Oral Histories on the Founding of An Artists’ Colony, A Prison Reform Organization, and So Much More
GVSHP has been conducting and sharing oral histories since the mid-1990s. As we look back on two powerhouse oral histories, we’re considering the importance of such documents as “the first kind of history,” as “part of the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
On April 27, 2007, GVSHP recorded the oral history for Dixon Bain, and on April 27, 2016, we recorded our oral history with David Rothenberg.
Dixon Bain served as the project manager for planning and construction of Westbeth Artist’s Residence in the West Village from 1967-1971. It was Bain’s work with the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a foundation which provides support for artists and the enhancement of the built environment, and his connection with then-unknown architect Richard Meier that helped facilitate the adaptive reuse and creation of Westbeth, the complex of apartments, studios, and community space for artists. Bain remembers the 1968 groundbreaking as a mixed blessing, heralding both promise and frustrations. Bain also describes his multifaceted role as construction manager, recounting meetings with architects, contractors, and dignitaries visiting the site. Bain emphasizes the point that large-scale renovation projects were quite unheard of, and the difficulty selecting appropriate contractors. Bain describes traveling the world to study and consult on other artist housing developments.
Learn more, listen to, and read Dixon Bain’s oral history.
David Rothenberg is one of the Village’s most prolific activists. After returning from the Army, David recalls a neighborhood bar in the Village that would become a gay bar in the evenings, called Julius’. He became a Broadway producer and produced the off-Broadway play “Fortune in Men’s Eyes.” The community of inmates surrounding “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” eventually led David to form the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about prisons, and to helping formerly incarcerated people find their footing in society after being released.
Rothenberg also discusses his early AIDS activism in the 1980s, which led to his decision to run for City Council. David did not win, but explains that he, unlike former Mayor Ed Koch, never liked “the schmoozing” aspect of running for office. This comparison leads David in this interview to reflect on his own process of becoming disillusioned with Mayor Koch, and he discusses the way in which he became a confidant to Koch’s secret romantic partner, Richard Nathan. David also discusses his leadership roles for the LGBT Community Center and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the changes to the neighborhood he has experienced as a Village resident for over 50 years.
Learn more, listen to, and read David Rothenberg’s oral history. Rothenberg has also been listed on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice map.
Like these two, oral histories are a method of passing down important stories and a crucial way to empower our communities to action by exploring the vital but often invisible work of others. Oral histories have their own histories: many argue that ancient texts like the Bible and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are originally oral histories, passed down from an unknown source or sources.
In more modern times, oral histories are less mysteriously rooted. Richard Harwood, a retired deputy managing editor of The Washington Post, wrote a history of oral histories for the Washington Post which outlines their early roots in America:
Allan Nevins, the Columbia University historian began in 1949 the first formal “oral history” program in the United States. He believed, correctly, that it would be of great value to use a fairly new device, the tape recorder, to capture the voices and stories of important figures before they lost their memories or died. His first interviews were with a prominent jurist, Learned Hand, and with Herbert Lehman, the financier who served as governor of New York and as a U.S. senator.
While Nevins is generally credited with launching oral history work, it had antecedents in the 1930s, beginning with the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal undertaking that provided jobs for unemployed writers, historians and sociologists. They collected, for example, the testimony of the last living Americans who had been held in slavery in the South… These and similar materials are part of extensive collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress…”
Harwood goes on to list oral history projects around the country that feature everyone from movers and shakers in civil rights and social justice movements to people who survived slavery and others who immigrated to the United States from other countries. These movements in oral history record individual voices that join together to tell important and often unsung collective stories.
One of the more well-known historians of unsung collective stories is Howard Zinn, whose “A People’s History of the United States” challenges what many academic historians record. Zinn summarized his work and motivation for retelling history which centers the people in his essay “If History is to Be Creative.” Most of what we learn, Zinn writes, is about “those who have the guns and possess the wealth.” Zinn continues, “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win.” And peoples’ stories are winning, which is thanks to a grassroots approach to history; just last week New Yorkers watched a statue be removed from its streets in a moment where people’s history and experiences changed the accepted history of someone who had been valorized.
GVSHP’s oral histories illuminate a nuanced narrative which includes the inspiration and triumphs of building communities of mutual support and built spaces in our city for its residents. These personal stories are collected so that we will always be able to hear people who might otherwise get lost in the larger tales and movements of our city that never sleeps. These conversations concern the movements for preservation, for affordable housing, for claiming our Village for artists, for LGBTQ folks, and for those who have been incarcerated.
In his article about Oral Histories, Richard Harwood quotes Susan Brenna, a writer for Newsday, who wrote that individual memories enable historians to “recreate the texture of people’s lives — what they eat, when they pray, how they get the laundry done. Such details have particular meaning in a city [New York] churning with culture-shifting transients, many just assimilating.” GVSHP is committed to those culture shifts, those movement-makers, and the preservationists whose work has shaped the landscapes of the neighborhoods we love so much.