Tadusz Chabrowski hands were shaking as he rifled through a pile of photos, looking for his favorite. “Oh here!” he said, pulling out a photo of himself standing in his eyeglasses shop. “When I was young– 100 years younger!” he laughed. His shop, Family Optical, once located at 120 Norman Avenue in Greenpoint, has been closed for 16 years, and yet his memories of the place are still as vivid as ever.
Chabrowksi, 81, is participating in a community scanning event at Greenpoint Library, part of the Our Streets, Our Stories project organized by the Brooklyn Public Library, in which archivists are collecting photographs and recollections for an oral history of Brooklyn, neighborhood by neighborhood. The project is a timely one for Greenpoint– there’s a sense of urgency to compiling memories of the neighborhood’s past and present as the area continues to grow and change at a rapid pace. Even this library (not more than a large room, really) where photos are being selected and sorted out for scanning, will soon look and feel very different after a $5 million facelift gives it a glassy new facade and second floor extension.
The archival team for the project has been making its way through the borough for a little over a year now, inviting residents to contribute their photos and documents and record a personal interview, à la StoryCorps. Occasionally they’ll hold community scanning events like this one in an effort to target particular areas. Anyone living in Brooklyn can participate– whether you and your family have lived in the borough for generations, or you’ve only lived here for a few months, as long as you have a Brooklyn story, the project has an ear for you. The project also encourages family members to interview one another, so bring your grandma! (This Saturday, December 19 Greenpoint Library is hosting another scanning event from 11 am to 4 pm.)
“The idea started with the fact that public libraries are a place where you have access to local communities in a way that not a lot of organizations do,” said Emma Clark, the lead coordinator of Our Streets, Our Stories. “It’s a public gathering place for a lot of people, it can be accessed by all types of people, and it’s a place for stories– what better place to do something like this?” Besides photos, people have also contributed journals, letters, maps, paintings, and ephemera from decades past, like school pins, graduation programs, or old matchbooks from long-closed bars.
After Chabrowski passed the photos over to Sarah Quick, a mobile digitization specialist, he did his best to place the dates and the names of faces in the photographs, details that are fading from memory. Quick wrote them down and her colleague, wearing white gloves, ran the photos through a scanner to make a high quality digital file. They will join the Brooklyn Public Library’s permanent digital collection and the Digital Public Library of America. At the end of the process, Quick presented Chabrowski with a USB of his photo files to take home.
“I am the ‘last Mohican’ of Greenpoint for Polish group!” he said, puffing out his chest. “One of the last.” A standard-bearer of the dwindling community, his 45 years in the nabe coincided with the rise of Polish-Greenpoint. He was here when they started the Polish-Slavic Federal Credit Union and the Polish-Slavic Center, and was a member of the The Polish National Alliance on Noble Street and the Polish American Artist Society (he’s also a poet), not to mention the organizer of numerous chess and bridge clubs. “I am part of Greenpoint,” he said, proudly.
Quick said that, with Greenpoint in transition, many people are looking for a way to hold onto their memories of a neighborhood before shiny new developments and hipster shops overshadow familiar Polish diners.
“I think it’s hard for people when they’re in a place they’ve lived their whole life, and their whole life is changing so rapidly,” said Quick. “So a project like this is a great way to come together and know that their memories are going to be held onto. I think especially the older generation, they want to make sure they’re not forgotten.”
But Chabrowski seemed to embrace the neighborhood’s new vibe with gusto. “Oh heavens, it’s changed completely!” he said. “But I love it, the way it is now. For me, it’s just nice that I can observe and see and notice all the changes that happened recently.” He said that he likes to see empty spaces transform into buildings that “go towards the clouds,” and he loves the recent variety in restaurants. “You know, with age, I am always hungry,” he said. And his family members have put down new business roots in and around the neighborhood– his son, Tommy Chabrowski, is something of a Greenpoint mogul, the owner of neighborhoods staples like Lobster Joint, Lunchbox, and the new restaurant, Whiskey Burger.
“This, I think, is the best time for the old people and probably for the young, you know, to enjoy,” said Chabrowski.
The scanning event isn’t just for old timers– Quick was loaded with iPhone cords to upload contemporary snaps too. “It’s recent history now, but at some point it’s going to be worthwhile for historians, for researchers, for whoever, even though it doesn’t seem that exciting right now,” she said. Just imagine: your shameless selfies from last weekend’s bender could be preserved for your great-great grandchildren to dig up.
Angel Urrutia, a documentary filmmaker who moved to Greenpoint from Mexico last year, wandered in and contributed a photo of his family. “It was at Prospect Park and it was a very happy day,” he said. “I like this project and I want to share my history also.”
If digging into your neighborhood’s past is your thing, there’s a lot to keep you busy. Head to the project’s Tumblr for a kind of collage of recently submitted photos and audio. To find out more about the deeper history behind the images and learn more about the archival process (including updates on their toolkit) skim through the blog.
If podcasts are more your style, there’s the Soundcloud archive of recent conversations (it was just nominated for a 2016 Apple Award). And if you’re a true nerd, start searching by neighborhood in the full catalogue (tip: choose “advanced” and select “photograph.”)
Our Streets, Our Stories community scanning event is Saturday, December 19 11 am – 4 pm at Greenpoint Library. Can’t make it? Email OSOSproject@bklynlibrary.org to set up alternative arrangements.