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LES Oral History Project Kick-Off Event

**This post is written by guest blogger and NYPL Community Oral History Project volunteer, Emma Bonanomi**

Lower East Side resident George Rogoff

“When I moved to this area I finally felt like I could be myself,” George Rogoff told me at the LES Oral History kick-off event on January 19. “There were garden cafeterias back then, where we’d sit and talk. Those were replaced by Barnes and Noble. Now it’s Whole Foods. Times change, but people always need a place where they can just hang out.”

Change is rapid in New York City, and especially the Lower East Side, where the streets are a clash of old and new. That change was the topic of reflection and celebration on January 19, as community members came together to kick off of The New York Public Library’s Lower East Side Oral History Project at the Seward Park Library.

The goal of the neighborhood history project is to collect, document, and archive LES history through the eyes of local residents. The project trains local community members to conduct interviews, and invites longtime residents to share their stories. Email NYPLOralHistory@nypl.org to get involved.

Community members gathered at the Seward Park Library

The festivities began with singer and guitarist Oren Bloedow performing tunes from the Lower East Side, including Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” which the late musician premiered at the LES’s Knitting Factory in the mid-nineties. Community members also heard clips pulled from the 55 interviews already recorded for the project, and watched Yudie, a 1974 16mm film chronicling the life of a Jewish grandmother whose parents immigrated from Russia to the Lower East Side. 

1974 16mm film, Yudie

Following programming, interviewers, storytellers, and neighbors mingled over refreshments. (“This neighborhood is very food centric,” George pointed out.) Here are a few of the stories we overheard:

  • Janet, who had already led six interviews and was planning for her seventh, said the project was helping her dig deeper with longtime friends. In one interview, a friend described the lengthy, racially-charged process she faced when she applied to live in her apartment 36 years ago, catalyzing local activists to take action.
  • Hanna teaches oral history at the New School. She’s excited for her students to learn to help people unlock their stories by honing a simple but valuable skill: showing interest in someone else’s life story.
  • Diane recently interviewed her friend Fran, a writer. To other New Yorkers interested in getting involved in the project, Diane shared: “We’re just regular people sharing what we know. You can both just relax and be yourself. Listen and let her speak.”
  • And finally, George Rogoff told me his reason for coming out was about more than just sharing his story: “I’m retiring in five months. I wanted to come out and do things and be part of this neighborhood. You have to make an effort to make community.”

The project will continue to host local history events every third Thursday from 6-8 pm. The next event is an author talk on February 16. Ada Calhoun will be discussing St. Marks is Dead at the Tompkins Square Library.

About Our Project:

This is a neighborhood oral history project that works to both preserve, document, and celebrate Lower East Side neighborhood history through the stories of people who have experienced it.

This project collects oral histories of people who have lived or worked in the LES neighborhood. Community volunteers are trained to conduct these interviews. Interviews are preserved at The Milstein Division of US History, Local History and Genealogy and accessible through The New York Public Library.

Visit our website to listen to oral histories recorded so far.

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