Q+A: Deborah Schwartz, Brooklyn Historical Society

Deborah Schwartz is the President of the Brooklyn Historical Society. She combines her love of teaching and history at BHS to help bring Brooklyn's history to life. In recognition of Deborah's contributions to DUMBO, we honored her with a 2019 DUMBO Dozen Award. We met up with Deborah to learn a little more about her, DUMBO's history, and the importance of connecting our past and our present.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you started at Brooklyn Historic Society (BHS)? 

I’m the president of the BHS. I joined in 2006, after being the Deputy Director for Education at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve been a professional museum educator for many years. I’ve worked at Brooklyn Museum and had done some consulting work for BHS, which led me to understand the incredible richness of the collection and the work that was done here. The fabulous education programs, the excitement about Brooklyn, and the prospect of leading the organization that is responsible for putting that history out into the world was irresistible to me.

How did the BHS get started?

BHS was actually founded as the Long Island Historic Society in 1863, and our flagship building on the corner of Pierrepont and Clinton Streets in Brooklyn Heights was built in 1881 by the architect George B. Post. It’s an exquisite building, and at the heart of the building is the magnificent Othmer Library and Archives.  From the very early stages of the founding of the institution, the emphasis was on all things Long Island. Right in the thick of the Civil War, there were great ambitions for Brooklyn, which was a separate city from New York. The founders of this organization were ambitious and determined to create a grand institution that reflected not only the history of Long Island, but also the history of the New York State and America.

How has that changed over time?

Over time, that mission, and the collecting mission of the institution in particular, has changed and in now much more sharply focused on Brooklyn. We still keep our collections of Long Island material, which are important and connected to the original Dutch and English families of Brooklyn, so there’s lots of synergy between that early history and the present day.

As we have moved forward, our interest and the emphasis of this institution on newer and immigrant communities in Brooklyn has evolved, and our commitment now is to reflect not only that early history, but what is happening in Brooklyn right now. We do a lot of oral history work; we do projects that reach into communities that have not always been represented in traditional history museums. We want everyone’s stories to be heard. There are many voices, many stories in Brooklyn that have never been properly embraced. We think it is our job to do so.

Our new space in DUMBO puts an emphasis on the public experience of history.

Congratulations on opening a new location at Empire Stores! It was such a thrill for Dumbo to welcome you here. How is this space different from the main museum on Pierrepont?

Our headquarters building at Pierrepont is where we house our collections. We also have offices, galleries, and lots of public programming activity there. Our new space in DUMBO puts an emphasis on the public experience of history. Currently, we have a history of the Brooklyn waterfront , which is very interactive and friendly for children. It has lots of playful ways to look into the history of the waterfront; whether they are environmental stories, stories about labor and commerce, the navy yard, about women working, and others.

Can you speak more about the synergy between the past and present day that you feel from the Museum?

At BHS, our philosophy about the relationship of history to the present day is a central theme that runs through all our work. We believe that the triumphs and successes, as well as our struggles and injustices need to be told in order for us to better understand the elements that make up a vibrant and evolving city. How we grow and change depends in part on our history and how we make sense of it.

Everything that happens to the built environment–how buildings we live in change, how business and industry change, how the waterfront changes over time–everything that happened in 1900 and then in the 1940s and in the 1960s is having an impact on us now. The more we understand that set of relationships, the easier it is to understand why we are where we are and where we want to go in the future.

In this sense, we don’t see history as a kind of moribund, “looking backwards” story. It is very much about informing the future. If you’re an immigrant and you move here to be with family who has already arrived here, will you have the ability to buy your own house and stay here and put roots down? Will you be able to set up your own small business? What are the education and employment opportunities available for people who arrived in 1880 and how do they compare to 2019?

we don’t see history as a kind of moribund, “looking backwards” story. It is very much about informing the future.

Everywhere you turn in Brooklyn people are grappling with these issues, and part of what’s so exciting about looking at history is exploring those dynamics. How does a city, through government or private business, take care of itself? How does it create an environment that is rich and positive for people across the economic spectrum, across language barriers, across the creative spectrum that comes from a city that is built by people who have come from all over the world?

These questions continue to change and morph as the people coming here change, but there is a way in which by looking at the solutions that have happened over time, the problems, the prejudices, inequities over time, we can prevent some of those and work against those impulses. That’s all a part of history and part of who were are now.

The transformation in DUMBO has been really astonishing to watch, it’s... a real tribute to the mix of people who have had a vision for DUMBO for a very long time.

Deborah Schwartz, BHS

What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in DUMBO in the past 10 years?

The transformation in DUMBO has been really astonishing to watch, it’s gone so fast and so many brilliant things have happened and I think that’s a real tribute to the mix of people who have had a vision for DUMBO for a very long time.

The DUMBO BID has been a central part of that, and a creative force, and a very collegial part of the community. Having seen the building of  Brooklyn Bridge Park, the transformative quality of what it means for the waterfront to be fully accessible to people from literally all over the world, for it to be one of the most beautiful outdoor spaces in NYC and to be used and provide so many wonderful opportunities for people has been joyful to watch.

The views of the waterfront, the harbor, across the water to Manhattan, Jane’s Carousel, the ball fields, the kayaking opportunities, the little beaches, everything about DUMBO makes it a place that you really feel privileged to have such access. And so for us at BHS, having this place in DUMBO in the Empire Stores, where we can tell the history not only of the building that we are in, but also the history of the surrounding area, has been such a rewarding process.

We watch people coming in, whether it's families or school children or tourists, and we see this kind of endless “Ah ha!” moment when people realize what this building was originally. They learn that it was warehouse that stored coffee and other goods, and they begin to understand that in the early 1800s, the location that is now Empire Stores was literally in the river. As landfill was created, the area was built up into this incredibly important hub for New York's commerce and economy. It's just remarkable to see people get excited and understand that they are standing in a space that has changed so dramatically over time.

So, with all this talk of spaces–what is your favorite space in DUMBO?

Well it won't surprise you to know that I’m very inclined to find Empire Stores my particular favorite, partly because of what remains of its original bones, the magnificent structure of this hundred [plus year old warehouse, now transformed into restaurants, stores and the Brooklyn Historical Society’s gallery. And you get such a strong feeling for it when you are in the space, and I absolutely love being there. I also love St. Ann's Warehouse, how they have built such flexible creative space to house their great theater and at the same time, honor the original 19th century building that houses their work.