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Voices from East of Bronx Park: The Stories That Aren't In the History Books

This is a guest post from volunteer, Joanne Dillon. Joanne has interviewed several people for the NYPL Community Oral History Project and continues to share her experience and the experience of others who are participating in this historic initiative.

A passion for local history brought together New York Public Library staff and volunteers in a quest to capture the memories of past and present residents of the Morris Park, Van Nest, Pelham Parkway, and Allerton neighborhoods in the East Bronx this past spring. Through memory circles and more than 70 individual interviews, they captured stories that won’t be found in any history books. All are now part of Voices from East of Bronx Park, part of The New York Public Library’s Community Oral History Project.

Take long-time Morris Park resident Peter Ulrich, a volunteer, who conducted six conversations, participated in one memory circle, and was recently interviewed himself. A history buff, Peter volunteered after hearing Dawn Holloway, manager of the Morris Park branch library, promote Voices from East of Bronx Park at a local community meeting. Although he had never before been involved in a project of this type, Peter thought the listening skills he had developed as a high school guidance counselor would be a natural fit. He soon found himself interviewing a variety of people, each with a fascinating story to tell. They included a 94-year old World War II veteran, who had served with the Seabees; a Vietnam veteran now a local businessman; a published author; and a married couple—doctors who had practiced together in the neighborhood for many years.

Interviewer Lois Fermaglich

When retired pediatrician Lois Fermaglich, who grew up near Pelham Parkway, read about the project taking place in her old neighborhood on The New York Public Library’s website, she immediately volunteered. “Who doesn’t like libraries? Who doesn’t want to support them?” she exclaims. Lois, who is writing her own family’s history, has fond memories of growing up in the Bronx. Through the 12 interviews she conducted, she reconnected with friends from her school days and met many others who had also lived near Pelham Parkway. “Helping to preserve a bit of local history through this project has been a lovely experience,” she says.

Morris Park Manager Dawn Holloway

In addition to advocating for the project, Dawn Holloway conducted several interviews with local residents, including one that spanned three generations—a co-worker, her older brother by 23 years, and the woman who had been the family’s babysitter.

Dawn, who also resides in the Bronx, has witnessed many changes in the Morris Park area in the years she has worked there. “Many patrons of the Morris Park library are getting older,” she says. “I wanted to capture, for all time, their memories of this evolving neighborhood, before they are lost forever.” Dawn enthusiastically promoted the project, speaking along with other branch managers at community board meetings, and encouraging library patrons to participate. The project has also sparked her desire to expand into other activities at the branch; she is currently exploring ideas, such as memoir writing workshops and an art exhibit that would highlight the area’s history.

Pelham Parkway-Van Nest Manager David Nochimson

Dawn’s colleague David Nochimson, manager of the Pelham Parkway-Van Nest branch, was equally as enthusiastic, promoting the project at senior centers and neighborhood associations. For David, it offered a way to get adults more involved with library activities. And, through the interviews he conducted and the memory circle he facilitated, he discovered what the neighborhood means to its residents. David is very impressed by the neighborhood’s diversity. “Immigrants from just about every continent, members of all three major religions, all generations, and people from all economic levels actively use and share this library,” he says.

David believes that, through the website, the project will help bring people to the library, at least in the electronic sense. But he hopes it inspires people to visit their local libraries and to take time to explore their neighborhoods. This is a point Dawn agrees with. “Nobody knows their neighbors anymore,” she says. “I hope that by listening to the histories, people will be moved to reach out and get to know the people living here now.”

For those interested—but hesitant—about volunteering with an oral history project, David suggests participating in a memory circle. “The participants in the Pelham Parkway-Van Nest memory circle had a lot of fun reminiscing about local shops, restaurants, and bakeries – and all the wonderful food they remembered.”

Volunteer Peter says, “Don’t be afraid. Approach it like you would any other conversation. Ask one or two questions to get the storyteller talking, and let things evolve from there.” Lois agrees. When conducting her interviews, she always had some questions handy to use as a prompt, but rarely needed to use them. “People enjoy sharing their memories,” she explains. “Once a storyteller starts talking, all an interviewer needs to do is listen.”  

“Be inquisitive,” adds Dawn, “If a storyteller says something that sparks your curiosity, follow up. If you’re interested in something that is said, chances are others will be, too.”

Voices from East of Bronx Park is an oral history project that works to both preserve and document the neighborhood history of the Allerton, Pelham Parkway, Morris Park, and Van Nest communities through the stories of people who have experienced it. The project will collect oral histories of people who live in neighborhoods east of Bronx Park and train community members to conduct these interviews. Longtime residents and those who have worked in these neighborhoods are invited to share their stories, documenting an important past and present history. Interviews will be preserved at The Milstein Division of United States History, Local History, and Genealogy. Interviews will also be available in a circulating collection and accessible on this website. To listen to the stories collected, please visit oralhistory.nypl.org.

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