Voices of Queensbridge: Pedagogical Overview of an Oral History Project
Adapted from writing in Voice of Queensbridge: Stories from the Nation’s Largest Public Housing Development
By Molly Rosner
In the fall of 2018, a group of LaGuardia Community College students embarked on a year-long project to document the experiences of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents as a part of a grant from the Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation. These stories were aimed at enriching the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives’ NYCHA collection, which contains over 30,000 photographs and over 180,000 documents primarily reflecting the agency’s perspective on public housing. The vastness of public housing in New York City necessitated that the students focus on one public housing project and Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing development, were selected due to abundant documentation of the development, and its vicinity to the college. The Queensbridge development houses over 6,000 people in 96 buildings and 3,142 apartments. Queensbridge is one of the more famous public housing projects in New York City, sitting amidst the rapidly developing waterfront of Queens.
With guidance from the staff at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, the Gardiner-Shenker Student Scholars were introduced to primary historical sources and spent time reading archival documents from the NYCHA collection. As the repository for the NYCHA papers, the archives provided students with the opportunity to study one of our most popular collections. Other than a few flyers from tenant association meetings and a newspaper called Normandeau News written by current and long-time resident Ray Normandeau (who was interviewed by a student during this project), the collection held little-to-no documentation of tenants’ experiences. Three LaGuardia Community College Social Science professors, held regular seminars to discuss the historical context and development of NYCHA.
In addition to primary documents, the students read secondary sources and screened a documentary about Queensbridge produced by Selena Blake. The students had the opportunity to meet with Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Social Science at NYIT and author of Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century, to ask questions about the history of public housing. After meeting with the students, he reflected, “By having the students work with the residents on these kinds of oral history projects. They have the opportunity to confront their own...prejudice about public housing. But also in the...materials they create they show that other side of public housing.”[i]
The students first met the residents when they were introduced and volunteered to distribute food at the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House. Others attended a Tenants Association meeting (at which one student read an original poem), and a group visited for the Riis Center’s Black History Month celebration. By meeting tenants repeatedly before asking them to be interviewed, the students and residents became more comfortable with each other. Students came to appreciate the Riis Center as a hub for residents. The students ranged in age, experience as researchers, and came from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Some had grown up in public housing while others had never personally encountered it. After this preparation, students attended an oral history workshop to learn best practices for conducting oral history interviews.
Oral History Workshops
There are two common misconceptions about conducting oral history interviews that lie on opposite ends of a spectrum. The first is that interviews are easy – that they require little preparation and are the same as a conversation. The second is that the act of asking people about their lives necessitates deep preparation and intensive research meant to preclude unforeseen scenarios. Both of these notions can produce poor interviews and awkward exchanges. The challenge when training students to conduct interviews is to help them maintain the delicate balance between careful listening and adherence to research in order to avoid either carelessness or over-caution. This was the primary challenge the staff faced in preparing a group of nine students to conduct their first oral history interviews.
To this day, oral history as a practice is met with skepticism in some academic institutions. Despite documentation of rich and informative oral history projects coming out of universities and other organizations, critics still doubt the value of a source that is “subjective,” fallible, and in flux, as people and stories tend to be. The social history movement that gained traction in the 1970s helped overhaul some of the assumptions about which sources were and were not trustworthy or valuable and questioned the superiority attributed to written sources. The movement “called archival neutrality into question” and historians “turned their attention from studying prominent political leaders and organizations to focusing on understanding society through the experiences of groups under-documented by ‘mainstream’ repositories.” In fact, as women, people of color, and other marginalized communities became the focal point of historical studies, “historians needed materials about these subjects that the archives did not contain.”[ii] Even leading Oral History repositories (like that of Columbia University) did not initially retain the audio of an interview – and the emotions and subtleties that audio conveys – and reused cassette tapes after the interviews had been transcribed, erasing the recording forever.
The students were tasked with identifying gaps in knowledge about the Queensbridge housing development, to fill in the silences and holes in our archival sources and to document perspectives that weren’t represented in their reading. This felt contradictory to them at times since after doing so much reading they were asked to consider what was being left out. The premise was that there is value in the unheard narratives of the people who lived in the Queensbridge Houses. Alessandro Portelli, possibly the foremost living oral historian, states, “Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did. Oral sources may not add much to what we know, for instance, of the material cost of a strike to the workers involved; but they tell us a good deal about its psychological costs.”[iii]
Throughout their work students had to confront their own biases about public housing. The interviews they conducted introduced them to stories that both reinforced and undermined those preconceptions and they came out of the project with a more nuanced and human understanding of Queensbridge and its residents.
As the group continued to research at the archives, the students began to generate questions for their interviews. The students designed open-ended interview questions based on what they had read. The students began to see firsthand that, “the importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to fact, but rather in its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge,” as Portelli observes.[iv]
Workshops have long been a standard practice for preparing people to conduct interviews in the field of oral history. They give people a chance to experience some of the nuances of interviewing before they begin officially collecting stories. During the workshops, each student took time to be interviewed and to be the interviewer. The goal of the training was, in part, to put students at ease about conducting an interview by providing them with tangible skills and techniques. The students recorded their practice interviews on their phones, and reflected on what was challenging and what was exciting about interviewing their peers. The group worked through the questions they’d drafted during their archival research to make them more open-ended. They were encouraged to continue practicing with their friends and family before their Queensbridge interviews.
The students asked tenants – most of whom had lived in the projects for decades – about issues they had learned about in the archival documents like maintenance, crime, community policing, and employment. One student, Channing Powers, saw that what he had read confirmed in his some of his interviews, “Ms. Jones validated what the [student] team was shown in the archives, which was the effectiveness of keeping crime down while police were on-foot patrolling the grounds, and the ineffectiveness when they suddenly switched to policing from their vehicles.” Channing initially stuck closely to his list of questions, but as he became a more confident interviewer, he realized he could trust that the tenant was a trove of information and would have things to say about the topics he had researched and beyond. Channing said, “If given the opportunity to interview again, I would give more space to each subject to reveal what those experiences were like...”[v] This was an important lesson for the students, that despite all their planning the most important thing they could do was listen and give the seniors space to expound on their answers. This valuable lesson could only have been learned through practice.
Although the older tenants spoke frequently about the strength of their community and the importance of their neighbors and the Riis Center, the harsh realities of an underfunded public housing system consistently came to light during the interviews. Margaret Barnes told a student, “I have to call constantly if I want something done. One thing that I’m trying to fight right now and trying to get a petition [for] is why we have to wait so long to get things fixed, if they fix the small things, it won’t go into a bigger project. The intercoms. If you don’t call them several times, there should be no reason or have someone explain to us what’s going on if they are going to do it or not do it.”[vi]
These were issues that the students had encountered in their research and the archival record was now bolstered by first-hand reports of tenants’ experiences.
Challenges and Opportunities
One challenging question about interviewing came up repeatedly among the students: how does someone balance listening to the narratives of the tenants whose stories will range in topics, while finding answers to the questions their research had raised for them? Because students felt nervous about conducting their interviews and because of the emphasis in the project on archival records, they had to learn to appreciate the value of the historical background they had come to understand but simultaneously resist relying too heavily on scripted questions. They had to learn that research, while crucial, should not be a crutch that precludes careful listening.
The goal of oral history is not to replicate the story that the documents in the archives have already told. Archival research can provide historical context but likely will not answer all the questions about human experience that need answering. Sometimes students felt they received mixed messages from the staff, hearing that they should follow their script exactly and know what questions to ask, but then learning that interviews are unpredictable and they should follow the lead of the person they are interviewing. Portelli notes that “rigidly structured interviews may exclude elements whose existence or relevance were previously unknown to the interviewer… Such interviews tend to confirm the historian’s previous frame of reference.”[vii] Often, a workshop must focus on getting students to find security in the uncomfortable place of the unknown and to rely less on their list of questions than they would like.
Over the course of three months, the students conducted about twenty interviews with Queensbridge residents. There was a general understanding that these oral histories were important, and residents continued to show up. One resident, Gene Golden, noted, “Everybody here is a library, so when we pass, we have lost the library, and nobody is going to the library these days…If you have something somebody needs, share it.”[viii]
The students’ visits to the Riis Center – volunteering, participating in meetings and eating meals together – substituted for the formal pre-interview experience. For the Queensbridge interviews, many subjects have lived their whole lives in the housing project so a life history interview approach is appropriate in that it is all at least peripherally related to the experience of growing up and living in public housing. Gaining tenants’ perspectives on the events they read about was truly important, though not the complete story. In their training, students needed to be cognizant of this disjuncture between their research and their interviews. This disconnect was not only acceptable, it is expected and, in fact, useful.
After the Interview
With increasingly accessible technological tools for sharing interviews, editing audio, and publishing work comes a set of ethical and legal questions that we had to confront with this project. The Oral History Association’s description of Best Practices states that “the repository should comply to the extent to which it is aware with the letter and spirit of the interviewee’s agreement with the interviewer and sponsoring institution.”[ix]
The Archives’ release form technically gave us permission to use the interviews online and in media beyond the walls of the archives. Nonetheless, because tenants and students may not have had the same understanding of the myriad uses of the oral history interviews, we decided to keep the full interview audio recordings of the interviews for internal use only by visitors to the archives who made an appointment. Only excerpts that would not jeopardize the narrators’ legal status, personal relationships, or private information would be used in our mini-documentary and the book that came out of the project.
It is only once the interviews begin that the important stories really become clear. Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack write in their essay Learning to Listen, “The shift of focus from data gathering to interactive process affects what the researcher regards as valuable information.”[x] The lessons shift as the interviews take place. Students learn about how stories solidify and shift upon deep reflection. Portelli writes, “Memory, in fact, is not a mere depository of information, but rather an ongoing process of elaboration and reconstruction of meaning.”[xi]
As is often the case, this oral history project continues to grow and change in its “afterlife.” The group has repeatedly returned to the Jacob Riis Center to share the work that has come out of the interviews. In October 2018, myself and Amanda Jones, a student from the project who had conducted six oral history interviews, attended the Oral History Association Annual Meeting in Montreal, Canada and presented the project at the Poster Session. Among scholars and students, Amanda learned about the wider world of oral history projects and came to understand more fully the responsibility that comes with using interviews as documentation.
At the conference, her work was treated with respect. She shared, “I have limited formal academic experience, so this conference was a foray into a whole new world. The opportunity to meet and connect with people — many of whom were …challenged my presumptions that academic life is methodical and boring.” Oral history methodology proves that the personal is, indeed, academic and academia and empathy are not mutually exclusive.
Amanda came to understand the weight of handling someone’s story with respect and mutual ownership. She wrote that “During a panel, a conversation regarding best practices discussed informed consent. I’ve understood the importance of obtaining a signature, a release that says it’s okay for me to record you talking. But informed consent is so much more: it’s an agreement between two people, a contract that obligates the interviewer to honor and respect the interviewee by making sure both know exactly who is giving consent and for what. As the person asking the questions, the consent must be explicit.”
She learned how much trust is involved in caring for someone’s life story. As she put it, “I’ve now become morally responsible for making sure they are treated carefully and respectfully, and to honor my side of the contract.” The post-interview responsibilities are indeed crucial to maintaining trust with those who have shared their stories and the students saw that they needed to become a part of the community in order to effectively collect and preserve these narratives.
Telijah Patterson, a LaGuardia student who grew up in public housing but was always warned by her mother not to talk with her neighbors, reflected, “it was really interesting because I feel like the project really brought to light the more positive aspects of Queensbridge and public housing. I’ve lived most of my life in the projects. I was even able to change my own perception of public housing.” Manuel Arbelnez had a similar revelation after doing interviews at Queensbridge housing, and he began playing basketball and making use of the courts in the housing project that he lives in.[xii] As Portelli states, “Thus, the specific utility of oral sources for the historian lies, not so much in their ability to preserve the past, as in the very changes wrought by memory. These changes reveal the narrators’ effort to make sense of the past and to give a form to their lives, and set the interview and the narrative in their historical context.”[xiii] The students’ experiences of their own surroundings were altered by their encounters with the residents of Queensbridge.
Susan Boyce, a resident interviewed during the project, echoed this sentiment, “People think that people who live on NYCHA property are not well-educated, well-respected people. We have a lot of people here who have meaningful jobs, blue-collar or executive positions, correctional officers, nurses, nurse’s aides, teachers, teaching assistants, we have all kinds of people here who do different work and they take pride in their home and where they live…” [xiv]
These filmed interviews have been transcribed and are currently being added to the NYCHA collection at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives. The recordings will provide researchers with information from the people who know Queensbridge most intimately.
Throughout this project, there have been many levels of learning taking place simultaneously – about the content (what jobs people had when they came to live at Queensbridge, etc.), about getting to know your neighbors, but also about the common misconceptions about public housing that these interviews were working to dispel. The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives will continue to collect and preserve their stories.
Molly Rosner is Assistant Director of Education Programs at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark and her MA in Oral History from Columbia University.
[i] Nicholas Degan Bloom, Interview with Molly Rosner and Paul Anderson, September 18, 2018.
[ii] Ellen D. Swain, “Oral History and the Archive,” The Oral History Reader, 2nd ed., New York: Routledge, Eds. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, p. 347.
[iii] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991, p. 50.
[iv] Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,” The Oral History Reader, p. 37.
[v] Channing Powers, Student, interview with Molly Rosner, May 21, 2018.
[vi] Margaret Barnes, Resident, interview with Javon Sanders, March 23, 2018.
[vii] Portelli, “What Makes Oral history Different,” p. 39.
[viii] Gene Golden, Resident, interview with Channing Powers at the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House, April 17, 2018.
[ix] “Principles for Oral History and Best Practices for Oral History,” Oral History Association, Adopted October, 2009, https://www.oralhistory.org/about/principles-and-practices-revised-2009/. Accessed Fall 2018.
[x] Katheryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack, “Learning to Listen,” Oral History Reader, p. 140.
[xi] Portelli, A Dialogical Relationship: An Approach to Oral History, p. 5.
[xii] Interviews with Telijah Patterson and Manuel Arbelaez by Molly Rosner, May 21st, 2018.
[xiii] Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,” Oral History Reader, 37-38.
[xiv] Susan Boyce, Resident, interview with Mary E. Naughton at Jacob A. Riis Settlement House, March 23, 2018.