All History is Local

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When I use the term local history, I am usually referring to Yardley, Bucks County, Philadelphia, maybe Pennsylvania history.  But local history is everywhere.  When I travel I like to read about the area, city, or state that I am visiting.  I think the first time I ever did this was on our post Peace Corps training trip across the northern tier of the United States, heading east from Seattle.  I bought a paperback copy of The Journals of Lewis and Clark and took great pleasure reading pages that corresponded  to areas we were traveling through.

Sometimes before a trip I will seek out local titles and I frequently buy books from independent bookstores in the places we visit. They usually have a good selection and I like supporting independents.  University presses frequently publish local books. Check out Princeton’s selection of NJ books or the University of Virginia’s area books.  Closer to home, University of Pennsylvania and Temple University publish many books related to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1970s, quipped, “All Politics is Local.”  I hadn’t really put it in those terms until today but, “All History is Local.”  Writing the Declaration of Independence is national history but in Philadelphia it’s local.  The Holocaust is World history but visit Dachau or Ravensbruck and it’s a local story.  Last week in the Library, I noticed a book, “The Archaeology of Home: an epic set on a thousand square feet of the lower east side” by Katharine Greider.  It caught my attention because several months ago, Diane and I, with John and Barbara Paglione, explored the Lower East Side in New York City.  One afternoon, we hired a guide to give us a personal two hour tour of the neighborhood — it was fantastic. We also took an evening tour — behind the scenes — at the Tenement Museum.  We had dinner a few blocks away at Russ and Daughter’s new cafe.  If you are unfamiliar with R & D, it’s a classic Lower East Side Jewish deli.  About a year ago, I read, “Russ and Daughters: reflections and recipes from the house that herring built” by Mark Russ Federman.  Local history and food history with recipes in the same book.  Can’t ask for more.

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Greider’s book, “The Archaeology of Home” is classic local history in the way it explores one specific property.  When I taught Local History at Holy Ghost Prep, one assignment was often to document a building.  It could be a “historic” building — independence Hall, Growden Mansion (Bensalem).  But wait every building has a history.  I recall one paper, about a student’s grandparents’ Kensington row home.  He video taped many details related to stories that made the property his grandparents home.  Another fantastic paper was a documentation of the old Biberry Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. The HGP student in my class, was given a tour by several  14-15 year old kids high on drugs.  I choked when I looked at the photographs he took from the rafters of one abandoned building (teacher liability).  But his paper was the best.  He compared the historic mentally ill inmates with the current flying high denizens.  Local and ethnographic research at it’s best.  Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of the paper.

Katherina Greider and her husband David, with two young children, owned and lived in a floor of a Lower East Side row home (former tenement) at 239 E. 7th street.  An architect hired to guide them through renovations called one night with catastrophic news.  Digital photographs revealed that the building was unsafe.  Katherine, her family, and other building residents, were advised “to get the hell out.”  They did.  Part of the book is the struggle to find a new place to live, deal with the multiple ownership, financial issues, family life and a law suit.  But  Greider also became  a local historian as she begins a project to discover the history of 239.  Her research details the marsh where the house and neighborhood was built, Lenap occupation of the area, German and later Jewish immigrants that lived in and formed the character of the neighborhood and house.

Greider wasn’t the easiest read for me. Maybe I just dozed off too frequently in some hot afternoons. But I loves the thread of her story, her passion to find out who lived there, why, what happened.  The excitement of putting the pieces together.  Connecting the story of the residents of 239 with the neighborhood, city and broader national and international happenings.  In short, doing local history.

My own formal exposure to Local History was a National Endownment for the Arts program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1980s.  Walter Licht, a Penn history professor, taught the month long workshop.  Walter was a new breed of 1960s historian who did what was labeled “New Social History.”  NSH simple was the history of “everyday life as lived by average people.”  Traditional history was the story of the rich, famous, politically and socially important. New Social History dove-tailed with local history, family and community history, ethnic history, African American and women’s history.   So a more political  defination of NSH would emphasize the daily life of the marginalized, women, African Americans, and other racial and ethnic groups.

In the 1990s, National History Standards took a New Social History focus.  Activities related to core standards consistently used examples from Women’s and African-American history. Critics screamed  that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were left out (not really true) and substituted their story with the story of slaves.  Yes, there was  a liberal bias, a slant to the story some historians thought was not traditionally taught.  Congress (who had funded the project) condemned the new standards.  The standards were re-written (basically eliminating the suggested activities).  In a few years the history standard controversy became a footnote in the the history of America’s culture wars.

Walter Licht, formally a labor historian, opened my eyes to New Social History and Local History.  For the month I took an early train to Philadlephia, camera in hand, explored the city until our class started at  about 9 p clock.  Most days involved morning lectures and afternoon field trips — The Pennsylvania Historical Association, The Library Company, Temple’s Urban Archives, Clivedon and other Germantown sites, Franklin Court and Old City, independence Hall, Elfreth’s  Alley, the African American Museum, Balch Institute and Atwater Kent Museum.  My final project was a slide presentation of Philadlephia Local History.

After the National Endowment program, I began to teach a Local History course at HGP.  In a way it became my signature course — I probably taught close to 20 classes. Every year I used the final project slide project.   The heart of the course, however, was students doing research on a specific neighborhood or municipality. In Pennsylvania, you live in the state, a county (Bucks, Philadelphia, Montgomery), a municipality (city, township — like Lower Makefield — or borough, like Yardley, Or Bristol).   You may also use a neighborhood name — in  Philadelphia — Kensington, West Philadelphia, Torresdale, in Lower Makefield Township — Dolington or Woodside.  And/or you may identify with a development — Yardley Commons, Polo Run.  Confused. Many students were confused.  But they picked an area and learned something about it’s istory.

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For me one of the best part of the Local History course was that we took two field trips — until the administration at HGP decided that field trips were too much trouble, not worthwhile, disruptive to learning. I was never sure why,  they were eliminated for several years.  But for most of my Local History classes we took a field trip to Philadelphia and one to Bucks County (sometimes never getting beyond Bristol borough).

I taught for over 40 years.  Traditionally, teachers don’t get a lot of feedback from students.  But of all the feedback I’ve gotten over the years, a lot has been related to local history. Frequently, former students tell me how they are interested in their community history, how they look up at the original facade of commercial buildings or down at the plated in the sidewalk.  They see historic markers, different architectural styles, and ask questions about who lived here, what was life like, what did they eat and drink.  They are junior new social, local historians.  Which is good, I think.  History surrounds us; all history is local.

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