Remembering Neighborhood Voices, Part I

In 1985, New York City’s municipal broadcast television station WNYC-TV produced Neighborhood Voices, a limited series on unique and changing city neighborhoods.  Comprised mostly of interviews with longtime residents and prominent local figures, this series provided a vivid and personal window into the ever-changing City, its residents, and the communities they created.

One such neighborhood was San Juan Hill. Located in Manhattan from 59th to 65th Streets, between Amsterdam and West End Avenues, it had been site of the first affordable housing units in the country, the childhood home of jazz legend Thelonious Sphere Monk, and the inspiration for the musical West Side Story.

Beginning in the 1890s, Afro-Caribbean emigres and African-Americans migrating from the American South began populating the neighborhood along with churches and community organizations. The community also attracted veterans returning from the Spanish-American War of 1898, possibly giving the area its nickname—from the Battle of San Juan Hill. In the 1910s, philanthropist Henry Phipps, Jr. constructed the Phipps Houses on 63rd Street. These buildings constitute the country’s oldest affordable housing units and provided a quality of living that working-class people of color rarely had access to at the time. In 1940, Robert Moses, Chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance declared the neighborhood a slum, displaced its inhabitants, demolished the buildings and constructed what stands there today—Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Roseanna Weston, one of the last living residents of the Phipps Houses, remembered the neighborhood before Lincoln Center. She recalled that prior to moving into the Phipps Houses in 1917, her family had been living in a tenement with wooden stairs and toilets shared by the entire building. Roseanna’s family was vetted and approved for the Phipps Houses after her father’s boss, a wealthy businessman, personally vouched for him as a reliable worker and good man. Rent was set at $6 a week, making it equivalent to roughly $475 a month in 2019 dollars—less than a quarter of even the cheapest rents in the area today.

Roseanna Weston sits in the same Phipps Houses apartment she grew up in, the last of her family to live there.

Thelonious Sphere Monk, jazz legend and New York City icon grew up in the Phipps houses alongside the Weston family. Monk passed away in 1983 following years of ill health. Neighborhood Voices interviewed Monk’s son, Thelonious Monk Jr. about his father, his relationship to San Juan Hill and how it had changed since his childhood. Monk Jr. recounted how personally involved his father was in the San Juan Hill area and how the character of the neighborhood informed his musical development. Following his death, Monk’s family established the Thelonious Monk Foundation to improve music education across the country. One of their first projects was starting a jazz dance and music class for students in Martin Luther King Jr. High School at 122 Amsterdam Avenue. Students in this class learned how to play and breakdance to Monk’s music.

Thelonious Monk Jr. weighs the impact of urban renewal (or urban removal) on his childhood neighborhood. Neighborhood Voices, WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Nina Garland, a member of the Thelonious Monk Foundation as well as a long-time choreographer and dance instructor assisted Monk Jr. in this effort. Garland, still a dance educator today, admired how teenagers in 1985 adapted modern break dancing techniques to the unfamiliar beat of Monk’s jazz. Classes like these were part of a larger push to make the lessons taught in City schools reflect the lives and experiences of their students. In another interview, school Principal Nellie Jordan explained how the class was originally planned as an after-school activity, but thanks to its popularity, became part of the regular school schedule.

Nina Garland marvels at the impact many famous African American artists and performers who first rose to prominence in San Juan Hill made on American culture. Neighborhood Voices, WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the 1980s, Neighborhood Voices was meant to empower members of rapidly changing and sometimes disappearing neighborhoods. In addition to the artists in San Juan Hill, the series also highlighted the departure of the fur and shipping industries from Chelsea, socialist cooperatives based in the Allerton Coops, community gardens in the South Bronx and much more. These programs are now being digitized. Recorded on ¾” u-matic tapes, these videos were some of the most degraded in the WNYC-TV collection. Many required special treatments prior to digitization. The tapes themselves will continue to degrade, but the personal oral histories of New Yorkers contained within them have been preserved for future generations.

I Lift My Lamp Beside the Golden Door

Signed into law on November 29th, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the Immigration Act of 1990 reformed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, fundamentally changing the way the United States evaluates and admits immigrants. In order to explore what this reform would mean for one of the greatest immigrant cities in the world, WNYC-TV produced an extra-long episode of their current events show, New York Hotline. This episode assembled a panel reflecting perspectives from City demographers, anti-immigration groups, recent immigrants to the City and experts from CUNY and Columbia University. Produced in 1993 after the end of the Bush presidency, it aired one year after the law took effect.

Passed by significant bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, the Immigration Act of 1990 made a number of basic changes to America’s immigration system, by:

  • Increasing the worldwide limit for immigration visas from 540,000 to 700,000[i]

  • Specifically increasing the number of visas used solely for family unification

  • Creating diversity immigrant visa lotteries to increase immigration from countries under represented in coming immigrant groups

  • Clarifying the authority of Immigration and Naturalization Service enforcement officers to make arrests and carry firearms

  • Expanding the number of non-immigrant H1-B visas and green cards for foreign laborers

  • Providing for the more expeditious deportation of violent offenders

  • Eliminating exclusion of homosexual immigrants by labeling them as mentally unfit or “sexual deviants”

  • Ending English language tests for naturalization tests

President Bush commented at its signing that “The Act maintains our Nation’s historic commitment to family reunification by increasing the number of immigrant visas allocated on the basis of family ties.”[ii] This increase in visas to family members would prove to be a deeply controversial aspect of the 1990 Immigration Act. Opponents of the law, both then and now, argue that this policy leads to an unfair pattern of ‘chain migration.’ For advocates and those who benefit from the law, it is a humane way to keep families together and creates tighter community bonds.

REC0047_II_150_2007: Frank Vardy describes the historic family nature of immigration into the United States. WNYC collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Perhaps more than any part of the country, New York embodies the country’s ‘historic commitment’ to immigrants, with more migrants passing through its port during the 20th century than any other city in the United States. Frank Vardy, then a demographer in the City’s Planning Department, traced the movement of immigrant communities through different City neighborhoods. He did this so the City could provide better services to new arrivals, like adult English language education, foreign language signs in public buildings or interpreters in schools. More than anything else, Vardy argued in his interview, the opportunity to find work and a better life for their families is historically what drove most immigrants to New York, no matter where they came from. Crucially, though, it was the family ties to already established prior immigrants that helped new arrivals find work, learn English and ultimately begin the process of becoming American.

One organization featured in this Hotline episode was FAIR, or the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR, founded in 1979 by ophthalmologist John Tanton, sought to repeal the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 as well as the 1990 reforms.  The organization wanted to significantly reduce immigration into the United States on environmental, cultural and economic grounds. FAIR, still in existence today, has been a controversial group despite its non-partisan and non-profit status. On one hand, it has advised major politicians for years, contributed to countless studies on immigration and its representatives have testified in front of Congress many times. On the other hand, FAIR was labelled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007 and its founder has made a litany of explicitly racist remarks in official internal memos, often referring to people of color in inhuman terms.[iii]

REC0047_II_150_2012: FAIR advisory board member Edward Levy expresses his concern that the 1990 law’s expanded family unification policy will fundamentally damage American democracy. WNYC collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the middle of this were people like Yan He, a Chinese immigrant who had arrived in New York in 1990 just as the Immigration Act was being debated in Congress. Following family members who had already emigrated from China, Yan He and her husband came to the United States seeking work and opportunities. Throughout her interview, Yan He details the difficult and often complex experience of coming to America, including conflicts with abusive employers and the hope she has for her children to get better jobs through the American education system.

REC0047_II_150_2010: Arriving in America was only one step in a much longer journey for Yan He, her family and the City of New York. WNYC collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The NYC Municipal Archives has hours of interviews with Frank Vardy, Edward Levy, Yan He and other experts on the subject of the 1990 Immigration Act. Although in this blog post we focused primarily on family unification, the other provisions of the Act like the diversity immigrant lottery or the expansion of H1-B visas have also proven to be controversial. Underneath the debates over these narrow issues lies the larger questions that residents of New York and America have been asking about the place immigration holds in American society. Digitizing these interviews from the 1990s helps preserve the history of this debate for future New Yorkers of all kinds, whether they be native- born citizens or one of the 3 million-plus foreign-born residents in the City.

[i] Highlights of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1990, by Warren Leiden and David Neal, Fordham International Law Journal

[ii] Statement on Signing the Immigration Act of 1990, President George H.W. Bush https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/statement-signing-the-immigration-act-1990

[iii] https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/federation-american-immigration-reform

Glue, Time, Humidity and Heat: Mastering the Elements of Tape Preservation

Typically, when we talk about preserving something in an archive we are looking at a time period of 100 years, if not longer. The New York City Municipal Archives still holds, for example, records of the Dutch colonial settlement in New Amsterdam that date from the 17th century.  Thanks to the work of dozens of skilled archivists and conservators, over decades, these documents have been and will continue to be preserved and made available to the public.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Archives’ video tape collections. It is likely that every tape in the world will become unusable within the next 20-30 years.

Preserving WNYC-TV

From urban decay to economic revival, the City of New York has changed dramatically over the past forty years. Over that same period of time, New Yorkers gained an increasing ability to tell their stories through advances in video technology. Today, we take for granted a nearly universal ability to create and distribute videos all over the world, instantaneously. From 1961 to 1996, publicly owned WNYC-TV on Channel 31 fulfilled this role for average New Yorkers by enabling them to share their stories and discuss issues facing them in their daily lives.