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Gotham Center In the News - Time Out New York October 4-11, 2001

Yesterday's news
The city's past makes new headlines at the Gotham History Festival
By Billie Cohen

"What's the worst thing you can say about a person who's a total loser?" asks Mike Wallace, coauthor of Gotham and director of the CUNY Graduate Center's Gotham Center. "You say, "He's history." "Not surprisingly, Wallace isn't a big fan of that terminology. "That's not our notion of things," he continues. "Our notion is that the past is very much alive, and it flows very powerfully into the present." Along with 400 other history buffs, he'll set out to convince the rest of the city of that during the Gotham History Festival, Friday 5 through October 14.

The event-laden festival, copresented by the Gotham Center and just about every history-oriented organization in the city, brings together a host of academics and celebrities (including Martin Scorsese, Ric Burns, The Encyclopedia of New York editor Kenneth Jackson and cartoonist Ben Katchor) for a look back at the city's heritage through film, books, landmarks and historical happenings.

Starting with a preview and roundtable discussion of the final episodes in Burns's New York: A Documentary Film on Friday 5 and running through Sunday 7, history lovers can attend more than 100 free panel discussions, debates and film screenings at the CUNY Graduate Center. Simultaneously and throughout the following week, participating institutions will present additional events, including walking tours all across the city. That's a historical accomplishment in itself. "There has never been, in anybody's living memory, even a conference of New York City history, much less a festival,"says Wallace.

Part of the reason for that was the difficulty of aligning the myriad historical organizations in the city. "We've got terrific things all around town, but there's no coordinated focus on increasing their collective visibility," says Wallace. Of course, this mammoth effort could have been derailed by more. Than Just logistics. But rather than complicating the matter, the September 11 tragedy solidified the organizers' determination. "There was no debate whatsoever to continue with the festival," Wallace states emphatically. "This is so obviously pertinent at a time when the city is reeling in shock. It is more important than ever to have a gathering that allows New Yorkers to experience and recall their continuities. This is a 400-year-old city with enormous inornentum, and issues that were there six months ago are goingtobe there six months hence." He adds, "Now there are new issues as well, but consideration of the past has an enormous bearing on how we think about the present."

Some of the panel discussions now plan to incorporate issues raised by the World Trade Center disaster. The Saturday-morning leadoff discussion, in which Wallace, Jackson and other historians were going to cover New York City history from 1945 to 2000, will now stretch to September 11, 2001, and beyond. Other already scheduled discussions, such as the history of Arab-Americans in New York City and the history of Journalism are also likely to address theattacks.

Despite the challenges, expects the festival to be well attended-and not just by academics and teachers, "I'm convinced that there are huge numbers of buffs all around the city, but nobody has quite recognized them as a constituency," he says. "Nationally, more people go to history-related events than go to all of the sports events combined." If that's true, the week's presentations are likely to be pretty crowded. But don't worry if you can't get in-history will repeat itself. The Gotham Center plans to host one of these festivals every other year.


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