2013-07-05 / Columnists


Operation Humpty Dumpty: The Lessons Of Community History
By Jenny Swadosh, Broad Channel Historical Society

This spring, I enlisted in an endeavor I call Operation Humpty Dumpty.

After Hurricane Sandy, Broad Channel Historical Society’s chairwoman Barbara Toborg commented to a journalist that the work of putting the Society’s historical documentation “back together again” after volunteers rescued it from the storm surge resembled the familiar nursery rhyme.

My mission was to reassemble several binders of historical documents covering two seemingly unrelated yet defining aspects of life in Broad Channel: Mardi Gras and the Land Sale (more on this shortly).

Unlike many larger cultural heritage institutions, the Broad Channel Historical Society has no paid staff. It’s made up of a few dedicated individuals who volunteer their time to preserve the community’s heritage.

Barbara and Fred Toborg had been sheltering the Historical Society’s collections while the town’s library, where the collection is normally housed, was renovated following the storm.

One weekend morning, the Toborgs arrived at my doorstep bearing two large boxes: one box contained brand new, empty binders and pristine protective sleeves and the other box contained hundreds of documents that had formerly been well-organized before they were spread out and dried at on the huge floor of the Vetro Restaurant in Howard Beach (thanks to the generosity of owner Frank Russo) by a team of volunteers.

I did put the binders back together again, but along the way I gained an insight that had not been so clear before, despite leafing through the binders on several occasions before the storm.

As one might expect, the Mardi Gras photographs, newspaper clippings and event programs depict a joyful side of civic engagement. The Mardi Gras binders are evidence of the creativity and resourcefulness that Broad Channelites call forth to build floats and fashion costumes that are only worn one day of the year, a day meant as a collective farewell to summer.

This is the familiar side of Broad Channel to many outsiders, and, I suspect, to many newer transplants to the community.

The Land Sale binders, however, tell another story, one of sustained activism in the face of various, distressingly familiar setbacks spanning several decades (the continued push JFK runway expansion, for example).

Some Wave readers may not know that the City of New York only allowed residents of Broad Channel to rent the land on which their homes stood, even though many desperately desired to own the land outright and were eager to buy it. Beginning in the 1930s, community members waged a campaign against the City for land ownership, a goal finally attained in 1982 after decades of overcoming numerous obstacles.

My favorite documents in these binders are two lists of volunteers. One, probably dating back to the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, consists of campaign volunteers with typing skills – all women – and whether or not they possessed a typewriter at home. Remember, this was the era of manual typewriters. This volunteer typing pool presumably pounded out letters to elected officials, though it’s not quite clear. (Maybe Wave readers can enlighten us!).

The second, shorter list consists of general volunteers. One volunteer’s qualifications are identified simply, yet meaningfully, as “retired.”

The story I read from these binders is that the struggle and eventual victory of Broad Channel families to own the land on which they lived was an effort in which the entire community participated, each by actively contributing something, be it a particular skill, tool, or time.

As Broad Channel – indeed, the entire Rockaway Peninsula – again faces multiple threats to its future, the Broad Channel Historical Society’s efforts to collect and preserve community history take on a broader resonance. These historical binders aren’t just about celebrating collective identity, or “Remember when…?” moments, although such goals are worthy, too.

If today’s community activists are willing to become citizen historians and look to the past for guidance, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the strategies Broad Channel’s citizens employed in their long struggle.

From the Land Sale binders, some researchers may gain insight into effective community mobilization in the face of a seemingly inflexible and unresponsive bureaucracy.

Others may perceive something different but equally useful in these binders for tackling present day challenges.

That is the beauty and the utility of historical documents when a community bothers to preserve them. Each of us can take away something valuable from these records without depleting them.

A portion of the Broad Channel Historical Society’s themed binders are once again available for in-library use at the now reopened Broad Channel branch of Queens Library.

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