Local High Schoolers Study Changing Neighborhoods

A student on location for an Urban Memory Project assignment.

The following story was written by Sarah Sluis, a new contributor to The Lo-Down:

In New York City, neighborhoods can undergo dramatic change in a matter of months.  The Urban Memory Project, which was co-founded by educator Rebecca Krucoff and playwright Ain Gordon in 2005, aims to help high school students understand these changes.

After years running the program in Brooklyn, Krucoff is currently teaching a pilot program with a class at Lower Manhattan Arts Academy (LOMA), 350 Grand Street. She hopes to create “informed citizenship,” and to teach teens to “have a voice” and to be engaged in their communities.  Through the program, students become aware of the social, political, and economic forces at work outside their apartment building. Although books are used, the program emphasizes visuals, films, speakers, student-led interviews and photography.

Many of the kids she has taught have lived in their communities long enough to experience major changes. They’ve seen displacement occurring in their neighborhoods even if they weren’t familiar with the term, “gentrification.”

“They didn’t know what it was called — they just saw it happening,” Krucoff says. Her goal is to create opinionated students who have new tools to evaluate their own surroundings. The Lower East Side Urban Memory Project will have lots of help from the surrounding community. Nellie Perera at the Abrons Art Center plans to give the performing arts students an outlet to explain their findings through theatre. The students will meet with John Shapiro, an urban planning professor at Pratt Institute, the photographer Andrew Lichtenstein, and visit the Museum at Eldridge Street.

Rebecca Krucoff and Sean Ferguson.

Students will also interview community members. During the first week of their program, they had the opportunity to view a rare primary source—a black-and-white silent film showing the Lower East Side from the 1930s through the 1950s. Krucoff was first introduced to the 16mm film while doing research at the Seward Park Library. There she met Sean Ferguson, a librarian who has become something of a guardian for the short film, which was found neglected in a closet during renovations in 2004.

(Sean is also curator of the LES Heritage Film Series, held monthly at the library).

The short film contains footage shot at three points: the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The filmmaker in the 1950s went back to the same spots that were filmed in the 1930s, providing precise points of comparison. Ferguson reads from a script written by a librarian in the 1950s, which explains the contrasts between the neighborhood in in the two eras.

When Krucoff’s students saw the movie last week, they were initially awe-struck by the novelty of watching a 16mm film from a projector!   “They were also very taken by the way the neighborhood has changed but also stayed the same,” Krucoff reports, adding that they found Ferguson’s reading of the 1950s script to be “funny and interesting.”  Ferguson applauds the Urban Memory Project. “Everyone is part of the history that’s happening at the moment, but you don’t always realize it. The program is about helping kids realize they are part of history.”

People interested in the film can see it during a fundraiser for the non-profit Urban Memory Project on Tuesday, March 13, 2012, at the Esopus Space at 64 West 3rd St. Doors open at 6:30, and the film will begin at 7pm. Buy your tickets here. Besides the film, there will be wine, snacks, and a chance to peruse photographs of students’ past projects. For more details on the Urban Memory Project, check out their website.