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National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University®

The Hofstra Suburban Oral History Project

An Overview

The suburbs have transformed America and no place more so than Long Island, New York. Nassau and Suffolk Counties may comprise one of the nation’s oldest suburban regions, but they are changing rapidly.  As one journalist put it, “They’re not your mother and father’s suburbs anymore.”  It’s a story of new immigrants and old poverty merging with old money and new wealth. It’s a uniquely American story that demands to be told in the voices and images of the people who live here. And the first people whose memories must be recorded for posterity are suburbia’s first pioneers, especially the poor and people of color whose stories were rarely told beyond their own neighborhoods. Now they will be told and preserved.

Thanks to a generous grant by Richard and Jack Turan, through the Turan Family Foundation, the Hofstra Suburban Oral History Project is being overseen by The National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University® to capture and disseminate these stories to schools, scholars, libraries and other receptive venues. NCSS is a non-partisan research institution that, under Executive Dean Lawrence Levy and Academic Director Christopher Niedt PhD, has become recognized for its innovative initiatives on diversity and sustainability. The Project has been directed by James Levy PhD, formerly of Hofstra and now at University of Wisconsin. Other expert participants include Dr. Louise Skolnik and Dr. Richard Skolnik, distinguished academics and oral historians who have dedicated their careers and personal lives to addressing social ills. Dr. Levy, the Skolniks and others involved with the project are adept in the techniques and technology to make oral histories tools for community and family awareness.

The overall goal of the project is to create an accessible  record of the people of suburbia, starting with the now elderly who left cities and country towns after World War II for these “in-between” places where they could afford a home of their own. But the Project offers other benefits to participants on both sides of the microphone or video recorder. Unlike other such efforts, the HSOHP has been professionally planned so the interviews include people of all classes and races, including those already here when their towns and fields changed forever. In addition to professional researchers, interviews have been conducted by students and community members who have been carefully trained to acquire valuable skills that can be applied locally in schools and neighborhood centers. In bringing together young and old,  rich and poor, black and white, this Project can bridge social chasms and inspire change.

But collecting the stories is only part of the Project. With the aid of Streetside Stories of San Francisco, and project fellows Debra Willett and David Byre-Tyre, a curriculum for sixth graders has been developed and tested in the classroom to great enthusiasm by administrators, teachers and students. With the assistance and advice of the Long Island Social Studies Teachers Association, interviews and documents are being shared with 8th grade social studies teachers so they can be used as part of the units on the Civil Rights era, making sure that Long Island’s story is told as part of its teaching. A website is under construction. A documentary film is being produced by award winning filmmaker Jordan Crafton. An exhibit on the black suburban experience is being planned with a major museum and research center. More and more community outreach meetings are scheduled to make sure that residents are part not just as subjects but planners of this Project.

The recordings and their transcripts are housed at Hofstra’s Long Island Studies Institute and will be freely available for use by anyone, but especially policy-makers, historians, journalists and teachers – the latter to use as part of their local history courses, from grade school to graduate study. As the first wide-angled, ground-level, evolving portrait of a major suburban area from the perspective of its residents, the histories are being systematically indexed and subjected to analysis to provide grist for research.

In the first phase of the Project, ethnic minorities, immigrants, the poor, service workers, laborers, and homemakers are being interviewed first to makes sure their voices can be heard forever as part of the complex cacophony of life in suburbia. This initial focus is on African Americans who lived here at the “dawn of the suburban era.” Many of them, often because of segregating practices and policies, could not live everywhere that whites did. These experiences are priceless. So were stories about living through the Civil Rights era on Long Island, including those who witnessed Martin Luther King’s visit to Nassau. A second phase, for which we are seeking funding, is expected to focus on the Hispanic experience on Long Island.

Sharing these experiences will allow whites and minorities alike to appreciate the contributions of people who were part of the suburban story but who, even now, are often marginalized from the mainstream.