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Listen to This: Crown Heights Oral History collection now open to researchers

By Brett Dion

Posted on December 27, 2016

Titled Listen to This by the donor Alexandra Kelly, this oral history collection includes interview audio and summaries created and collected within the context of a community project undertaken by project director Kelly and Paul J. Robeson High School interns Treverlyn Dehaarte, Ansie Montilus, Monica Parfait, Quanaisha Phillips and Floyya Richardson. These interviewers recorded conversations with forty-three narrators. In addition to the educational experience for the student interns, the oral histories were conducted as life history and community anthropology interviews. Topics of discussion include family and parenting, migration, cultural and racial relations, occupations and business, education and religion, housing and gentrification, civil unrest and reconciliation, and community activism. Since their creation in 2010, the recordings had not been fully processed and have been inaccessible to researchers until now.

Access to Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history collections is now made possible through a generous grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for Voices of Generations: Investigating Brooklyn’s Cultural Identity, a project to digitize, process, catalog, and make accessible nearly 500 interviews from BHS’s earliest oral history collections that document the histories of Brooklyn’s diverse ethnic and cultural communities. With a goal of improved accessibility via thorough description, Oral History Project Archivist Brett Dion assists and supervises an intern team processing the collections, with project management by Oral Historian Zaheer Ali and Managing Director of the Library and Archives Julie I. May.

In January 2010, StoryCorps alum and Crown Heights resident Alex Kelly met with the aforementioned five interns from Paul Robeson High School as placed by the Brooklyn College Community Partnership. Narrators were gathered primarily through contact with the Crow Hill Community Association and recorded in their homes or at LaunchPad, a community center on Franklin Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. New York City Grassroots Media Coalition sponsored the project. A blog tracking the progress of the project was created by the interviewers.



One narrator spoke of her and her husband’s experiences as community activists in Crown Heights as the neighborhood was about to have its public transportation options severely curtailed. As New York City eagerly anticipates the opening of a new subway line on Second Avenue in Manhattan in the new year, after over a half-century of false starts and slow, incremental progress, I am reminded of that late 1970s to mid-1990s period when parts of the subway system were in an operational crisis and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) saw shuttering a shuttle line as a necessary cost-cutting measure. Much as the citizenry and merchants of Second Avenue had to raise their collective voice with regard to subway construction disrupting their daily routine, community groups and institutions in Crown Heights banded together when faced with the potential loss of the Franklin Avenue Shuttle. As narrator Constance Lesold told Alex Kelly in 2010, not only did they convince politicians and the MTA to keep the shuttle open, they also gained improved connectivity to the subway system.

Many other interviews in the collection feature a narrator discussing his or her efforts in community groups and activism, and a few narrators share their recollections of early twentieth century public transit in Brooklyn; when trolleys and elevated railroads were as widely used as the subway. From forty-three archived interviews in Listen to This, nine—including Lesold’s—will be available to researchers through an online Oral History Portal. Thirty-three others can be heard onsite at the Othmer Library. A remaining one is restricted by the donor. Constance Lesold, her husband Helmuth Lesold, and their accomplishments are also documented in the Eastern Parkway Coalition records at BHS (2007.016), a gift from Ms. Lesold in 2007.

In January 2017, BHS will launch the Oral History Portal, an online access website that combines the detailed interview descriptions and the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer player to seamlessly intertwine a descriptive index with the listening experience.  The portal was funded by the New York Community Trust.  For an overview of the Listen to This: Crown Heights Oral History collection and descriptions of narrators and oral history content, please see our guide which is available online via our finding aid portal. Additionally, these interviews are part of the growing Voices of Crown Heights, a multi-year oral history project at BHS. You can also visit the Othmer Library to listen to oral history interviews during research hours Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. [email protected]

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