Toolkit

The Place Matters Toolkit is a guidebook to help you identify, promote, and protect places that you care about. We expect the Toolkit to evolve as we develop and post new material. Let us know if you have ideas for new topics, or if a topic covered here requires more explanation.

This Toolkit was made possible with support from the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the New York Community Trust.

Place Matters staff also are available to lead workshops and talks in community and classroom settings. Contact Marci Reaven at mreaven@citylore.org.

Introduction

If asked, each of us could probably point to public places in our city that connect us to the past, sustain thriving communities, contribute diversity and distinctiveness to our surroundings, and add to our well being.

But most of us are never asked.

To remedy this in New York City, two groups—City Lore and the Municipal Art Society—created the Place Matters project in 1998. Among other activities, Place Matters conducts the Census of Places that Matter, a ground-up inventory created through interviews, community forums, and via the mail and Internet. New Yorkers have nominated over 650 places to the Census, including the longest running Latin music store, a church built by Irish dock workers, and the city's last surviving historic beer garden.

As the nominations mount, the Census is becoming a knowledge bank about the places New Yorkers care about. But it's also revealing the vulnerability of many of these places to change and destruction—a vulnerability shared by similar places in cities across the country. While there are no sure ways to protect a place, Place Matters has created this Toolkit to help people nationwide to:

When you preserve places that matter, you're protecting our shared history, memories, traditions, and the continuing use of these places into the future.

Good luck!

Defining Your Project

We've prepared this Toolkit for people who are strongly attached to a place. This section will help you identify the causes for that attachment and define for yourself and others why this place matters. Clarifying your interests will help you to pinpoint the most effective actions.

Places are frequently important for more than one reason and to more than one group of people. As you build your case, discover as many of the distinct reasons and stakeholders as you can. Paying attention to the many ways in which a place is valued, or at least perceived, will help you identify fellow supporters for protecting a place, as well as potential opponents.

 

Step 1: Does Your Place Matter?

Does your place have meaning to others, as well as meaning to you?

Plenty of places have private meaning for people; but in our work at Place Matters, we've found that places most likely to attract support for protection are those that also have public meaning. So an important initial question to ask is whether the place that matters to you also matters to others.  

The distinction isn't always clear; a first test is to consider if the place has meaning for anyone outside your immediate family or circle of friends.

If you care deeply about a particular place, the answer to the question of whether it matters as much to others may seem like a self-evident "yes," or even irrelevant. Still, we encourage you to consider this question honestly, and early on. It may save you many frustrating months of effort trying to save a place for which there are no other advocates.

Step 2: Identify Values

Articulating what makes a place significant is a key part of a successful project.

Place plays a critically important role in our lives but space and place are often taken for granted. The eminent geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote that place is "immediately lived rather than deliberately known." The emotions, memories, and sheer everyday-ness bound up in our experience of places can make it difficult to see and articulate what is important about them.

Places are frequently valued for several intertwined reasons that can coexist and complement each other, but also compete and cause conflict. For example, in New York City, as the rising value of church properties persuade authorities to privilege economic values and sell the land, neighbors and congregation members mount vigorous protests. In Queens, the future of a huge open space is contested because some value it for birding and others for ballfields.

Try to identify the reasons that your place is valued, and also identify the people who hold the values—the stakeholders. Doing this early in your effort will help you negotiate and frame the most effective advocacy strategies.

Based on the hundreds of places that have been nominated to our Census of Places that Matter, we have developed a few overarching categories that seem to describe the values people attach to places. You may find our categories useful, or you may develop different language from ours to express your vision about the importance of a place. The essential thing is to know why you care, because that will help you develop a compelling argument on behalf of your place.

Value: History/Memory

Places matter because they are tangible reminders of our past. When something very dramatic has happened on a site, it seems able to call up the past, to transport us to another time. Other places work more subtly; they may not be notable for a single historic event, but in their continuing existence they help us to better understand a time period, a social class, or a way of working, playing, or living. 

Places can be important for historical reasons even if the physical structure has been destroyed, or there never was a structure attached. Think of Civil War battlegrounds throughout the South; although often simply open fields, they carry profound historical and cultural significance. 

The Asch Building and Teatro Puerto Rico are examples of places that matter because of their associations with history and memory.  

Martha Cooper

(Former) Asch Building
Washington & Greene Sts., Greenwich Village, Manhattan

In 1911, the Asch Building was home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and site of the worst factory fire in New York City history. When fire swept through the building that year, 146 young female garment workers died—many of them leaping to their deaths when locked doors and missing fire escapes blocked safe escape. Public outrage swept the city, and while the factory owners received no greater punishment than fines, the event prompted the establishment of the Bureau of Fire Investigation with powers to improve factory safety, and helped spur the continuing organization of the city's workers, particularly within the garment industry. It is now part of New York University and called the Brown Building.

(Former) Teatro Puerto Rico
490 E. 138th St., Mott Haven, The Bronx

In the 1940s, Puerto Ricans began settling in the southern areas of the Bronx, in a sense, extending the borders of El Barrio-—the thriving community across the river in East Harlem—where more than half the city's Puerto Rican population lived. Teatro Puerto Rico was once a boxing arena that attracted Irish and Italian Bronxites. By 1948 it catered to growing numbers of Puerto Rican neighbors with Spanish-language variety shows that featured la música jíbara (country music), comedians, Mexican movies, and popular music stars such as Bobby Capó, La Lupe, Tito Rodríguez, and Tito Puente. The 2700-seat theater closed in the 1970s and is now a church.

Value: Longstanding Use

Places are also valued for the traditions that they harbor and enable, and the activities they host. In New York City, such places include Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank, Staten Island; or Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens.

Even places whose physical presence is unremarkable can foster important traditions. The West 4th St. Courts, aka "The Cage," an outside basketball court in Manhattan, has sub-par courts but is enormously valued because for over thirty years, it has brought together some of the best street basketball players in the city. And while there are still places in the city to hear underground rock, few had the history or down-and-dirty, bare-bone ambiance of the club CBGB on Manhattan's Bowery, which was founded in 1973 and closed in 2006. 

Nathan's Famous is a place of longstanding use to several generations of New Yorkers. As you read about this place, think about the places in your community that may link people together in activities pursued over years or decades.

Nathan's Famous
1302 Surf Ave., Coney Island, Brooklyn

Nathan Handwerker started selling hotdogs from a stand at the corner of Surf and Stillwell in 1916, and in the 1940s the Handwerker family erected the distinctive and beloved establishment that still sells Nathan's hotdogs today. It has been called one of the best-known restaurants in New York City, and writer Calvin Trillin has described the Nathan’s hot dog as “the most quintessential representative of New York.” Its prime location near both the beach and the subway made Nathan's an essential part of every Coney Island visit. "Nathan's hot dogs only taste good you when you eat them at the original Nathan's," claimed one advocate.

Value: Community Enhancement

Some places may not host a specific longstanding use or mark a historical event, but they provide character, enhance the aesthetic beauty of an area, facilitate gatherings by groups, or act as local landmarks. A particularly old tree, a strange looking house, a wall mural, or a corner store where people play dominos: Such a place may have no "function," but community members recognize it as a valuable element of the neighborhood. The brick wall around St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan is not only historic and lovely, but also adds immeasurably to the feel of the neighborhood and provides a convenient backdrop for social gathering.

Sometimes, these places matter because they represent an important service or achievement. Brownstone Books in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn is valued for being the first bookstore to open in the community in decades.

Hua Mei Bird Garden and the Calder Terrazo Sidewalk enhance life for local residents and businesses, and for passersby. Think about the places in your community that may improve local life in tangible or intangible ways. 

Hua Mei Bird Garden
Sara Delano Roosevelt Park at Broome St., Lower East Side, Manhattan

The Hua Mei Bird Club, an informal convocation of Chinese men, gathers here mornings, nearly daily, to share their passion for the exotic fighting thrushes known as Hua Mei. The birds are said to have come into fashion through the tastes of a particular Chinese emperor. Each bird has its own distinct song which changes—or is refined, some owners argue—when exposed to the songs of other birds. The pleasant, rectangular garden was purposely crafted for the Club's use in an inspired burst of community activism in the 1990s.

Calder Terrazo Sidewalk
1014-1018 Madison Ave., Upper East Side, Manhattan

Alexander Calder's terrazzo sidewalk is a unique work by an artist famous for his mobile sculptures. Installed in 1970, the sidewalk is 75 by 15 feet, and is made up of black-and-white parallel and diagonal lines and crescents. According to the nominators, the owners of three adjacent art galleries commissioned Calder to design their shared sidewalk. It is the artist's only sidewalk and his only work in terrazzo. It is installed in a part of town that was the center of avant-garde art before it moved downtown, when there was still a concentration of galleries that represented Calder.

What About the Economic Value of a Place?

You may well find that you must consider the economic value of your place, that is, its value as property. You may believe that its historical value should be weighted more heavily than its potential economic value, or that the historic or aesthetic value ultimately enhances its economic value. But it's unlikely that you can ignore its economic value to others. So, consider this aspect of the value of your place as early as possible in your efforts.

Step 3: Find the People Who Care

A place-based project will work best when backed by those who have an interest in the future of the place.

Who—besides you—may care that a place survives? Reaching out to these stakeholders and learning their varied perspectives on a place may foster surprising alliances, attract additional funds and supporters, and ultimately provide resources and open doors that will help you complete the project more effectively and efficiently.

At the very least, reaching out to others who care about this place will help you to determine where others stand on the key issues. You may discover that you have more allies in protecting it than you thought.

Here are some general suggestions for identifying stakeholders:

1. Identify the groups that use the place, have an interest in the place, or would be affected if the place were lost. In the case of Nathan's Famous, for instance, this might include:

  • The individuals and families that eat there
  • The people who work there
  • The residents and visitors who use it as a visual landmark
  • Historians of New York City
  • Tourism and economic development professionals

2. Try to be as specific as possible when you identify constituents. General categories (business owners, local activists) are less useful than detailed information (e.g., what kinds of businesses? activists for which constituencies and/or issues?). You may learn that the demographics are more varied than you originally knew.

For instance, you may believe that a particular corner store is of importance to the local Latino community, only to discover that its real relevance, more specifically, is to those community members who are from a particular village in Mexico. Or that the teenagers using a particular park are all skateboarders, for example, or students from a local high school.

3. Public spaces, in particular, can host the activities of multiple groups who barely recognize each other's existence. Cast your net widely.

Step 4: Identify Threats and Opportunities

Identify issues that should shape your campaign goals and influence your project timeline

Along with defining why you care and identifying your allies, you'll want to learn about any special threats or opportunities. We focus here on threats because so many protection efforts begin in the face of an immediate threat, such as the demolition of a structure. But it's worth trying to plan for long term viability. Doing so before danger strikes will help you avoid threats and recognize opportunities, such as the chance to obtain ownership of a property, or a grant that will pay for educational materials.

It can be useful to distinguish among three kinds of threats:

Threats to the physical structure or appearance of a place
Think about the physical structure of the place you care about, including the architectural details or design that lend it character. Is the structure under threat of demolition, or is it suffering from age or neglect?

Threats to longstanding uses or to the activities that take place there
Think about the activities that take place on the site. Is this what you most care about? It may be that the activities are threatened even if the physical structure is not. Dwindling community interest, increasing costs of operation, and zoning and legal changes that regulate permitted activities are among the many factors that can affect the continuation of longstanding uses.

Threats to the "meaning" or story of a place
The meaning of a place can be threatened not only by destroying the structure, but also by ruptures in historical memory. Think about the memory or history, that is, the story that the place embodies. Does this place convey a forgotten piece of our past particularly well? Do you care about the place because it's a reminder of past events that have been suppressed, or recounted incorrectly or incompletely? Is it the last place left of its kind?

These types of threats—to structure, use, and story—are often intertwined. Still, sorting threats into these categories can reveal priorities, which may help you if you are confronted with difficult choices. For instance, you may discover that you care as much about an activity that happens at the place, as about the place itself. Moving it to another site and sacrificing the place might be the best or only way to preserve the activity. Although we'll continue in this guide to speak in terms of protecting a place, the suggestions in this Toolkit can also be used in protecting an activity that matters to you and to others.

When considering both threats and opportunities, it's important to consider ownership. Assess how much control you actually have over what happens to the site, and plan your outreach and your project accordingly.

Step 5: Formulate Goals

Clear, written, specific goals for your effort can help you advocate more effectively for your place.

Consider your answers to the questions we have asked you so far. What values, stakeholders, threats and opportunities apply to your place? Based on this information, what do you want to achieve in your campaign for your place?  Writing down a specific, clear goal or set of goals for your efforts will help you form a deliberate plan for achieving them, keep your project on track, and explain and present your case to others for protecting a place that matters.

Often it makes sense to formulate a statement of goals with the help of as many stakeholders as possible, so that everyone's views are accurately represented.

Based on our experience with Place Matters, we suggest that one or more of the following three (sometimes overlapping) goals may provide useful starting points:

1. Preserving the Structure

Projects to preserve a structure focus on the physical aspects of a place, such as the interior and exterior architecture, craftsmanship, design, and decoration. These projects could take the form of securing ownership or financial support to restore or renovate a structure or prevent its demolition; obtaining official historic recognition in order to protect it; or expanding public appreciation of the structure.

2. Retaining Longstanding Use

Projects that retain longstanding use focus on the activities hosted by a place. These could include the "official" uses as well as more informal uses that have evolved over time. Such projects would seek to sustain use by shoring up finances, increasing the numbers of users, promoting the importance of the use, protecting or finding a new site for the use, and so on.

Gaining landmark status for the structure that houses the use is not included here because "use" is generally not a recognized criterion for landmark designation.

3. Interpreting the Story

Projects that interpret the story seek to let the public know what this particular place can tell us about our history. Interpretation is education. Interpretive projects can include: organizing walking tours, public discussions, and celebrations; putting up place markers; writing articles and books; publishing web sites. Some projects prioritize heightening local recognition of a place, while others seek broader recognition through strategies such as gaining landmark designation.

Explaining Your Place

Making a compelling argument for why a place matters will attract supporters and encourage creative thinking about strategies to protect it. This section of the Toolkit aims to help you make your case.

The more information that you can gather about a place, the better you will be able to tell its story, make a case for its importance, and advocate to preserve its use or fabric. Places that matter may have both tangible (physical) and intangible (traditions and stories) features that make them valuable. This part of the guide helps you to investigate the many different ways in which a place can be important.

Step 1: Collect Information

Know why your place is attention-worthy—and be able to show it—by doing research.

To advocate effectively for your place, you'll need to become fluent in explaining why it's interesting and have resources at hand to show it off. All this will involve doing research. You can conduct this research in stages, adding to it as time, resources, and opportunity allow. When researching a place, you're likely to discover layers of its story as experienced, remembered, and told by people, orally and in writing. One of the main ways to understand the importance of your place is to understand how it fits within different periods in history, as well as how it might be connected to larger events.

As you do research, think about all the stories your place can tell—from traditional tales, to popular memories, to histories based on evidence, and more.
 

Starting Your Research

Before talking with others about a place, prepare yourself by using materials found in libraries or on library web sites, elsewhere on the Internet, and in public or private collections, to find accurate, factual information.

Start by noting down what you know and don't know about the place. Your responses will suggest the next research steps to take. Consider these questions:

  • Who: Are there important individuals or significant groups (political, social, ethic, etc.) from the past or in the present that have strong connections to your place?
  • What: What are the uses, activities or events that have happened at your place? These might include one-time happenings like an important speech, or ongoing things like a type of manufacturing, or regular community gatherings.
  • When: When was your place built and/or opened and how long did it continue to be significant? (Significance can continue right up to the present.) What else was happening during this time period that might relate to your place?
  • How: How is your place connected to local, regional or national historic events and/or social, political, and economic movements of its time?
  • Why? Why is or was this place used for these uses, activities, or events?

Helpful resources for this kind of research include historic preservation organizations and local historical societies, as well as libraries. In addition to offering guidance with your research, local historians and librarians can help you assess your information sources carefully for their dependability and veracity (this step can be especially important with information found from informal online sources, but it extends to others as well).

Resource: See the History Matters website for a very helpful feature called "Making Sense of Evidence," http://historymatters.gmu.edu/. The site is worth exploring for other useful material too. 
 

Field Research: Site Visits & Interviews

"Go to the scene" is classic advice for researchers, detectives, and decision-makers of any kind: there are things you can learn about a place or a situation by being there and talking to people that you cannot learn in any other way.

Even if you know your place, purposeful visits to the site are essential. Leave the library, get off the Internet, and go talk to people and visit places personally. Close observations of the place and conversations with people who use it will help you to better describe to others the experience of being there—the look, sound, and feel of the place—as well as all the interesting things that go on there.

Field research involves many activities:

  • Site visits
  • Interviews
  • Recording
  • Creating a visual record, such as sketches, photographs and video
  • Looking through private collections of documents

Below we'll consider some of these steps, based on our experience with field research for the Census of Places that Matter. As you read, you're likely to come up with your own ideas about how to make the most of "going to the scene," so be sure to note them down.

Site Visits

Think of your visit as detective work: you're at the site to observe. Use the site visit to confirm or reconsider your ideas about who is interested in this place, and why they think it matters.

Important steps to take before, during and after a site visit include:

  • Contact the proprietor(s) of the place in advance, if possible.
  • Make a list of things you'd like to observe on your visit; bring it with you to remind you as you explore the site.
  • Take notes on your observations.
  • Record what you see and hear (with still or video cameras, audio recording equipment, etc.).
  • Try to make as many contacts as possible while you're at the place. Don't let shyness stop you from meeting people; you may not get a second chance.
  • Note down the ideas that your visit generates for further research.

What to Look For During Site Visits
The following suggestions for guiding your observations and questions about a place are based on our work with the Census of Places that Matter.

1. Focus on what happens at this place and try to find out why its users value it:

  • Is it related to musical, food, or other cultural traditions?
  • Is it related to an important event, or historical figure or group?
  • Is this where a particular activity originated?
  • If so, does it foster the activity's continuation?
  • Does it play a role in the development of a community or an area?
  • If none of the above, what has happened or is happening here, and why does it matter to the users or to you?

2. Be sure to notice or inquire into human relationships. The value of many places can be found in the social interactions and networks they host. Your observations might deal with questions such as:

  • What social, political, religious, occupational, recreational (or other) groups use the place?
  • Are the uses sequential or concurrent?
  • What do the people who use it have in common? What differences do they have?
  • Does the place welcome people of different backgrounds?
  • Does it exclude people?
  • Are the people who live near the place aware of it; do they value it?
  • Are there tensions, competition, or conflicts connected to the site, and differing perspectives about it?

You may not be able to answer all these questions from observations alone. Follow them up in interviews and conversations.

3. Take time to examine the appearance of the place. Its physical aspects are part of its history (and will be of particular relevance if you're contemplating any kind of landmark designation). Things to note include:

  • The type of structure, e.g., is it a building? What kind? What was it built for?
  • The distinctive physical features of your place—if it's a building, note interior and exterior—especially when you believe these features are connected to the historical events, memories, longstanding use, or other factors that make the place important.
  • The materials used in the interior and exterior.
  • If you recognize the architectural style, note that as well, but because places that matter are often structures of modest architectural distinction, you may not be able to neatly slot your site into a single architectural category using traditional standards.
  • Its current use; uses of this place may have changed over the years.

4. Understanding how a place relates to its surroundings provides another clue to the ways people may value it:

  • Is your place distinct from or well integrated into the neighborhood? Is it visited by locals and outsiders?
  • Does the spatial relationship of your place to its surroundings influence its use or function? For example, a small park standing in the midst of a densely built landscape may be especially meaningful to its neighbors because it's the only park around.
  • If your place hosts gatherings of some kind, who attends and where are they from?

Examining both current and historical maps can help you better understand the relationship of a place to its surroundings, as can observation and interviewing.

5. Stay alert to opportunities to get behind the scenes of a place:

  • Informal or impromptu tours offered during a site visit provide a chance to see things that wouldn't be otherwise visible.
  • Touring the site with a variety of guides may reveal varied insights.
  • Spontaneous conversations with people who happen to be at the site when you're visiting, such as neighbors, customers, people "passing through," or other types of visitors, can result in your collecting useful—and unexpected—information and perspectives.

6. Taking photographs during site visits will help you to more accurately recall the place later on, and see features that may have initially escaped your notice. Think about capturing:

  • Details of unique architectural features.
  • Evidence of how the place is used or was used in the past.
  • Events happening at the site.
  • Portraits of your interviewees.
  • You will especially value these photographs later on, when making public presentations: photos can bring your place to life in a way that words alone cannot. And since the appearance of a place changes over time, your photographs can contribute to the evolving visual record of the place.

Interviews

A big part of field research is conducting interviews; a big part of successful interviewing is finding the right people to talk to. Think broadly when considering whom to interview; you can always narrow your options down later.

Who to Interview
How many interviews to conduct will be a judgment call, based on available resources and time, and your evaluation of how valuable the interviews are for collecting information, as well as for securing community investment in your larger effort. You can always start with a few interviews, and add more as you need to; your initial contacts will lead you to others.

Some questions to consider in identifying good interview subjects include:

  • Who really likes or dislikes the place?
  • Who are the "official" and "unofficial" users?
  • Who are the neighbors?
  • Who has the most contact with the place today? In the past?
  • Who knows something about a theme that's key to a place?
  • Who is this place important to?
  • Who has known this place for the longest time?
  • Who is a good storyteller?

Once you've identified the groups of people who know or care about the place, or in some other way have an important perspective to offer, try to interview representatives from each.

To get multiple perspectives, try for a mix of people of different occupations, ethnic backgrounds, sexes, ages, and classes, who engage with the place in different ways. If a good mix of interviewees doesn't present itself right away, some routes towards meeting such people include:

  • Writing inquiries to newspapers, organizational newsletters, blogs, or online groups/mailing lists ("listservs")
  • Investigating other places connected to your place
  • Attending events related to the place, such as public forums, community celebrations, or heritage tours

How to Conduct a Rewarding Interview
1. Before the interview, develop questions based on what you think the person can tell you about the place:

  • Create questions beginning with phrases such as "tell me about" or "describe to me." Such open-ended questions (rather than questions which elicit yes or no answers) can reveal the most interesting information.
  • If you have already identified some of the reasons people value your place, frame your questions to bring these points up during the conversation.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions whose answers seem obvious—you don't want your own, perhaps mistaken, assumptions to prevent you from capturing the interviewee's thoughts and memories.
    Sample questions might include:
      • What is your association with this place?
      • Tell me about some of your favorite stories about this place—either your own, or ones you've heard from others.
      • What is your most vivid/happy memory of the place? What are your sad memories?
      • Describe how the neighborhood has changed.

    This questionnaire has more sample questions to get you started.

2. During the interview, practice active listening. Interviewing is an exercise in good listening. Take care not to let your passion for the subject distract you from being an interested listener who elicits what the interviewee knows. This is your best contribution to a successful interview.

  • Use your questions as a guide, but stay flexible. You can revise your questions as the interview progresses if the conversation takes an unexpected but interesting turn. If your questions elicit a story or take the conversation in a direction that doesn't seem relevant, be cautious about cutting it off right away. You may be surprised at the connections that develop. You can gently direct the conversation back to your questions when you need to.
  • While some interviewees will need prompting in order to speak, don't worry if silences develop. Sometimes a person just needs time to remember, and letting pauses hang for a bit ensures that you don't accidentally cut off their best comments!
  • Use photos to elicit memories and conversation. Talk with your interviewee about photos you have brought with you, and ask if he or she can show you their photos of the place.
  • If interviewees speak about a photo without identifying it clearly, or do so when your tape recorder is off, either describe it into the tape yourself or make a note to do so later.
  • Be sure to ask your interviewee for research leads, such as other people to interview and books or articles to read. And remember to ask about private collections of photographs or other documents—these informal collections, big or small, can provide some of the most useful information.

3. After the interview, label your discs, tapes, and notes with the date of the interview, the correctly spelled name of the interviewee, and your name.

Evaluating What You've Learned
You're bound to encounter conflicting stories that are difficult to make sense of: whose account is right? But seeming disagreements can be informative: they often reveal divisions based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, and other factors. Also keep in mind that the act of remembering is itself a creative process. People's memories can vary over time for all kinds of interesting reasons. Memories can also evolve to conform to accounts that people have read or heard others tell.

Here are some suggestions for how to work with divergent stories about a place:

  • Compare a verbal account to written documentation or to other verbal accounts. Generally, the more verification from multiple sources you can find, the more likely an account is accurate. That said, use your judgment. You may have uncovered a new perspective or a long overdue correction to the historical record.
  • There may not be a right or wrong account, but rather a range of experiences and memories. Try to put conflicting stories into context by asking yourself some questions:
    • Who are the people giving you the information?
    • What is their relationship to the place?
    • How has the place served or not served them?
    • How do the conflicting experiences and  accounts differ  and what are some possible causes?

    Or, present the memory/story of a particular person in just that way, but remember that it may not represent a verifiable or widely-shared experience.

Resources

Making Sense of Oral History, by Linda Shopes

Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History, by Judith Moyer

A Place-Based Questionnaire, by Jennifer Scott

City Lore Interviewing Guide

Sample Release Agreement

Step 2: Develop Themes

Successfully conveying the larger picture about your place to others is a key step toward convincing them to care about it.

The thinking and research you've already done about who uses or cares about your place, and why they care, will give you a head start connecting your place to larger social and historical themes. You're looking to see how your place fits into broader accounts of the past or present. Identifying these connections will help you make the place compelling to others. Here are some examples of themes for sites listed in the Census of Places that Matter:

  • A former 19th century German-American beer garden
    Potential themes: 19th century immigration patterns; recreation and entertainment activities of the 19th century; the history of the German-American community.
  • An active 20th century African-American church
    Potential themes: churches and the Civil Rights Movement; the role of churches in 20th century African-American communities; African-American migration within the U.S.
  • A movie theatre built in the 1920s
    Potential themes: the development of the movie industry; sprawl and the changing American Main Street.

If you're stumped on coming up with themes for your place, talk with others, such as historians, curators, archivists, and librarians. These professionals can be great resources for ideas and can also point you towards good research materials.

All this said, sometimes places are important just within a local context. If you don't end up finding ties between your place and a larger historical movement or event, don't worry; your theme can be the uniqueness of your place, or its importance to your community.

After evaluating your themes, continue researching until you feel like you can present the relationship between the themes and your place persuasively, in a way that emphasizes the significance of the place. The theme will then become the framework for the compelling story of why your place matters. The next section of this Toolkit explores how to use that story to make the case for protecting it.

Presenting Your Place

Once you collect your stories, and identify and develop your themes, you will want to present them to the public to promote and advocate for your place. The value of a place is rarely so obvious that it can't benefit from vibrant interpretation. Educational products such as exhibits, tours, and films are often said to be "interpretive" because they interpret, or choose, the most significant things to say about a topic.

Below are ideas for presentations that:

In considering these (and other) strategies for making the significance of your place known to a wider public, consider your goals, budget, interests, and the mix of skills, materials and so on that you have to work with.

Step 1: Write a Place Profile

Place profiles are the most direct way to convey to others why your place matters.

A place profile is a document that:

  • Establishes basic facts about a place;
  • Presents a narrative (in the manner of a story) about why the place is important.

A place profile need not be lengthy, or cost a lot to put together. But you do need to write it down. Putting time into its preparation will pay off later, because you'll be ready to present your case as opportunities arise, such as:

  • Inquiries from the press about the place;
  • Offers to create an online resource such as a web page;
  • Requests for nominations of places for public recognition;
  • Publishing brochures, leaflets, posters, and other promotional materials;
  • Submitting it to a newsletter, magazine, or as a "letter to the editor."

Plus, the process of writing down what you know may lead you to discover new connections among events you hadn't recognized before, to understand where holes in the information demand new research, and to compare and consider different accounts.

Guidelines for Writing a Place Profile

A good place profile is a combination of the specific details that make your place interesting, and the larger historical themes that tie it to a particular place and time. If you're having trouble getting started, think about your place from a visitor's point of view.

What are the key things that everybody must know about this place? Also ask yourself how you can enrich the standard account, and what surprises you can offer.

There are particulars that you will want to be attentive to as you create and polish your place profile:

  1. Be accurate and specific, especially when including uncorroborated information.
    The place profile is the baseline for all your subsequent presentations. Errors made here are likely to be repeated. When you cannot verify accuracy but still want to include someone's statement or memory, attribute the statement to the source, presenting it as a personal memory rather than fact:
    YES: "Long-time resident Mary Sack remembers that 'when I first came here in 1937 there was a large brass clock tower."
    NO: "In 1937 there was a large brass clock tower."
     
  2. Connect the physical location to stories and themes that are either broadly interesting, or have a particular relevance to your audience. Convey your interest and excitement about your place by making clear how it figures into the larger themes you have identified.
     
  3. Engage the issues. It's tempting to avoid controversial issues by concentrating on the uncontestable facts about a place and skirting the intense emotion or political passion that may lie just under the surface. Think twice. Consider engaging the conflict directly, perhaps by presenting multiple viewpoints.
     
  4. Include contemporary and historical photographs with your narrative to help people visualize what they're reading.
     
  5. Keep track of your sources as you write. Most people quickly forget the sources they used while writing, but you must be able to easily verify your own work as you make the case for your place (although this information need not appear in the published profile). So, be sure to "footnote" as you write: carefully note the sources for all the information you use by noting titles and publication dates of books or articles and the page number(s) on which the cited information appears, as well as names of interviewees and the date of the interview that produced the cited information.

Resources

Examples of Place Profiles:  Kurdish Library & Museum, Mandolin Brothers, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation

Step 2: Make a Public Presentation

Sharing the fruits of your research in public helps build interest and attract supporters.

You've put a lot of time and energy into researching your place and creating a place profile. Now it's time to convey in public the information you've gathered and prepared. This is a key step in educating others about why your place matters, and advocating for it in the face of threats.

Possibilities for public program formats include:

  • Panels with a mix of academic and community scholars, and people with first-hand testimony to share
  • Public conversations between interviewer and interviewee
  • Conversation combined with a performance (theatrical, musical, etc.) that enhances learning about the topic;
  • Dramatized retelling of events
  • Tour(s) of the site led by "insiders"
  • Any other format you can imagine that suits your audience and your goals

Using the Internet as a Presentation Format

Another way to make a public presentation about your place is to put it online, where people can access it at any time, reference it after you make public presentations, and link to it from their own online materials. The ways to put something online are too numerous to include here. But if you want to do it, and don't already know how to do so, put the word out to other stakeholders who care about the place, and keep your ears open as you meet with different people. Chances are someone with both the skills for putting information online and enthusiasm about your place will appear.

RESOURCES:

Public Program Case Study: "From Mambo to Hip Hop," The South Bronx

Step 3: Secure Public Recognition

Convincing others to give special recognition to your place promotes research, and publicizes its importance.

One strategy for drawing attention to your place is to convince others to single it out for recognition. This public acknowledgement of the importance of a place can generate publicity, which may in turn lead you to uncover new sources of information, as well as new supporters for the place.

There are many ways to secure public recognition of a place. These are a few options, listed in ascending order of complexity:

  • If your place is in New York City, nominate it to the Census of Places that Matter, the citywide survey conducted by Place Matters. You can do this online at www.placematters.net, or mail in the form included in the appendices of this toolkit. Your nomination may attract others to add comments and provide their own information about the place. It also might set in motion follow-up research and promotion by Place Matters.
     
  • Get endorsements by public figures. Consider the public officials, religious authorities, professional organizations, civic groups, and so on that might be interested in your place. Many of them give awards, write proclamations, and do other things that recognize noteworthy efforts. To determine which avenues to endorsements to pursue, review the information you've gathered and note your place's strong points—its architecture, its connection(s) to a particular religious group, significant historical times or events, etc. Then research the possibilities for endorsements, and the steps involved in requesting the endorsement.
     
  • Consider nominating the place for listing on State and National Registers of Historic Places. These are lists of cultural resources worthy of preservation. Register listing brings tax benefits and some measure of protection in the form of extra scrutiny if a site is threatened (called a "Section 106 Review" in the National Historic Preservation Act). It cannot, however, prevent demolition. Register listing is principally valuable in the honor it bestows, by announcing to society at large that a place has been significant in the history of the state and country. When Place Matters helped to get the building that houses Casa Amadeo Record Store in the Bronx on the State and National Registers, it was the first listing that recognized Puerto Rican migration to the mainland U.S.

    For more information about Register listing as a "traditional cultural property," see the next section of the Toolkit: Protecting Your Place, Option 2: Retaining Longstanding Use.

    To find non-profit groups or private consultants who may be able to assist you with a National Register nomination, start by contacting the Neighborhood Preservation Center at 212.228.2781, www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org.

Resources

Nomination to the Census of Places that Matter form

Protecting Your Place

Efforts to protect a place are usually galvanized by a threat or an unexpected opportunity. Typically the tools are few, and the stakes are high. Nevertheless, place advocates have forged some useful strategies, which we discuss below, matching them to the three goals articulated above in Step 5 of Defining Your Project:

These goals are by no means mutually exclusive, but their pursuit can require different strategies.

Remember, all effective advocacy campaigns involve collaborating with stakeholders and communicating to others why your place is important. So you'll want to use the strategies outlined in the previous sections of the Toolkit. Telling the story of your place will help you attract supporters, and communicate effectively with grant-making organizations, elected officials, and government agencies whose policies may affect your place, or who may be able to provide your place with funding or other support. Because collecting and presenting information about a place takes time, it's a good idea to begin the process before your place is threatened.

Option 1: Preserving the Structure

"Human experiences are written onto the environment. We etch our existence into the landscape with our lives. Then we look back to read our lives between the brick and mortar."

Hidden New York: A Guide to Places that Matter, Reaven and Zeitlin (2006)

The impulse to preserve places grows from the desire to preserve meaningful links between the past and present. Because the landscape is physical, and therefore tangible, elements of the built environment keep the past alive in powerful ways. Preservation is as much forward-thinking as it is backward-looking; at heart, it is about what we collectively value.

If you are committed to preserving a physical structure or built landscape feature, then you are likely to mount some type of historic preservation campaign.

  • One form of preservation is purchase and caretaking of historic properties.
  • Another is the use of landmarks laws, which can confer public authority to protect historic properties for posterity. There are three levels of landmark recognition for historic properties: local, state, and federal. While each carries specific types of prestige and benefits, landmark designation by city government often provides the greatest amount of protection for the property.

To learn more about historic preservation in general, and to investigate how landmarking works in your locale, consult local, state, and national experts, and the wealth of existing information in books, pamphlets, and on the Internet. See the Resource section below as a starting point.

Continue reading to consider landmark designation for buildings whose importance lies in embodying an event, era, or memory, rather than in representing a style of architecture.

Special Challenges in Landmarking

In New York City, more landmark designations have been made on the basis of architecture and aesthetics than on broader considerations of history and culture. This is true even though the city's landmarks law is written to embrace the full spectrum of our heritage—of architecture from high design to vernacular; of history in all its complexity; and of culture in its multitude of expressions. Does the landmarks body in your locale tend to privilege aesthetics over other values? Is the place you are trying to protect notable less for its architecture than for association with, say, an event or a social movement? If your answer to both is yes, consider how this will affect your preservation campaign and prepare by taking the following steps.

1. Tell a rich, well-researched history that sets your place within citywide, statewide or national contexts. (Consult the Toolkit section Explaining Your Place)

2. Show evidence of public recognition and broad support for your place. (Consult the Toolkit sections Defining Your Project and Presenting Your Place)

3. Be specific about the architectural dimensions of the history embodied in your place.

  • How does the shape of the building, its materials, or its architectural features convey the history that needs to be remembered?
  • What aspects of the physical structure help us see and understand the aesthetic, historical, or cultural significance of the place?

Point number three—defining the architectural dimensions of the story—is usually where the main hurdles arise. But don't overlook points one and two, because you'll need them to accomplish point three.

One often-expressed concern is how the history is represented in the physicality of the building—in, say, its size, massing, location, styling, or specific features.  This question comes into play pre- and post-designation. Before designation you must prove that the significance of the history can be "read" in the building, thus making the building worth preserving. After designation, public decision-makers must rely on this information to direct their actions in regulating future changes to the building.

It can be tricky to identify the architectural dimensions to a piece of history embodied in and by a building. But the more we try it and test our thinking in public, the better we will get at it. Consider Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, pictured earlier in the Toolkit. Specific features that could be regulated include its signage, its counters, and perhaps most of all, its open-air arcade design. In the unhappy event that Nathan's were to leave its spot at the intersection of Stillwell and Surf avenues, preserving the character of its former structure would sustain cherished memories that extend back generations. Even those who knew little or nothing about Nathan's would still experience its locally distinctive mixture of physical design, light, sea air, and street life: its special "place-ness."

Another common reason for denying landmark status to a building is that it has sustained so much physical change that it no longer looks just as it did during its "period of significance," i.e., the time period being recognized as the reason for preservation. The following two examples demonstrate that buildings can be designated as landmarks for their historical significance despite changes in appearance (also called "loss of integrity") over time.

  • New York City: PS 64/El Bohio
    In New York City, in 2006, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the former PS 64/El Bohío building on Manhattan's Lower East Side as a landmark. The two reasons cited were PS 64/El Bohío's service in the early twentieth century as an important school for immigrants, and its symbolic role as one of the most significant buildings saved by a community preservation movement. This movement took place during the 1970s and 1980s, when neighborhoods throughout New York City were being devastated by private disinvestment and public abandonment.

    When considering PS 64/El Bohío for designation, the Landmarks Preservation Commission knew that the property owner would probably strip architectural detail from the building, allowable by virtue of a prior permit. While attempting to prevent such wanton damage, the Commission decided nonetheless that the loss of this detail would not so compromise the preservation purpose as to make the designation meaningless. The designation was upheld by the New York City Council in a subsequent review.

    See Place Matters' summary of the building's history
     

  • Chicago: The Roberts Temple/Church of God in Christ Building
    In Chicago, in 2006, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks designated the Roberts Temple/Church of God in Christ building for having been the site of a pivotal moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. At Roberts Temple, in 1955, Mamie Till Bradley held an open-casket funeral for her 14-year-old son Emmett Till, who had been kidnapped and killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Ms. Till wanted the world to see what her son's murderers had done to him, to witness the full horror of this racist crime. The response was overwhelming: as the research report about the site stated, "The death and funeral of Emmett Till is one of the three major catalytic events in the nationally-important civil-rights movement in 1954 and 1955; the others being the US Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 and Rosa Park's refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955." (Landmarks Div., Chicago Dept. of Planning & Development, 2005)

    The Commission designated Roberts Temple even though the building's interior and exterior had been extensively remodeled in the half-century since Emmett Till's funeral. The landmarks research report stated, "Despite these changes, the building retains its location, overall design, and historic association with the Emmett Till funeral." The report identified only the "exterior elevations, including rooflines, of the building" as the specific features needing protection. This approach makes the point that it is the continuing existence of the building in a recognizable form that helps us remember this important place and the history it embodies.

Resources

In the Resource section we list useful books and websites.

For additional suggestions specific to New York City, go to the database of the Neighborhood Preservation Center.

 

Option 2: Retaining Longstanding Use

Many places are cherished because they offer a home for ongoing community or cultural traditions. They are gathering points for communities that may be shaped by proximity, interests, occupations, passions, politics, shared heritage, and sexual orientation. Places provide the physical forms for communities to shape themselves around, and communities come to define places.

If you are committed to preserving a type of longstanding use, and by extension the community engaged in that use, consider whether the place is critical to the use and to maintaining the cultural or community traditions you care about. If your answer is no, and your place is threatened, explore the possibility of moving the use. If your answer is yes, then consider how to protect the place and the use at the same time.

Protecting places of longstanding use demands a place-specific combination of strategies that take best possible advantage of the assets, skills, and strengths represented by the place or the pool of advocates. Generally, one needs to rally devoted supporters and search for sources of private and public help. Persistence and a good dose of luck help. See below for a few approaches that are adaptable to many situations.

Secure the Place

The more control exerted over a property—via ownership or legal stipulation—the more likely it is that the property will remain dedicated to the existing use for as long as the user community stays intact.

Landmarking is one way to exert such control. Since uses need places to harbor them, the continuing existence of a hospitable place—achieved via landmark designation or some other intervention—may be enough to sustain a use. However, existing use alone is not generally a reason for landmark designation; in New York City, it cannot factor into designations at all. Since there are many reasons why specific places may never achieve legal protection, consider whether pursuing this strategy will be worth your time and effort.

Get Recognized

While some uses and users prefer to remain outside of the public eye, most benefit from securing public recognition and support. Visibility brings volunteers, foundation grants, larger audiences, increasing admissions, political backing, and other things that contribute to sustaining existing uses. In Presenting Your Place, among other strategies for securing recognition, we included listing to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. What follows directly below is further detail about Register listing as it relates specifically to the issue of retaining longstanding use.

National Register of Historic Places: "Traditional Cultural Property" Listing
One important route to public acknowledgment is listing to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, also discussed in Presenting Your Place. Properties listed to the Register are popularly called landmarks, but it is important to remember that Register listing does not bring with it a high degree of legal protection. Still, if you want to draw attention to your place and build support for a longstanding use, Register listing may be helpful. It brings local and national stature, the possibility of tax benefits, and the promise of government review (even, perhaps, some form of protection) when a Register-listed property will be affected by publicly supported development.

Typically, saying that your place sustains an important longstanding use will not help you get it listed to the National Register. There is an important exception, however.

  • If you can demonstrate that your place is a "traditional cultural property," its history of continuous use may strengthen your case. Quoting from the government guidelines, a traditional cultural property is a place that is "eligible for inclusion in the National Register because of its association with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that (a) are rooted in that community's history, and (b) are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community."
     
  • Even better, if you can adequately make this claim, the history of continuous use of your place won't work against it. Places vital to historical memory and cultural tradition often run afoul of State and National Register approvals because the place has sustained physical changes over time so its appearance no longer seems to represent the history, and because a single use of a property has been so continuous that the authorities don't view it as historical. Meeting the "traditional cultural property" guidelines nullifies both of these objections.

Consider whether your place fits the definition of "traditional cultural property." If so, it may help you prove the signficance of your place and overcome agency concerns about changes to the structure and identification of the historical period being commemorated.

Get Involved

Does your city have some form of community-based governance? Many do. New York City, for example, has 59 community districts, each with a local community board made up of local volunteers appointed by city officials. Participating in community planning gives you access to much more information about threats and opportunities that could affect the future of your place, ranging from substantial public policy decisions about zoning to small decisions about, say, who gets approved for certain commercial licenses. It's also a way to cultivate friends and supporters among influential neighbors and elected representatives.

Reach out to local institutions and groups. There may be new ways for your place to contribute to local life, such as collaborations with local schools, libraries, houses of worship, senior centers, historical societies, and other community-service organizations. Or perhaps your place can offer performance, meeting, study, or other kinds of space to local artists, performers, and social groups. Finding new uses for your place knits it even more intricately into the community, broadening the base of supporters if it becomes threatened. New uses can also bring about opportunities, such as connections to people with useful expertise or influence, as well as potential new revenue in the form of user fees, ticketed events, and more.

Resources

For more information about pursuing recognition from the State and National Register, see www.nps.gov/history/nr/listing.htm. Also, consult with your State Historic Preservation Organization (SHPO).

A well-written bulletin from the National Park Service explains whether your place can be considered a "traditional cultural property." Download "Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties" from www.cr.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb38/.

Case Study: Bohemian Hall

Neighborhood Preservation Center database

Option 3: Interpreting the Story

Earlier sections of the Toolkit discussed the steps involved in learning the story of a place. But informing yourself is only part of any protection campaign. To draw attention to your place, you need to tell others. An educational (sometimes called interpretive) project creates a bridge between the actual place and broader concerns that might otherwise remain hidden or abstract. This bridge enhances the connection between the place and its story.

Committing yourself to interpreting the story of your place is extraordinarily useful to your advocacy efforts, helping you build a case for why a place matters and convincingly present that case to others. Interpreting the story will strengthen campaigns to protect a structure or a longstanding use. In addition, when the place you care about no longer exists, interpreting its story can be a primary aim, a principal recourse for preserving its history and significance.

Educational projects can be oral, written, visual, or experiential. When you offer a guided tour, write down or record a history, make a video, put up plaques, or reproduce photographs for public display, you are engaging in educational work. See Presenting Your Place for suggestions about writing a place profile and making public presentations. These two interpretive strategies are low cost and adaptable to many situations. There are, of course, many other methods. Choosing the right one(s) for your campaign will depend on factors such as the audience you want to reach, what you want to say, the size of your budget and/or resources, and the interests and skills of your fellow stakeholders in the place.

Many of the steps involved in creating educational projects will be done more easily and with more bang for the buck if you can find skilled practitioners among colleagues and supporters of your advocacy campaign. This is another important reason to reach out widely to stakeholders early in your efforts.

Here are two examples to help you think about how to approach educational projects:

From Mambo to Hip Hop in the South Bronx

Place Matters collaborated with The Point Community Development Corporation in the South Bronx to undertake a variety of educational efforts that would tell history of the development of a New York Latin music sound and hip hop in a few neighborhoods in the Bronx. The From Mambo to Hip Hop Case Study is in the Toolkit appendix.

Your Guide to the Lower East Side

Place Matters collaborated with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Lower East Side Preservation Coalition to develop location markers—signs—that would highlight special places in the Lower East Side from the perspectives of community residents. Download the pdf here.

Call the Neighborhood Preservation Center to get references for practitioners of educational projects: (212) 228-2781

Email Place Matters for advice: placematters@citylore.org

Appendices

 Some useful resources.

Case Study: Bohemian Hall

The Significance of Long-Standing Use

The corner store. The beauty shop. The basketball court. The Grange Hall.

Every town or neighborhood has one or more of these local landmarks, places that play a prominent role in everyday community life. They serve as informal and formal gathering places, economic anchors, or symbols of history and identity. They may or may not resonate beyond their immediate community, but their loss can provoke a deep mourning and, in some cases, real consequences for that community’s well-being.

These places are not typical candidates for historic preservation. While their significance derives from several factors – such as architectural design, location and context, and historic or cultural associations – it is often their long-standing use that is most meaningful. Therein lies the preservation challenge.

There are few tried-and-true strategies for preserving places significant for their long-standing use. The locally-owned economy movement is gaining momentum in protecting community character, using zoning or special ordinances to stop chain store development, or using cooperatives to strengthen independent businesses. There are even fewer options in the historic preservation toolbox. This case study will focus on one that is helping to expand our notions of why long-standing use is significant, and how it affects preservation decisions: National Register Bulletin 38, “Guidelines for Documenting and Evaluating Traditional Cultural Properties.” This case study also will illustrate how particular building types play a role in sustaining community-based uses, and hence the need to incorporate strategies based on typologies into historic preservation practice.

Bohemian Hall & Park, Astoria, Queens, New York

Since its construction in 1910 by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society, Bohemian Hall & Park has been home to several New York City Sokol leagues (traditional gymnastics), a Czech language school, and a range of local clubs, from choral societies to civic groups. In the 1930s the Society added a European-style beer garden and bar, filling a walled courtyard with Linden trees, the national tree of the Czech Republic. Today, Bohemian Hall’s beer garden is the last in the city; its Czech School is the last of its kind here; and its Sokol hall is one of only two remaining in New York City.

While the Czech community of Astoria has dwindled during the past 40 years, Bohemian Hall remains a lively center for Czech culture and is a destination for Czech Americans throughout the metropolitan region. Seven annual events draw hundreds of former residents of New York’s Czech neighborhoods, as well as new immigrants from throughout the region. The Hall’s survival and revival over several generations is connected to patterns of Czech immigration to the United States. Each new wave of immigrants, varying in number, character, and influence has had a desire to socialize with like kind and so has brought new energy to Bohemian Hall.

Equally important to the Hall’s survival and present-day vitality is its use as a hall-for- hire by other ethnic groups. Since the 1950s, Italian, Hungarian, Croatian, South American, Cypriot, and many other groups have held regular communal events here, while a Greek senior center and the Emerald Society of Irish Police Officers are among the local organizations that rely on the hall for meeting space.

Bohemian Hall is a tangible reminder of New York’s Czech enclaves of the early 20th century. Its connection to this past fosters an understanding of how cultural groups assimilate while retaining and reshaping their cultural identity in a new environment. As a symbol of the collective experience of several generations of Czech immigrants, and with most of its early traditions intact, Bohemian Hall demonstrates the role that long-standing use plays in supporting the cultural continuity of one group. The Hall’s spatial elements as a hall-for-hire (with an auditorium, dining hall, and outdoor courtyard) demonstrate the role that architectural form plays in sustaining a range of community activities.

National Register Bulletin 38: "Guidelines for Documenting and Evaluating Traditional Cultural Properties"

In 1999, as part of its Millennium Initiative, New York's State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) invited Place Matters to help identify significant “non-traditional” properties in New York City. Bohemian Hall was one of three properties listed on the State and National Registers as a result.

The SHPO found that Bohemian Hall met the Register criteria for significance in the following categories:

  • Criterion A: for association for events in the history of Czech and other Slavic immigrants; association with ethnic heritage and social history of New York City; association with history of recreation as home to Sokol organizations for 90 years.
  • Criterion C: for embodying the distinctive characteristics of early 20th-century meeting hall design serving social, cultural, and recreational needs; the beer garden is important as the only surviving landscape design of its type in New York City.
  • In addition, the property was designated a Traditional Cultural Property under the guidelines of Bulletin 38.

The Traditional Cultural Property designation has both symbolic and practical implications for Bohemian Hall. By acknowledging the activities, customs, and attitudes of the Czech community who own and operate the Hall, listing on the National Register validates their cultural contributions to New York’s history. Bulletin 38’s culturally-based interpretations of significance, integrity and period of significance validate the Hall’s vernacular design and the need for functional alterations common to places of long-standing use.

The precepts of Bulletin 38 bring a wholly new perspective to the National Register standards for assessment. In brief:

  • significance derives from "the role the property plays in a community's historically rooted beliefs, customs and practices"
  • integrity can be evaluated within the context of use over time-- i.e., when physical alterations have been made in response to functional needs, to accommodate traditional activities, they are not considered to have had a negative impact on the property’s integrity;
  • period of significance can extend into the present day (well beyond the usual 50 year cut off date), acknowledging the importance of continuity as well as history

These guidelines allowed the SHPO to evaluate Bohemian Hall’s significance from the perspective of its users – both that community’s historic origins as well as its present-day expression. The guidelines allowed the property’s integrity to be assessed within the framework of continuity of use. For example in the 1970s, the auditorium was altered to better serve the thriving Sokol teams, with the removal of a large proscenium stage which was no longer used by the theatrical and choral societies. And the period of significance was determined to be “1910 to the present,” as the property continues to be central to the traditions and identity of New York’s Czech American community.

Bulletin 38 was written to address issues of preservation related to Native American properties, and has rarely been used to evaluate other types of property. Bohemian Hall’s designation is one of only a few for non-Native American properties in the country. The National Register staff are interested in, albeit cautious about, expanding the use of this tool. So it offers practitioners one way of approaching the preservation of long-standing use.

Case Study: South Bronx

Interpreting the Story: Mambo to Hip Hop in the South Bronx

Place Matters’ Mambo to Hip Hop project is a good example of how interpreting the story can contribute to public knowledge while supporting historic preservation and cultural conservation. It also demonstrates how local cultural assets can be recovered and used as a resource for instilling pride of place and fostering renewal of the physical environment. While not all U.S. communities may claim the same degree of cultural influence as the South Bronx, most places offer rich stores of cultural assets that simply are waiting to be mined.

The project revolved around the partnership of Place Matters and a South-Bronx based nonprofit, THE POINT Community Development Corporation. The theme was popular music in the South Bronx. Our project evolved over a three year period to tell the story of how multiple generations of predominantly Puerto Rican New Yorkers created artistic expressions that were at once culturally specific yet universally appealing. Focusing on the mambo, salsa, and hip hop generations and the South Bronx neighborhood that has been both celebrated and demonized, the project revealed how creative expression helped foster and sustain community in the Bronx, and when the landscape looked bleakest, served as a resource for strength and community rebuilding. The story, as it was communicated in community conversations, musical events, and publications, captured the historic interplay of people, place, and music that produced internationally significant cultural movements from the late 1940s through the present in one of the world’s least likely places.

The two organizations came to the project via different routes. Pursuing their aims of community empowerment and economic development, THE POINT had begun to consciously revive the musical legacy of the area by holding tribute concerts at their facility to honor legendary local musicians. Place Matters learned about the creative history of the South Bronx from two separate responses to our ongoing cultural resource survey: the Census of Places that Matter. In particular, music historian David Carp led us to interviews and passed on written and visual records. What galvanized our interest in particular was the notable role of place in the story. It seemed to be the critical mass of clubs, dance halls, local bars, candy stores, playgrounds, rooftops, and home party-giving in the neighborhood that helped to stimulate critical bursts of creativity and create a community of supporting fans for the new musical styles. Looking further into the story, we learned about THE POINT and discovered our mutual interests. Place Matters’ goals--to promote and protect the places that connect us to the past and support vital communities--complemented those of THE POINT, and we decided to collaborate.

Place Matters staff conducted almost three-dozen oral history interviews with musicians, dancers, industry figures, and fans. We consulted with humanities scholars, read historical texts, and conducted building research to determine the history of relevant buildings. All this research formed the basis for a variety of projects that aimed to publicize this history and preserve this creative legacy in popular memory. The story emerged as follows.

From the late 1940s through the 1960s the Melrose, Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point areas of the South Bronx were, according to its residents, a hotbed of Latin music. Hundreds of Latino musicians grew up in or moved to this area from East Harlem or directly from Puerto Rico and Cuba. It was a time popularly known as the mambo era. Percussionists, singers and dancers practiced and played in apartments and hometown social clubs, in dance halls and theaters, on rooftops and street corners. Scores of these musicians, including Marcelino Guerra, Vicentico Valdez, Tito Puente, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Manny Oquendo, Barry Rogers, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto, were the creative bridge through which the prevalent Afro Cuban rhythms, music and dance styles such as son, son montuno, mambo and cha-cha-cha, were transformed into a distinct New York Latin music sound that was labeled salsa late in the 1960s. People came from neighborhoods throughout the city to listen and dance to some of the greatest names in Latin music at some of the city’s most elegant venues.

A Latino Bronx took shape after World War II. In the early years the new residents shared space with previously established Jewish, Italian, and Irish enclaves, but by the mid 1950s the area now called the South Bronx was the largest Puerto Rican settlement outside of the Island. The Latino South Bronx grew into a thriving community with social, political, cultural, and economic infrastructures. Existing entertainment venues were adapted by the Puerto Rican community to their own needs and expressive styles. These venues, and a concentrated population of creative people in a small geographic area fostered an explosion of musical creativity and activity that simultaneously nostalgized the past for the migrant generation and forged new directions that proclaimed Nuyoriqueñidad for those raised here and seeking their own cultural voice.

By the start of the 1970s, a deadly combination of factors precipitated the decline of the South Bronx community. The fires that tore through the southern part of the Bronx in the early 1970s ripped it apart. Nonetheless, its legacy remains a deeply rooted part of Latin music history and continues to live in the memory of musicians and audience alike for its unparalleled decades of intense creativity. Moreover, out of the fires emerged a hard-edged urban hip hop rooted in the streets, playgrounds, and burned-out lots of the South Bronx in the early 1970s. During the height of the destruction, Latino and Black teenagers, like the mambo and salsa musicians before them, held parties and jams in schools, basements, parks and playgrounds. Tying their turntables, speakers and amps into lampposts for power, teens gathered to rap, break, spin and scratch records. They reclaimed their spaces and, as their parents and grandparents had done in the 1940s and ‘50s, made the spaces work for them.

Interviewing participants to document the past brought a host of benefits. It uncovered the universe of places that supported the local music scenes. It legitimated the life experiences and creative contributions of many former and current Bronx residents. And it helped us compile a wealth of rich memory material that could be shared with the larger public. In fact, we extended the interviewing process to larger neighborhood public settings to create opportunities for intergenerational panels and audiences. We knew our approach was working when a young, female break dancer, participating in a panel with older musicians, made an emotional statement to the audience about the new connections she was making between her own musical attitudes and aptitudes, and those of her parents’ generation.

In addition to a transcribed series of oral histories, the Mambo to Hip Hop project generated these events and products.  

  • We held four local community conversations, in which panels of participants in the Bronx music scene shared memories, ideas, and concerns with other community members and the general public. We arranged similar events outside of the community on two other occasions—once at a New York City history conference and once at a prominent Latino cultural institution in Manhattan. Topics for all the programs focused on different aspects of the music history, and most of the events also featured mini-performances. Panel members included practitioners, music industry figures, professional scholars, and—to use a useful term from folklore—community scholars (local experts who have not had academic training). Place Matters recorded each of these events to collect information about the individual places and the ways in which they collectively contributed to the music’s development.
  • For the building housing Casa Amadeo, we wrote the nomination for a successful listing to the State and National Registers for Historic Places. Casa Amadeo is the oldest, continuously operating Latin music store in New York City. It opened in the early days of Puerto Rican settlement in the Bronx, survived through the borough’s most devastating years, and continues to serve as a treasure house of Latin music and musical expertise. The Register listing and related press attention has given the enterprise some added political clout, recently facilitating a downward negotiation of rent when a prohibitive increase threatened the store’s existence.
  • Using the results from all of our research, we created and published a Mambo to Hip Hop map/brochure. This illustrated map is accompanied by an essay, profiles of places and people, and quotes from the oral histories. It’s the first publication to lay out a Latin music and hip hop heritage trail of key music sites in the South Bronx and East Harlem.
  • Inviting the Bronx Tourism Council to join us, we used the research to develop a walking and bus tour of the heritage sites. We created tour scripts and trained local tour guides—one of whom has taken over the operation as a new entrepreneurial enterprise. Our start up efforts attracted the attention of a larger nonprofit that had organized to promote sustainable tourism, so we benefited too from their technical assistance and marketing.
  • We presented a reunion concert of musicians who had graduated from the local elementary school PS 52. Not all elementary schools can boast graduates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and legendary musicians Ray Barretto and the Palmieri brothers! PS 52 had these and more; enough, in fact, to send over 25 musicians to the concert stage. The PS 52 All-Stars performed one summer night in the park across from the school. Ray Barretto and other legendary locals showed up. Both sites—the school and the park—were significant to the music history as well as being important community landmarks.
  • When our research revealed that one of the music sites—an old theater turned church—was a central location for the development of Spanish-language vaudeville, we decided to recreate an evening at the theater. A Night at Teatro Puerto Rico played for a sell-out audience in the theater at THE POINT. (We unfortunately could not work with the original site.) In a curtain talk before the show, an historian placed theaters like Teatro Puerto Rico in the context of New York’s theatrical history. Then young performers from the neighborhood, along with older performers who actually had played the site, recreated a night of Mexican films, comedy, music, dance, and passionate poetry. Famous cuatro player Yomo Toro performed with his band. One of the most popular emcees at the real Teatro Puerto Rico emceed on our stage. It was a marvelous night. We suspect that nobody who attended will pass by the old theater without remembering its history and role in community life.

All of these efforts generated word of mouth, press attention, and funding. In the end, funding for the above projects came from the New York Foundation, E.H.A. Foundation, American Express Company, National Endowment for the Arts, the Cultural Tourism Initiative of the New York State Council on the Arts and the Arts and Business Council, and Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel.

To explain why so much of the Mambo to Hip Hop project focused on interpretation of the story, rather than on historic preservation or retaining long standing use, it is important to know that much of the 20th century physical infrastructure of the South Bronx was lost to the fires and political and property abandonment of the 1970s. Of the surviving structures that once hosted music and dance—playing a role in cultural movements of international stature—only Casa Amadeo continues the tradition. One would never wish for this kind of historical experience. But what the Mambo to Hip Hop project usefully demonstrates is that historical interpretation can contribute significantly to public knowledge, to the revival of pride of place, and to a community’s positive hold on the future.

Place-Based Questionnaire

Use these questions as desired for interviews about places that matter.

1. About the Interviewee (to understand the interviewee's relationship to the place)

  • Where were you born?
  • When did you first begin working/living/spending time in this place?
  • What is your association with this place?

2. About the Traditions (to understand how the place is used and note special activities)

  • What special events or activities happen here? Have they evolved over time?

3. About the Past (to understand what has happened here)

  • Can you tell me some of your favorite stories about this place -- either your own, or ones you've heard from others?
  • What is your most vivid/happy memory of the place? Do you have any sad memories?
  • What happened here that was unusual or meaningful? (maybe the place recalls an event, a time period, a way of life from the past?)
  • In what way does the place help us better understand the way things have changed over time?

4. About the Place as a Public Space (to understand how the place has fostered public congregation)

  • Is this a place where people congregate?
  • What ethnic, gender, or age distinctions exist among the people who gather here?
  • What attracts people to this place? Why and how often do they come together?
  • How does this place enliven public life?
  • To what extent do the users of this place share it comfortably? When and where are there (or have there been) conflicts?
  • How does the place contribute to the neighborhood's character? Is it considered a local landmark?
  • If it is not currently in use, when and why did it close down? Are there plans to reopen it?

5. About the Physical Features (to understand what the structure can tell us)

  • Can you identify any of its architectural features that help to convey the story/ies about the place that make it important?
  • What are the physical features that make it comfortable or useful to the people who use it?
  • In what ways does its design represent the values of those who built it or now use it?

6. About the Surrounding Neighborhood (to tell us more about how the place fits into its surroundings)

  • Who lives near whom here?
  • What is/was the ethnic composition of the neighborhood?
  • Who owns/owned the stores and businesses?
  • In what ways has the neighborhood changed?
  • How do/did new and old communities interact? Which streets, street corners, shops, restaurants, bars, cafeterias, churches, union halls, theaters, etc. are/were favorite gathering places?
  • How do people identify themselves here? By street, neighborhood, ethnicity, race?

7. Questions to Ask at Every Interview

  • What, if anything, currently threatens the site?
  • If this place were to disappear, what would be lost?
  • What would you miss most about it?
  • Are there other people in the area who can give testimony or tell stories about this site?
  • Can you direct me to any photos or archives of the site?

 

City Lore Interviewing Guide

Interviewing as a tool for oral history and community-based research

Interviewing is an exciting way to gather information about people, places, and events.  An interview is like a conversation, except that the interviewer does most of the listening, and the person being interviewed (the narrator) does most of the talking. Your job as an interviewer is to put the narrator at ease, listen carefully to his or her responses, and  ask questions that elicit rich detail and  interesting answers and perspectives on the topic you are researching.

What interviews/oral histories can provide:

  • Learning about an event, either historical or contemporary, through the eyes and experiences of ordinary people makes the story more compelling.
  • Gives us an insight into the perspectives of ordinary people who are often not in our history books, or interviewed in our newspapers or television/radio shows
  • Provides accounts of historical events from the perspectives of people who witnessed those events.
  • Provide multiple perspectives and reveals attitudes toward events, not just the facts. (What people think influences what they do, so this is important).
  • Provides rich material for writing and for artistic expression
  • Interviewing helps develop listening, speaking, and writing skills, as well as skills in being interviewed
  • Provides interviewers with an opportunity to get to know people they see every day, but with whom they have not had a long conversation, including their own families 
  • “Oral history is not only about wars and national events, but also about people who struggled to meet the day-to-day challenges wrought by difficult times as well as the joys brought on by realized dreams.” – Homespun

PREPARING FOR THE INTERVIEW

  • Think about the purpose of your interview.  Ask yourself, “What do I want to know?”   “Who is the best person to interview for the information and perspectives I need?” 
  • Do background research on the topic before the interview.
  • Prepare a set of focused questions from your research and a list of topics to cover.  Find out as much as you can about the person you plan to interview. If you are conducting the interview to produce some kind of product (such as essay, radio program, exhibit, visual arts project, song writing, etc.) keep in mind the kind of information you will need as you prepare your questions.
  • Talk to the person you plan to interview ahead of time. Briefly describe your topic, why you chose him or her to interview, and how you plan to use the information.  Giving the person a few days to think about the topic may result in a richer interview.  Reassure the person that you’re not looking for an expert on your topic, but rather for his or her perspective, personal experiences, and memories.
  • Test your equipment.  If you plan to record the interview, test your equipment before you go to the interview. If your tape recorder uses batteries, always bring a spare set.

CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW

Asking Good Questions:

  • Two types of questions are essential to a good interview:
  1. Closed-ended questions get "yes" and "no" or one or two-word responses and help you gather basic information. These questions often begin with the words:
    - WHAT (is the name of the town where you were born?)
    - WHERE (were you stationed during the war?)
    - WHEN (did you family come to the United States?)
    - DID (your family enter the United States through Ellis Island?)
  2. Open-ended questions give the narrator a chance to talk at length on a topic. Devote more time to open-ended questions, which often begin with the words and phrases:
    - TELL ME ABOUT (your experiences working in the mine).
    - WHAT WAS IT LIKE (living on the Lower East Side at that time)?
    - DESCRIBE (a typical day of work on the farm).
    - EXPLAIN (how you shear a sheep).
    - HOW (did you feel leaving your family behind?)
    - WHY (did you decide to take a job in the factory?)
  • Inform your interviewee about the purposes and uses of the interview.  Respect their right to refuse to discuss certain subjects.
  • Listen carefully to your narrator’s responses and ask follow-up questions to clarify or probe more deeply into a topic or to get more specific and detailed information.
  • Avoid asking leading questions.  Ask questions that encourage the narrator to answer in a way that reflects the narrator’s thinking, not your thinking. Instead of asking: “Don’t you think it was wrong to close the factory?
    -Ask in a way that does not reveal your opinions: “How did you feel about town’s decision to close down the factory?
  • Ask the narrator for specific examples and stories to illustrate the points he or she makes. 
    - If the narrator says, “We used to get in trouble for playing games in the alley,” you could ask, “Could you describe some of the games you played in the alley?” or “Do you remember a time that you got in trouble?”
          
  • Ask for detailed descriptions of people and places and events.
  • Use your list of prepared questions as a guide, but be flexible and change the order, ask new questions, or explore different topics that come up during the interview.  If the narrator starts to talk about subjects not relevant to your topic, politely move back to the topic with a new question.
  •  Especially if you plan to publish parts of the interview, ask your interviewee to sign a release giving you permission to use the material.

INTERVIEWING ETIQUETTE

  • Be a good listener. Show that you're listening by making eye contact, not repeating questions, waiting until the narrator is finished answering before asking another question, and  asking good follow-up questions that show you are interested and are paying attention.
  • Don't be afraid of silence. Inexperienced interviewers often rush to the next question when there is silence.  Give the narrator and yourself time to pause, think, and reflect.
  • Think of your interview as having a beginning, middle, and end.
    - Before the interview, talk informally to help both you and the narrator relax and feel comfortable talking.  Explain your topic and how you plan to use the information (even if you have done this on the phone).
        
    - Begin with easy questions that are not too personal or threatening.  This gives the narrator time to get to know you, understand what you want to learn, and decide if he trusts you enough to share personal information.
          
    - Move to more open-ended questions and questions that probe more deeply into your topic and your narrator’s personal experiences.

    - When you have finished, ask, “Is there anything you would like to add?

  • Thank the narrator before leaving and ask if he or she would mind if you call for additional information after you have had time to look at your notes.  Follow up with a thank you note.

AFTER THE INTERVIEW

  • Label the tapes. Unlabeled tapes are easily lost, recorded over, etc. Label tapes with name of interviewee, date, tape number (if more than one used), and other information relevant to your situation.
  • For recorded interviews, listen to the recording and make a list of the key topics.  In you have time, transcribe the interview, or outline the interview and transcribe only interesting quotes and information that you may want to use in your final project.
  • Analyze your notes.  Look for evidence of: the narrator’s point of view, thematic connections between different parts of the narrative, interesting quotes, connections between the narrator’s personal story and larger historical narratives.
  • Contrast and compare the perspective and experiences of this narrator to others you have interviewed and to written records. This will help you to check for accuracy and also to see how unique or broadly representative this narrator’s experiences and perspectives are.
  • Treat the evidence with care. Apply the same standards for citation and use of oral history materials as you would with other types of historical evidence. You have a responsibility not to misrepresent the interviewee's words or take them out of context.
     

 

Sample Release Agreement

Here is a sample of a release agreement for an oral history interview.  Be sure to adapt it according to the circumstances of your project.

Acknowledgements

We are deeply grateful for the generous support we received for the Place Matters Toolkit from the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the New York Community Trust. We also would like to thank our other Place Matters funders: the Altman Foundation, American Express Historic Preservation Foundation, E.H.A. Foundation, Lily Auchincloss Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York Council for the Humanities, New York State Council for the Arts, and the Scherman Foundation.

The Place Matters Toolkit was written by Marci Reaven and edited by Emily Gertz.

Many thanks to valued Place Matters collaborators and contributing writers: Lauren Arana, Jane McNamara, Jennifer Scott, and Rosten Woo, and particularly to former Place Matters co-director Laura Hansen who developed the Place Matters project with us.

An earlier version of the Toolkit appeared in "Livable Neighborhoods: Resources and Training for Community-Based Planners" (2007), a project of the Municipal Art Society Planning Center. Many thanks to Planning Center Director Eve Baron and her staff.