Preserving the past through storytelling

Brook Park hosts an evening of neighborhood history on June 14. Photo by Andrew Chandler

An oral history project was showcased at Brook Park last Thursday, to help collect stories from a rapidly-changing neighborhood before they are lost.

“Mott Haven is a really interesting neighborhood with a really interesting history,” said Amy Starecheski, the creator of the Bronx Oral History Project and co-director of the Oral History Masters Program at Columbia University. “I felt like I had the potential to contribute to the community by doing this project and helping to record and amplify these voices and provide opportunities for people to listen to them.”

Starecheski, a longtime Mott Haven resident who has spent the past year recording interviews with local residents across age and racial lines, says she began the project as a way to not only preserve history, but also track the demographic and economic changes that have occurred in the community. More than a dozen residents gathered to listen as she played some of those recordings, each one detailing events and lifestyles that helped them cast a glimpse at the neighborhood’s past. 

Starecheski says that she began to learn about the rich history through informal conversations with friends and neighbors who were telling stories that most people had never heard, and she began to record those conversations. The neighborhood “has a very strong public narrative about disinvestment and arson, everyone knows that story,” she said. But frantic rebuilding and “a lot of demographic change” in Mott Haven are less well known to the outside world, she added.

As the area’s real estate market heats up, with thousands of new units being built along the Port Morris waterfront and elsewhere, many longtime residents fear being priced out while a new wave of renters and homeowners move in. According to recent census figures, 40 percent of families in the neighborhood are below the poverty line, compared with 30 percent in the Bronx as a whole, and 17 percent citywide.

Danny Chervoni, the head gardener at Brook Park, is one of the lifelong residents Starecheski caught on tape. He told the story of his childhood growing up in the Patterson Houses. 

“Believe it or not, everybody wanted to move in there,” said Chervoni. “The projects were cool, there was a lot of socializing in those days, but now—forget it.”

Chervoni, who was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and moved to Mott Haven in his youth, says he grew up playing in the neighborhood’s rivers, backyards and playgrounds, a lifestyle that is now extinct. 

Another participant, Vivian Summers, 63, shared stories of living here in the early ‘80s. She blushed as she listened to an interview in which she recounted growing up in the neighborhood, describing the eclectic nightlife where  house parties and dancing competitions were held all the time. As a teenager, Summers attended many of those parties herself—much to the chagrin of her parents, she noted—and says she came into contact with people from all walks of life, whom she would not have met otherwise. 

“It was a really wild time,” said Summers.  “The neighborhood was nothing like what it is today. Hearing these stories in front of a crowd is a little embarrassing, but I’m glad I was able to share them.” 

Francesca Rios, a stay-at-home mother of two, pointed out that the recordings will help preserve the history of immigrant families like hers that came to the U.S., desperately seeking jobs to feed their families.

“These were people looking for a better future, whether it was economic or educational,” said Rios, 43. “We wanted to better ourselves and felt we were able to do so here in the States.”

Early immigrants created organizations and helped to make the neighborhood what it is, she said, but later generations of immigrants, who more easily assimilated into American culture, felt less need to create and join those groups. She says she hopes projects like these will push more young people to take interest in their roots and help keep some of their traditions alive. 

“The community does not know its own past,” said Rios. “They need to know where they came from so they can see where they are going.” 

Starecheski said she plans to continue collecting stories and making them available for wider release online. She hopes that the community can benefit, not only by being entertained but by taking important messages beyond the neighborhood. 

“I think that studying the history of Mott Haven can help us to think about ways to solve these problems that are community-led,” Starecheski said. “We need fixes that work to avoid displacement.”

Excerpts of the recordings can be found at motthavenhistory.org