This article is the third and final in a three-part series examining the Brooklyn Historical Society’s ongoing oral history project “Voices of Crown Heights.” In this post, current OHMA student Meave Warnock Sheehan (2016) looks at what it means to “live” a public policy and how oral history can be used to uncover both noticeable and more subtle changes over time.
Here, the changes are residents’ perceptions of the frequency of their interactions with police and the amount of criminal activity in their neighborhood. Their experiences of living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, shortly after violent events shook the area are now available to the public as part of the Voices of Crown Heights project at Brooklyn Historical Society. Time stamps are given for the full audio interview with one resident that is referenced throughout this post.
You can’t be alone-- you had to be in a group and you had to be hard to stay in that group. ’Cause if you didn’t stay hard, you were soft and you was out. -- You was once again prey to everybody. [20:12]
This advice was given in August 1993 by a young African American man, Iyedun Ince, living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His audio interview is one of many that Zaheer Ali, the oral historian at Brooklyn Historical Society, used at a recent workshop to engage OHMA workshop attendees in critical listening exercises.
Ali urged students to find the broader patterns within these interviews, many of which were recorded in 1993-1994. The interviewees—commonly referred to as “narrators” in the oral history field—were living in what was seen as a contested space, with racial and ethnic tensions playing out between the Lubavitch (a Hasidic Jewish sect) and the neighborhood’s black residents.
If you listen carefully, the recordings offer evidence of what Ali called the “personal lived experience of a public policy.”
Giving one example of how to analyze an interview in this way, Ali used an excerpt where a black Crown Heights resident describes his repeated interactions with and observations of police. Acknowledging that the neighborhood has become safer over time, the resident describes different policing tactics the police used at varying points in the area as criminal activity lessened. At first, he is searched on a routine basis by police on foot; then, he observes the police shift to patrolling in vehicles as criminal activity goes down.
Today, such methods would commonly be known as “stop and frisk” and “community policing.” The hallmark of community policing is assigning the same officers to one area over time so that they become familiar with the concerns of residents, thereby potentially improving relations between police and the public. The stop-and-frisk policy has been much debated in the media.
While New York City has greatly reduced the use of stop-and-frisk searches, the tactic is cited by some as a factor in crime reduction and was a topic in recent presidential debates. With an interview such as this, the narrator provides insight into residents’ perceptions of how “quickly” or “slowly” this tactic changed their neighborhood, as well as their comfort level or discomfort with different tactics.
Interviews with Iyedun Ince and his fellow residents are currently available on the Brooklyn Historical Society website and were featured in a BHS podcast episode titled, Whose Crown Heights? The people interviewed make observations about violence, co-existence. and responsibility that are as relevant as ever.
Early in his interview, Ince explains how violence had changed: The days of using your hands to settle an argument is over. Now it’s pull out a gun and blow ‘em away and there’s no need for any more arguments ever. Period. That’s it.-- [18:50]
Ince references the film Falling Down (1993) in which the film’s protagonist responds to his environment with increasing violence. Christoper Allen, founder and director of UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art, who spoke at the OHMA Workshop Series earlier this fall, mentioned “rumbles” or street fights that mainly involved knives and fists, which took place in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, this had changed. Ince stresses both the switch to a more deadly type of violence and its prominent place in the culture at large.
The narrator makes a point about the education system that policy makers have heard before: You see in school what the prison system is like. You cannot be alone. You absolutely positively cannot be alone. If you’re alone, you’re dead. [20:12]
In 2016 terms, this is commonly referred to by some policy makers as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Ince brings to any such policy debate the sense that, for him, and his viewpoint from over 20 years ago, this reality was already normalized at that point.
The narrator is speaking at the precipice of what turned out to be a new era for New York City in terms of the drop in its crime rate. From 1994 onward, when stop and frisk was introduced as part of a new policing strategy that intended to stop crime before it occurs, NYC has experienced a decline in crime. But, ultimately, a community policing effort cannot work without the help of the community. Ince senses the new turn in direction, noting that he hears fewer gunshots, and says, There’s more of a community minded ethic and I think that’s what’s really needed [49:24].
These interviews, originally conducted in partnership with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and Weeksville Heritage Center, will soon be available through the Oral History Portal on Brooklyn Historical Society’s website. The Brooklyn Historical Society this year began a new, multi-year project, “Voices of Crown Heights.” The oral histories are ongoing.
Growing up, Meave Warnock Sheehan was told that all she needed was a dollar and a dream. Unfortunately, the people who told her that were really into gambling. (It was the NY State lotto slogan for years).
In spite of such potentially corruptive influences, Meave now holds a BA in English, an MA in Liberal Studies, and a two-dollar bill from a toll attendant on the NJ Turnpike who said it would bring good luck. She also understands the power that narratives have in our lives and encourages even those who may be without dollars or dreams to take heart.
Meave’s interests include local history, military history, podcasting, and the performance of storytelling.