Piecing History Together After Sandy
One of the smaller communities in New York City, as defined by shared geography, is Broad Channel. According to the 2010 Census, less than 2,500 residents share this a sliver of an island in Jamaica Bay, where canals separate some side streets and only one through-street — Cross Bay Boulevard — provides a connection to the rest of Queens. This tiny, close-knit enclave celebrates its existence every two years with Historical Day.
The occasion landed on Oct. 28 in 2012, one day before Sandy did. The main event was the Broad Channel Historical Society’s exhibition, which included its collection of photos and memorabilia, a book-signing and the sale of the new 2013 calendar, touted for its all-important listing of high tide times. The October calendar image is unintentionally prescient: a rowboat delivering mail in 1947 after flooding.
Even though many people were busy securing their homes in advance of the storm, the society went ahead with Historical Day at the VFW Hall.
“We had the day planned, so we figured we might as way do it and some people actually came,” said the society’s chairperson, Barbara Toborg.
One day later, many of Broad Channel’s approximately 950 homes were ruined by Sandy, as was much of the collection, though some of it was protected by its placement in plastic containers.
Ultimately, the timing of the one-day exhibition may have been a saving grace. The society couldn’t return the items to their normal home at the Broad Channel Library because it was closed on Sunday and they didn’t want to leave it at the VFW since it bordered an inlet of Jamaica Bay. Instead, members brought the collection of photos dating to the early 20th century, civic association minutes, books and audio-visual materials to the storage room the society rents at the former St. Virgilius Parochial School.
Though St. Virgilius did flood, damage at the VFW Hall and the library, which remains closed, was worse.
After the water receded and despite suffering the wreckage of their own homes, historical society members and volunteers quickly got to work rescuing the water-logged collection at donated space in Howard Beach. For five days, volunteers dried out books and paper in the dining halls of Russo’s on the Bay and Vetro Restaurant, both on Cross Bay Boulevard and temporarily closed due to storm damages of their own.
“Broad Channel people have a talent for organizing and contacting elected officials and getting things done,” Toborg said, but she was at a loss when it came to applying to any kind of storm-recovery grants.
She explained, “We’re all volunteers so can’t apply for nonprofit cultural grants, we’re not a 501C-3, so we can’t apply to FEMA. We have money in bank from previous fundraising but it’s daunting what we will have to replace. Our laminator and DVD player were destroyed. We have [recorded] interviews. Regular paper, laminating sleeves are gone.”
The act of preserving history and having the resources for conservation efforts is a challenge.
“I’m often astonished at amount and quality of work that friendly associations with an interest in history do…it’s hard to establish an historical society or incorporate as a nonprofit,” said Jacob Nadal, the director of library and archives at the Brooklyn Historical Society and an expert in the field of preservation.
He explained that recovery is very difficult even for established libraries, archives and museums (“LAMs” in conservation-speak). “The technology of recovery — things like the vacuum freeze-drying of collections, distributed digital preservation networks — are pretty well developed,” Nadal said. “The costs of those services are a stumbling block. Recovery funds for LAMs are extremely scarce.”
Broad Channel Historical Society was founded in 1994 with some seed money provided by then State Senator Ada Smith, but Broad Channel itself dates to the late 19th century. The Long Island Railroad put a station here in 1881, helping turn the cluster of vacation homes into a more permanent settlement.
One of its homespun holidays, Mardi Gras, is believed to have started in 1911 and is celebrated every Labor Day weekend with a parade, boat races and festivities.
When asked about proud moments in history for residents, Toborg answered, “I think being able to purchase the land after a struggle of 40 years with the city, that was Broad Channel’s finest hour. They owned their houses, but paid rent to city for land.”
In 1982, home owners won the right to purchase the land through state legislation. The society’s timeline cites that on Sept. 14, Mayor Edward Koch arrived by helicopter to present first deed.
One of the small, but meaningful artifacts damaged in the storm was the society’s framed copy of the state legislation with the pen used to sign it.
“Those kind of things you hate to lose,” said Toborg.
Toborg said they did save the bulk of written and pictorial materials, but by the week after Thanksgiving, a lot of the items had mildew growth. Toborg thought that water-curled photographs, including some from 1910, could be straightened out in a chemical bath, and that other papers could be straightened by ironing.
Beyond material losses, which Toborg felt were relatively minimal, what will hurt the work of the society in the near future is the dispersal of its members whose homes were destroyed. Toborg ticked off the names of four who have left Broad Channel, saying “They are as important a loss as anything else.”
Jenny Swadosh, an archivist by profession, and Albin Jones, who researches historical maps, relocated to Brooklyn but are determined to remain active in the society. “We love Broad Channel and the other members,” said Swadosh. “It’s an amazing place so we would like to preserve its history in any capacity we can.”
The society eventually moved the drying materials from the two dining establishments to Toborg’s home for further drying. But now, while her house is being renovated, Toborg will put the collection on the second floor of another place that she rents out.
While the society would like to find a better location, the rental property, she said, “at least gets us access to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” She continued, “It’s a tight-knit community. Come back in a year and I think things will be alright.”