On a bone-chilling evening, the “Cultural Conservation” class eagerly braved the cold for a walking tour of vernacular architecture through the East Village and Lower East Side with Molly Garfinkel, Director of Place Matters. Place Matters is a public history and preservation initiative that explores the intersections of place and public life, and that offers shared authority for the designation of significant sites in New York City.

Place Matters was founded in 1998 out of ongoing initiatives between City Lore and the Municipal Art Society. City Lore, the mother organization to Place Matters, was founded in 1986 with the mission to foster living cultural heritage in New York City and America through education and public programs. They work in four cultural domains: urban folklore and history; preservation; arts education; and grassroots poetry traditions. In 1988, City Lore established the “Endangered Spaces” project to identify and advocate for local establishments and landmarks that were disappearing from the New York City landscape. Ten year later, Place Matters began asking New Yorkers and others to identify places that matter and explain why. Nominations for sites to be included on its Census can be submitted through their webpage, and through this democratic platform, Molly weighs the significance of each nomination equally. She says, “Where do you want to draw the line? Who can decide what is and what is not significant?” The nominations reflect the profusion of valued personal and collective public places, ranging from “the ice cream shop where my parents met” to Columbus Park in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the first “Locating the Sacred” nomination, a central green space to the numerous garment factories in Chinatown that still bustles with recreation and people of all ages.

Garfinkel says many of the places nominated go unnoticed because they are seen everyday. Examples of other nominated sites include the NY State Building from 1964 World’s Fair in Queens; Steinway Street, Astoria; Limestone frieze of Moses outside a public housing project, Weeksville, Brooklyn; Cuyler Presbyterian Church, Boerum Hill; Casita Rincon Criollo, South Bronx, among many more.

Our tour from Bowery and East 4th Street to Orchard and Delancey began with a short introduction from Tamara Greenfield, Director of FAB (Fourth Street Arts Block), who explained the evolution of the neighborhood over time from its development for middle class residents in the beginning of the 19th century, to after the 1837 housing market burst, turning it over to waves of immigrants. In the late 1950s, Robert Moses’ plans to raze the area were halted by neighborhood protest led by the Cooper Square Committee. On our route, Molly pointed out architectural features of old and new law tenements, and discussed places like the German Orchestral Society and Turner Society, the site of the first Yiddish theatre, as spaces where people could congregate and practice traditions. We then made our way to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum where she went further into the complexities of place and folklore preservation.

Through examples of places that City Lore and Place Matters have approached and/or worked with over the years, Molly discussed some of the complexities of place preservation and the pros and cons that may arise when a place is deemed to be culturally or historically significant. For example, City Lore’s “From Mambo to Hip Hop” initiative documented the Latino musical landscape of the South Bronx through oral history, educational outreach and concerts, including a music festival that reunited many older musicians who had grown up together in the area, some of whom had since left the United States. This initiative was especially challenging because many of the important physical spaces that helped foster Latino music in the Bronx in its early years in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including the famous Tropicana Club, no longer exist. On the other hand, this helped give the project’s participants a sense of eagerness to document the intangible aspects of this heritage. The project culminated in a documentary, also entitled “From Mambo to Hip Hop,” that was extremely well-received by the Bronx communities with which City Lore collaborated. City Lore also advocated for the building at 786 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which occurred in 2001. This building houses Casa Amadeo, one of the oldest and last remaining stores in New York City dedicated to Latino music.

While some communities have welcomed City Lore’s collaborative preservation efforts, others have declined for various reasons. Recognition on a preservation list can often bring unwanted attention to a site or cultural practice. Inclusion on certain registers of significant places (such as that of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission) can also severely limit changes that can be made to the outside of a building, resulting in higher maintenance costs for the building’s owners. Molly discussed the recent example of the Streit’s Matzo factory, one of the oldest and last remaining legal factories located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After some discussion with City Lore, Streit’s ultimately decided not to seek any special designation for its building, citing the possibility of high upkeep costs for a building with a landmarked exterior. Similarly, City Lore approached members of the Irish-American community in the northern part of the Bronx about documenting the traditions associated with Gaelic Park, a sports venue that has been a center of activity for that community for decades. The community declined, not wanting to draw outside attention to the park that could potentially alter how it is used.

Molly’s discussion touched on many of the themes that we have read about and discussed in our “Cultural Conservation” course for the past few weeks, such as how folklorists can work with communities in a collaborative, not disruptive way, and what to do when the negatives aspects of historic or culturally significant designations outweigh the benefits. Ultimately, with examples from her work at Place Matters, Molly demonstrated that the most important rule of cultural conservation is to respect the wishes of the community in question. Sometimes, despite what the folklorist or preservationist may prefer, that means no intervention at all.

By Ariel Rosenblum and Sarah Pickman, M.A. students in “’Cultural Conservation’: Preserving Place and Practice,” a new Mellon curriculum course offered by Gabrielle A. Berlinger this spring.