Based in New York City, City Lore is an urban folk culture center that includes a Lower East Side gallery space, performances, lectures, and numerous programs throughout the city. The City Lore team works to document, present, and advocate for the diversity of local grassroots cultural practices. Among City Lore’s recent initiatives are group poem project It Takes a Pandemic and media archive project Touching Hearts, Not Hands.
Jake Rosenberg serves as producer of special projects at City Lore. He is a playwright and executive director of American Lore Theater who holds a BFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University.
Tell me about when you got involved with City Lore.
I went on a whim as a young, curious individual to the AFS meeting in Minneapolis in 2017. When you are a first timer at AFS, you can ask for them to pair you up with an experienced folklorist. I got paired up with Steve Zeitlin, and we had a really long conversation.
I went to NYU, and I was studying playwriting, dramatic writing. I had a conception of drama that was inclusive of different American communities, which I now understand as folk performance. I was looking for somewhere that I could talk to these performers and witness some of these interesting performances. When I found City Lore, I never wanted to leave. People can come in off the street and start watching folk performance. That is amazing to me, especially in New York City, when there’s so much that is totally commercial and inaccessible. I get to both be a programmer for it and a spectator, and that’s also really exciting.
What can you tell me about the start of City Lore?
City Lore was started in 1985 by Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan as an urban folk archive of New York City, and this archive had to be living. It’s not just an archive of books and video recordings. It’s an archive of people, a space for people to deposit their lore, their learning, and sometimes depositing it is speaking it into the space.
From 1985 and through the 80s and 90s, it was more poetry-focused. Over the 21st century, it’s really grown outwards. Now there are education programs. There are special projects. There’s an initiative called Place Matters about archiving community anchors or community centers of power, more architecturally focused. We’ve done programs with traditions that have been reframed in New York, Indian classical dance or Javanese puppets. It’s not a stuffy definition of folklore; it really is responsive to New York City. It feels like it’s really up to the moment.
New Yorkers ‘Naming the Lost’ in the Summer of 2020, credit Erik McGregor
How have you seen that in terms of making a contribution to New York?
I don’t know a single place in New York City like City Lore. It’s welcoming to the point where you are able to just walk in off the street and be involved in a performance or an exhibit or a class. I don’t know how many times when we’re doing Urban Explorers, a youth program, people have come in asking what’s going on. And we say, we’re teaching children about folk art practice, and they’ll say something that they do, and sometimes they become teaching artists that are with us for years after that.
And this living archive – I, as a citizen of New York City, by City Lore being present, have access to the earliest hip-hop recordings and some of the only footage of graffiti in subways in the 1980s. There’s an archive of 9/11 memorials, folk poetry in different languages, potentially endangered languages. It’s just open for people to create with.
I’m not a PhD folklorist. I’m somebody who fell into folklore quite passionately. Even having been granted the license to get work as a folklorist by a place called City Lore, that grants a legitimacy to people who are really interested and have a lot to contribute to folklore, both in the field and also their individual practice, for myself but also the teenagers that we’ve taught [as folklorists]. We give them license to say, you are just as much a folklorist as anybody else.
How do you use your dramatic background in City Lore and how do you feel that contributes to folklore?
I run a company called American Lore Theater. What we do is preserve, protect, and perform folklife and then create plays around strands of folklore. City Lore has provided me a home to fully do that. We’ll bring in performers and performances to City Lore. We recently developed a play at City Lore with the Bonacker Fishermen of Long Island. And there are plenty of performers, all with very different bents working at City Lore. There are other playwrights, there are other singers and dancers.
I think that a lot of folklife, even material culture, is storytelling. It has to be entertaining on some level, otherwise, it would not last for thousands of years. It has to have a resonance for people. Working at a place like City Lore, where you have to listen to and obey that storytelling impulse, is amazing training for widening the field of folklore, understanding what folklore is, and making it meaningful.
I always use basket weaving as an example. Any folklore place can have a basket weaving workshop. But I’ve been to places that do these basket weaving workshops, and nobody shows up, because basket weaving isn’t really relevant to what they’re doing. However, if you do a storytelling portion – what are you carrying in these baskets? What is the best use for the baskets? – that is something that can make it meaningful. People will respond to the story. My training, and whatever training anyone else has, is available to figure out what is going to make this meaningful to the context that we’re in.
Sunrise in Manhattan, photo credit Steve Zeitlin
Tell us about the pandemic-related projects you’re working on now.
The story of this project mirrors the severity of conditions in New York. I was doing fieldwork on Long Island when there was this rumor going around that they were going to close down the city, and it was really panicky, a really intense day. Everyone was calling everybody else: Are we going to be stuck in New York? What’s about to happen? After the city shut down, all normalcy stopped.
City Lore did a lot of gathering of folk artifacts in response to 9/11. A lot of that training and archiving prepared us, and technology is a lot better than it was. Now we have a quite a diverse archive that has grown and changed as we started collecting.
One of the earliest projects, we call It Takes a Pandemic. We do a khonsay, a group poem where people submit different lines and then an editor or the group will turn it into a larger canto. Originally, we sent out a call to everybody to submit a line. It starts, “It takes a pandemic,” and then you fill in the line.
We have another one called Touching Hearts, Not Hands. That is any sort of poetry from a haiku, a couplet, to sometimes epic poetry. We have Ginsberg-esque miasmas, 30 pages of exploring the sunken city. We have hundreds of pages, a true anthology, and it grows every day.
We also have pictures. Many of the storefronts in New York City will put up closed signs, but those will be defaced into something more beautiful, or people will put up chalk on their windows, different creative responses. We also have music that people have submitted. And of course, we have all of that as well for the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City.
With such a wide range geographically and in terms of genre and projects, who do you consider to be your collaborators and constituents?
Maybe it’s problematic from an academic perspective, but I really love the term “citizen folklorist.” We really rely on submissions for this project. There are so many layers, because the citizen folklorist is the documenter of the existing folk artifacts. A lot of the time, poems will be submitted that other people wrote. The collaborator, in the most immediate sense, is the person who submits the materials to the archive. But through that collaboration, we are collaborating with the anonymous graffiti writer, the masked sign holder.
We had submissions at first from New York and from our own networks, but we had a young high schooler from Alabama who heard about our project and submitted a really moving poem. We’ve had people from Minneapolis who are at the George Floyd protests on the street where he died. The collaborators are whoever is present in this history being made and who wants to share it. I extend that invitation to be a collaborator to anybody who hears about this project.
March in Pelham Park in the Bronx, Saturday, June 6th, credit to Elena Martinez
What do you see as the social change that City Lore projects can effect?
Anything that happens in New York becomes global in a way. Hip-hop always comes to mind because it is supremely commercial, supremely global, but at the same time very much tied into the original context where it came out, Bronx dancehalls and Brooklyn. City Lore is connected to some of the earliest pioneers of hip-hop. In terms of social change, that is an obvious art form that has, in my opinion, become the dominant and most praiseworthy American poetic tradition.
That documentation of the earliest roots of hip-hop, that’s City Lore all the way. Graffiti artists, b-boys breakdancing, so much art that has gone on to change the world, when it was just folklife, when you weren’t able to make a buck off of it, City Lore was there documenting it. As these things grow, they take on a lot of power and become global. I think that recording them and protecting them in the context, in the human memory and the community memory, is important.
I believe what we have collected is unique. I hope that the protest chants that we collect are used to effect meaningful change. I hope that the signs that we have of our neighbors will be used to consecrate places that have gone out of business. This archive is really vast, and I think it will be made meaningful to the context that it’s in beyond this year.
What do you feel is the ethical mandate of folklorists with regard to the public? How should they be positioning their work?
The way I see it, folklore and social justice are a big dance, and you have no idea of all the steps. You’re invited to participate, and you just have to start dancing. You are going to do the wrong thing because you have to learn how in order to do the right thing. I’ve done that so many times. However, I don’t ever regret those moments, because if I sat on the sidelines, or I waited for permission, I would never have some of the really deep relationships that I have with folk artisans and keepers of memory and healers and people who are really meaningful in my life.
Or it’s like a play. You do a performance and you have audience feedback, and then you perfect the performance and do it the next night. That’s what the ethical mandate for the practice ought to be: you do it, you are really responsive to feedback, then you continue to do it. I think that failure to act is the biggest crime that a folklorist could perpetrate.
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