, stretching from Donald Manes through Claire Shulman to current Borough President Helen Marshall, preservationists could expect precious little help from Borough Hall. Indeed, quite often we encountered outright opposition. I can recall no instance when the Queens borough historian took a proactive – or even a reactive – role in preservation battles. Actually, I can recall no instance when any of the five borough historians took up the cause of preservation.

I fought to save the Aquacade from the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. There was not a peep of support from Stanley Cogan as Claire Shulman had it demolished. In keeping with that tradition, I doubt we will hear anything from our new borough historian about the importance of protecting the 1850s Ridgewood Reservoir, arguably the most important undesignated place in Queens today. I expect he could lead a tour along the terminal moraine through Forest Park to the reservoir, but I cannot imagine him speaking against the Parks Department plan to install playing fields covered with artificial turf where there is now a thriving wetland. It seems it would be enough to point out that where the playing fields are was once Brooklyn’s water system. Oh well.

Mr. Eichenbaum makes clear he will not work to save “just every old building.” We ought to ask, will he fight to save ANY old building? I for one do not think it is enough to point out the site where St. Savior’s used to be, or where the Aquacade once stood, or where Flessel’s once was. In this regard, Borough President Helen Marshall seems to be more in tune with the temper of her constituents. As she told the Daily News, when people see the history in their own neighborhoods, “they don’t want it to be destroyed.” That was the genesis of walking tours, actually, to bring greater awareness of the historic resources around us and feed the movement to preserve them. They were not born to foster antiquarianism.

The New York State Constitution mandates that every county appoint a historian, a post that is both official and symbolic. His is the voice for the historic resources of the borough, and surely that includes the built environment. Silence sends the wrong message. Instead of fighting to preserve historic sites so treasured by the people of Queens, the new borough historian will install a display of old things in Borough Hall. Now that’s a “frozen-in-time” approach.

Jeffrey A. Kroessler is a member of the HDC Board of Directors.