by Bill Batson
My first Nyack Sketch Log, published on August 23, 2011, was an early exercise in truth telling. Liberty Street is Aptly named tells the story of how my African American family achieved middle class status in Nyack in the 1880s, a stunning accomplishment when you consider that slavery was only 17 years dead, and racial discrimination in American was in its infancy. As a memoir, the column gave me a way to explore my personal history, conducting research I might not have ordinarily embarked on, and it let me shine a light on the history of thousands of other black families who live outside of the comprehension of strangers and neighbors not shackled by the stigma of bondage.
On February 22, I will begin teaching a memoir writing class at the Nyack Center that encourages others to write their truths. During the six week course, I will help students use words and images to tell their stories. Scholarships are available. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to participate.
When I began this column seven years ago, I had the hubristic goal of telling every story behind every address in our one-square mile village. That conceit quickly collapsed. I realized that there are too many stories and not enough story tellers. After a few years, and hundreds of posts I’ve barely scratched the surface of untold stories. The only way to manage the storyteller shortage is to crowd source the problem, to enlist a murmuration of memoirists. I quickly found a bird of that feather. One afternoon, when I was giving a talk for my first Nyack Sketch Log book at Valley Cottage Library, I met an 88 year-old, aspiring author named June Sundvik
I helped June publish her memoir Life on Old Mill Road from 1750 t0 1950 in October. I was elated to be able to help a local author add a volume to the library. I next set out to unleash an entire class room of autobiographers. The work of my Sketch Logging class at the Learning Collaborative is published every Sunday on NyackNewsAndViews in a column called Words & Images. Not only do my students produce a document that their progeny will treasure, there is an opportunity be published online.
Last month, I directed the Nyack Record Shop Project, that will submit three dozen oral histories from the African American community to the Nyack Library. When scholars sit down to research this period of Rockland County history, they will find an abundant supply of first person material. This history will not be shaped solely a few elite voices, but a chorus of common people, whom history often forgets or misconstrues.
Join me to develop a short essay, illustrated by a photo or drawing that tells your story. Make a permanent mark on the narrative of our time. Help a family member or neighbor tell their truth.
The impulse to leave a legacy of words behind that chronicle our experience is powerful, but often unrequited. Don’t let your story go silent, or get told by someone else. Join me every Thursday at the Nyack Farmers at the Nyack Center starting on February 22 and tell your truth. I’m listening.
Liberty Street is Aptly Named
August 23, 2011
This house and this street are the remnants of Nyack’s oldest middle class black neighborhood. In the early twentieth century, when Edward Hopper was a teenager, a group of African American families bought homes in Nyack. Homeownership by blacks in Nyack was a stunning achievement when you consider the fact that merely fifty years earlier blacks owned nothing: blacks were owned.
The speed of this reversal in fortune is hard to comprehend. In historic terms, fifty years is a tiny interval. Fifty years ago was 1961. Imagine a family advancing from slavery to home ownership in the time span that America went from black and white TV to digital cable. My 60’s reference is purposeful irony. It was urban renewal; a phenomenon of that era that destroyed the middle class black community that many refer to as Jackson Avenue. Almost obliterated, that is, except for this house on Liberty Street.
My great grandparents purchased the house on Jackson Avenue. My grandmother used the meager sum that she got through the condemnation process of the eminent domain debacle to buy another home. The only saving grace is that this site now holds much needed affordable housing and a senior citizen development.
As I sat on the ground in front of this modest structure and drew, a parking enforcement officer walked toward me. I asked him if he was going to ticket me for squatting in a parking space. He laughed and said if that was the case, he would have written me up weeks ago; having seen me numerous times perched on the curb side drawing. I think he chose this moment to say hello because he approved of my subject matter. It turns out that he knew my aunt, who was once the Deputy Village Clerk and who grew up on Jackson Avenue.
I was then approached by a local artist who told me she admires, but avoids representational drawings. She is an abstract painter, which I told her I envy. She lamented the demands of linear perspective, telling me how she would throw in the towel after the first line went astray. Watching my imprecise and quivering depiction, she thought aloud that if she could have forgiven herself the occasional errant mark, she would have seen that the whole is greater than the sum of its imperfect parts.
Because I draw free hand with black ink on white paper, I confront the fear of failure with every pen stroke. Yet I persist and complete each drawing, motivated by my attachment to the village and enriched by my random interactions with the villagers. That someone who loves Nyack and making art would consider drawing from life after meeting me on this special site was invigorating. During this encounter, I could feel the freedom that my ancestors must have felt on this spot. As modest as this home appears, its very existence and hidden history is profound and I am pleased to have archived it. The cartographers got this one right. Liberty Street is aptly named.