What are you currently working on in the area of public engagement?
I am working on a social and spatial history project called 98 Acres in Albany. Our goal is to digitally reconstruct and repopulate the 98-acre area demolished in the 1960s for the Empire State Plaza and South Mall Arterial. The area was home to 1,150 structures, 3,300 households, 7,000 residents, and 400 businesses. It was one of the largest urban renewal projects in proportion to a city's population.
We are working on two publications. Our main product will be a website that will remap the lost streetscape. We are able to do this thanks to the rich visual documentation that still exists, including photographs of nearly all of the demolished structures. The website will also analyze the demographics and housing statistics of the lost area. Our second publication is a book of photo-essays that tell the stories of residents and business owners whose lives were affected by the demolition of the area. We have an advance contract from SUNY Press for that book.
Preliminary results are at a Wordpress blog, story map, timeline, and sample blocks.
The project team consists of myself, Ann Pfau (PhD historian--full disclosure, we are married), Stacy Sewell (historian, St. Thomas Aquinas College), and Christopher Rees (Research Scientist at Center for Human Services Research, University at Albany).
How did you get involved in this work?
About two years ago, we discovered a set of photographs at the Albany Institute of History and Art. These photographs, taken by property appraisers hired by the State of New York, document nearly all of the buildings demolished for the Empire State Plaza. We realized then that we could digitally reconstruct the streetscape. Subsequent research turned up a remarkable set of photographs at the New York State Archives that delve deeper into the interiors of buildings, often showing people in their homes and businesses. About a year ago, the Times Union generously gave us access to their photo morgue and allowed us to scan about 300 relevant photographs, with permission to publish them. Recently we discovered a microfilmed set of New York State records that thoroughly document the structures demolished, including the names of residents. These records will allow us to repopulate the area and match former residents with their demolished homes.
What is the greatest reward in your publicly engaged work?
Former residents and others affected by the demolition and construction of the Empire State Plaza really want to tell their stories. So it's been rewarding to be able to give them a voice. These are people whom planners and government officials did not take into account when they decided to build the Empire State Plaza. We fully embrace what public historian Michael Frisch famously called a "shared authority," that good public history is about full collaboration between historian and audience.
Another rewarding aspect has been the ability to involve undergraduate students. One example is Jackson Ciavardoni, a student in Susan McCormick's Spring 2015 oral history class. He interviewed the son and daughter of a pharmacist whose business was demolished. That story is here.
This semester, Salah Muhidin, a student in Chris Pastore's class on the history of the Hudson River Valley, is doing a project on the investigative journalism of William Kennedy, reporter turned Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, on the Empire State Plaza and housing conditions in Albany.
What impact has this work had on you? ...on your students? ...on community members?
Since we are at a preliminary stage, our work has not yet had much impact on the community. We hope to foster a more informed conversation about the costs and benefits of urban renewal. Thanks to a recent New York Humanities Council grant, we want to include the voices of African Americans and tenants, groups who have not yet been part of that conversation here in Albany.
What are your future plans for your publicly engaged work?
Specific to this project, we plan to have the digital reconstruction and repopulation of the 98-acre take area complete by the end of 2017, as well as the companion book of photo-essays.
More generally, as a public historian, I would love for this project to serve as the seedbed of a digital and spatial humanities capability at the University at Albany. I'm convinced that these approaches will become more and more important over the next several years, and that we can become a leader in this field. We've had a nationally-recognized Public History program for over thirty years, and we have several faculty who are doing digital projects. A digital humanities center would be a natural extension of our past success and current capabilities.