Exploring the Past

Wandrille B.

Prof. Gold.

My first semester of College was a very interesting time for me, I was introduced to a variety of new things, from living on my own, a whole lot of architecture, to a great place full of some of the most accurate information one can get their hands on, the Brooklyn Historical society. The Historical society was a major part of my first semester in college, I was able to go in and visit, and dig into its hoard of knowledge, with the guidance of my professor and two very helpful ladies that worked there.Looking at hand written letters and documents going all the way back to the 19th century really changed my perception of learning . I was able to compare the lifestyle of different generations all the way up to my own, which helped me partially realize how the borough I live in became the way it is today. Not only does the Historical have an archive blooming with letters, documents, maps, novels and original photographs, but it also consistently has various interesting exhibits and an old antique style of architecture that absorbs one into its archives.

From the first day of attending the Historical society i’ve embarked on a new adventure, an adventure that would take me back in different periods of time. What set me off on this adventure was our first research assignment, Reading Lucy, written by Jennifer Egan. It took me back to the 1940s where at the time Brooklyn housed one of the worlds largest and most impressive shipyard. Lucy, a young women of the time, worked at the shipyard as many women did during World Two, as most of the men were out fighting in Europe and in the Pacific. Lucy was at the time in her 20s and married to a young soldier named Alfred.

The Library Of the Brooklyn Historical Society

On May 7, Lucy wrote, “Butchie – guess what! I had a dream last night about our having a baby-a couple of months old-cute + blond-and dressed in a regular basque shirt + shorts (Egan 27-28)” This is a sample of one of the letters used in Egan’s essay that shows the relationship between Lucy and her husband Alfred. Upon our first visit at the Historical society we had the opportunity to read and study the actual letters written by Lucy to alfred, which was very interesting. We read numerous letters of her letters, spending time trying to depict some of the words written ( as it was written in cursive). We read her letters all the way up until after the war, where they tried to decide on how to efficiently organize Lucy’s moving to California new where Alfred was now stationed. They first debated, because Lucy wanted to continue on working, instead of moving in right where Alfred was without a career of her own. Upon reading this first hand letter by Lucy, myself and a few other students discussed it over and came to the conclusion, that time must have been changing, as women became more inclined to have their own careers. Reading over the essay Reading Lucy and her own hand written letters changed the way I perceived the past, and made me start to compare it to the time I live in now.

Going now from how from learning how people lived generations before my own to how the great borough of Brooklyn became what it is today I learned to put more into consideration of how things affect the structure of cities. Starting with the article How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis written by John Wilford, I learned that Disease was a major part of what the structure of Brooklyn is now based on. “The disease hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods, particularly the slum known as Five Points, where African- Americans and immigrant Irish Catholics were crowded in squalor and stench (Wilford)”, “The epidemic left 3,515 dead out of a population of 250,000. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) (Wilford)” These two quotes from the article by Wilford are a great example of how Disease plays a major part of the structure of a city. In response to this disaster the city would soon have sewer projects underway to try and resolve the ongoing problem of the lack of hygiene. After reading this we were able to go to the Brooklyn Historical society and look at actual hand drawn plans of sewer systems. I find it very interesting to learn that because of such disasters we know now how to efficiently build a city that can host millions of people.

Map of Sewers, Courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society.

As the semester now comes to an end I look at all my experiences these past few months. I feel, as I always have when a school term ends, more mature and educated. The brooklyn historical society gave me a new insight on how things where. It took the past out history text books, movies and novels and brought it out in a much more realistic way, in letters written directly by actually people. Being able to see those different handwritings really did have a strange effect on me. At first I felt guilty to read into peoples private lives, but I very soon realized that I was reading it in the exact way that letters like these should be read, a way in which I wanted to learn how these people lived, how they responded to disasters and catastrophes. Because of them I live in a city that is sanitary and safe. For that I am very thankful. The Brooklyn Historical Society was a very positive part of my education, and I plan to return there and continue on with my adventure.

Works Cited:

Egan, Jennifer. “Brooklyn Was Mine”. RIVERHEAD BOOKS Published by the Penguit Group Penguin Croup (USA) Inc. .17! Hudson Street, NewYork, NewYork lOOl4, USA

Wilford, John. “How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis”. NY TIMES. April 15, 2008.

“They say/I say” : the moves that matter in academic writing / Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein.


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