By Teresa Iacobelli
Relocating to a new city can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Recently I have made the move from Ottawa, Ontario to Brooklyn, New York, and in the short time that I have been here I have felt a slew of emotions ranging from awe to frustration. Living in a city of this size can be challenging, however thus far the best coping mechanism that I have found is getting to know my own small neighborhood (yes, I’m quickly adapting) one block at a time, and one of the best ways of knowing a neighbourhood is to know its history.
I live in an area of Brooklyn called Fort Greene, and one of the first things that one notices about this community is the architecture – brownstone walk-ups on tree lined streets and grand old homes, once mansions, now divided into offices and apartments. It is the kind of architecture that makes one wonder what life used to be like here. Luckily, due to a wonderful local historical society that offers exhibits, as well as an archives and workshops for residents to research their own homes, it is easy to find out the answers to these questions. Fort Greene dates its settled origins back to its time as a military fort during the American Revolutionary War. It has been the home to many notable Americans, including literary greats Walt Whitman and Richard Wright. Fort Greene has been a center of African-American arts and culture, and it has also experienced its share of economic downturns and subsequent revivals. The neighbourhood is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, singling it out for preservation. But this isn’t an article about the storied history of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, rather it is an article about the history of any community, and the innovative ways that historians and residents are finding to share local stories.
What relocating has brought to light is the myriad ways that historians, retired long time residents, foodies, music geeks, architecture buffs and anyone in between are choosing to show their civic pride. One of the major ways has been through walking tours that tell history of communities from a variety of angles. For example, a single Google search on Brooklyn walking tours lists tours devoted the literary, music or architectural history of Brooklyn neighbourhoods. If that is not your style there are culinary tours and tours devoted to the various ethnic groups that have helped to build and shape these communities. These group tours have a wide range of prices and themes, and provide a great way to get to know local haunts and to hear some local stories while meeting new people. If solitary is more your style, then one can just as easily find a number of downloadable walking tours that require nothing more than some headphones, feet and the ability to follow directions. These tours are widespread and growing in numbers everyday. This is just one more example of the ways in which technology is helping to connect more people to the past. Whether you reside in New York City, Paris, London, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and all points in between, it seems that local history is moving well beyond books and small hidden blue plaques to become more widely accessible and to a larger and more diverse audience. What the growth of these local initiatives show is that there is no shortage of people who wish to be connected to these stories and that there is no shortage of ways to approach the past.