Academics and Advocacy: Where should Public Historians draw the line?

University of the Streets is a non-profit community organization in the East Village neighborhood of New York City. The organization’s top priority has always been to revitalize and invigorate the surrounding community. In the late 1960s and 1970s such revitalization was hugely necessary. The neighborhood was completely devastated. The streets of the East Village were, "littered with discarded and rusted household appliances, hulls of cars that were stripped of tires, engines, and seats, mounds of bricks where buildings once stood, and oil barrels used as furnaces by junkies, dealers and the homeless."1 Heroin and cocaine were also a huge problem in the East Village, especially on Loisaida (Avenue C). Many buildings abandoned by their landlords were filled with squatting users. During a Mayor's Task Force meeting, many local residents who were not users complained. During a meeting on April 28, 1970 one concerned resident said there were "addicts" living in empty buildings "causing fires from carelessness."2 When the Director of the Horizon project (another community development effort in New York) spoke as a guest at the meeting, one question from the audience arose: "What should be done if you see a teenager injecting drugs?"3 Other concerned community members demanded that the Sanitation Department take away trash from the street more regularly. While still other complained that the police needed to do something about the huge number of abandoned and gutted cars on the street. One community member also complained that the police department was doing nothing about "the dope addicts who steal."4 Much of the East Village was comprised of burned out buildings and brick yards. As a response to the devastation, in 1968 a non-profit organization called Real Great Society began University of the Streets.

In an interview with The American Assocation of University Women Fred Good, a member of Real Great Society describes University of the Streets as "THE project right now" where "Anybody - any age - can come in and and register"5 In the article, Good says that youth in the East Village had no way to "do something positive and constructive" and that U.O.T.S. provided a very loose structure where students could do something that was positive and constructive. At the moment of the interview, U.O.T.S. held arts and crafts classes, high school equivalency courses, computer programming, as well as karate and sports teams. In 1968, U.O.T.S. also applied and was awarded a grant from the Manpower Development and Training Act to to hold technical training classes in carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work for high school drop-outs and ex-convicts living in the neighborhood.6 This was a direct effort to help residents of the Lower East Side be trained for potential jobs, so they could become "productive" members of society. In addition, professional artists, residing in the area, were involved in mentoring artistically inclined youth at U.O.T.S. Today, Saturday night jazz jam sessions continue to foster the culture of music in the East Village. U.O.T.S. also continues to rent out their small theater on the second floor (called the Muhammad Salahuddeen Memorial Jazz Theater after the man who served as Executive Director from 1969-2007) to underground rock bands, starving playwrights, and other indie-type artists.

I first became interested in U.O.T.S. when I moved into the East Village in July of 2010. I remember walking by on a muggy evening and hearing jazz music flood out of an open window. When asked to complete a project on Greenwich Village history, I immediately thought of U.O.T.S. because of the many questions I had. What sort of organization was this? How did it come about? Who has played jazz there in the past? Who plays there now? I contacted the Executive Director, who seemed excited about the whole idea. She informed me that she had already begun the process of organizing her files to preserve the history of the organization. I also did some background research before our first meeting and discovered the above information. I was completely dazzled and romanced by U.O.T.S.'s mission and story. I was so excited to become somewhat involved in an organization whose cause I believed in so much.

When I arrived at University of the Streets that first afternoon, the Executive Director gave me some files to look through. I left that evening feeling welcomed. She had received me into her home, and offered me coffee, tea, and some Spanish take-out. However, I realized that our relationship was still tenuous, and that I ought to do everything in my power to earn her trust. In a later appointment, I interviewed her for 40 minutes, during which time I tried to build up rapport. She respectfully and thoughtfully answered all of my questions, but I could tell that she was still guarded.


Our breakthrough came as I was going through documents and photographs in U.O.T.S.’s theater. The Executive Director approached me, and we began to chat. I quickly discovered that we both grew up in neighboring towns in central Wisconsin. She then told me a small part of her life story, a gesture by which I was incredibly moved. I was happy that she finally felt she could trust me. We spent the next twenty minutes bonding over things we missed from our Wisconsin lives (the fall colors and the snow). Then she excused herself for a moment, and came back with two apples in hand. “Did you ever go apple-picking or plum-picking when you lived in Wisconsin? That’s what I miss most, picking apples and plums at my parent’s house.” I accepted her friendly gesture, and told her that I go apple and pear-picking at my grandparents’ house every fall when I go back home. I do not remember how the conversation ended, but I left soon thereafter feeling relieved that she trusted me. I felt so energized by my positive relationship with a woman who represented such a noble organization.

While doing an intense Google search that night, I discovered an article published by The Brooklyn Vegan, a professional and well-read news and pop culture blog. The headline read, “Musicians call for boycott of University of the Streets, owner’s son allegedly punched drummer.”7 The story stated that a member of the band "Talibam!" had been punched in the face by the son of the U.O.T.S.'s owner, after refusing to pay fifty dollars for the cost of their performance — a payment outlined in the contract signed by the band. This particular blog post was followed by a tail of 151 vitriolic comments, many which expressed something similar to an anonymous commenter who posted at 2:47 a.m. on September 9, 2011: “The owner [and] her thug son sound like real losers.”8 Several more cruel posts followed.

U.O.T.S.posted a “Statement of Events,"9 where the Executive Director recalled that the band became “increasing[ly] belligerent and disrespectful” when asked for the money. Then the band “invaded the Executive Director’s personal space" while screaming “Go f… yourself.”” At this point, perhaps in defense of his mother, the U.O.T.S. event staff “raised his hand to protect the Executive Director." As a result the event staff's hand "connected" to "the band-member’s face.”10 I found myself making excuses for the alleged punch: many individuals would probably react physically to someone threatening to injure a 61-year-old woman to whom that individual is emotionally tied.

After discovering this recent event I became incredibly angry at those who posted malicious comments to the many blogs and online forums dedicated to this particular event. In my eyes, U.O.T.S. is one of the most noble and generous organizations in the East Village — an organization that was crucial to the community's revitalization. U.O.T.S. deserves much more respect. This opinion, along with the negative rumors flying about on the Internet, inspired me to craft the most positive and supportive online web exhibit about the University of the Streets possible. I wanted to support the new friends I had made at the organization. I wanted to be their advocate.

But is crafting history for the sake of advocacy good history? Some historians would argue that crafting history about a subject that one is personally involved with would work against the very idea of history.11 While others would argue that it is the moral duty of the historian to speak on behalf of those who need help.12 This is a big question in history, so big that The National Council on Public History and The Oral History Association posted ethic guidelines on their websites. If the historical project deliberately withholds negative information about the subject, and it only presents its glowing side, that project would become a biased advocate piece. I wondered if I could write an history that only describes the situation at U.O.T.S. (good and bad), and therefore be an advocate by bringing awareness to the situation? I could, but some historians would argue that histories that describe events and do not try to explain events are two-dimensional—these histories lack richness and texture. Analysis that has come to be the rock on which history is founded, and an historical project lacking this element falls flat.


One scholar believes that deep involvement with one’s subjects often leads to “circumstantial commitment.”13 He aruges that such involvement “generates a definite sense of doing more" than scholarship. It "provides a sense of being an activist.”1415 Is my work therefore advocacy because of my involvement?

I think I am an advocate, but that does not mean my historical project will suffer. Historians can behave as cheerleaders by bringing to light all of the information about their subjects (negative information included). I am proud of U.O.T.S., its mission and its accomplishments. If I allowed this opinion to influence my representation of the organization, then I would run the risk of crafting biased history, but I am determined to create a project that is both positive and historically responsible. (That means writing about all aspects of the organization). Historians are people too, and historians ought to be able to build meaningful relationships with others, even if those others are the subject of his or her project.

Image Credits:

Photo of University of the Streets sign: Rene Clausen Nielsen, via Flickr.
Photo of tape recorder: Eelco Kruidenier, via Flickr.
Photo of woman with bullhorn: Rex Dart, via Flickr.

All photos licensed for reproduction under Creative Commons.

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