Q&A with Judith Wellman, author of Brooklyn’s Promised Land

In Brooklyn’s Promised Land, historian Judith Wellman sheds light on the virtually lost history of Weeksville, an independent free black community in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. 

Founded after slavery ended in New York State in 1827, Weeksville provided a space of safety, prosperity, education, and even power. Its residents owned property, set up their own churches, established two newspapers, and even created a baseball team, appropriately named the Weeksville Unknowns. 

In the interview below, Wellman discusses her research for the book, Weeksville’s most remarkable features, and the national significance of this extraordinary place.

Q: Why is Weeksville important?

Judith Wellman: Through the lens of Weeksville as a unique community, we see how real people dealt with national events and movements in African American and American history. Formed at the end of slavery in New York State, Weeksville was a reaction to the attempt to send free people of color to Africa. Its citizens were involved in virtually every movement for African American rights in the nineteenth century, including the black convention movement, voting rights, Underground Railroad, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the emergence of Progressive reform. Weeksville’s success transcends its unique local history and makes it an important model for the world.

When and how did you first come across the space of Weeksville?

In the early 1980s, I was working with a National Park Service Ranger named Stephanie Dyer. Stephanie lived in the Bronx, but she and I were both working at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. When I visited Stephanie in New York, I thought we were going to visit the Teddy Roosevelt birthplace, but Stephanie took me instead to Weeksville. I’ll be forever grateful for that. And I’ll never forget my first sight of Joan Maynard, founding director, coming down the narrow staircase of one of the old houses on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center. I have been hooked ever since! 

Your study relies mostly on public sources instead of private manuscripts. Could you say more about these materials?

So few early Weeksville residents wrote specifically about their own experiences that we began to look for every public record we could find. Census records recorded (or at least attempted to record) the names of all U.S. residents, including those in Weeksville. They gave us vital information about race, age, sex, occupation, literacy, and property ownership of Weeksville residents. They also gave us names, which we used to look up deeds, assessment records, genealogical materials, and newspaper accounts. Newspapers, especially the Brooklyn Eagle, online through the Brooklyn Public Library, provided invaluable details. So did numerous maps. Most unexpectedly, we also found many images relating to Weeksville’s houses, institutions, and people.

This book includes forty-two images and six maps, to give readers a sense of Weeksville as a real place. Wherever possible, it also includes direct quotations from Weeksville’s residents, so readers can hear real voices.   

You described your approach as both chronological and topical. Which period between 1770 and 2010 would you consider to be the most representative or most important in Weeksville’s development?

I most enjoyed learning about Weeksville in the two decades before the Civil War, when it was first founded and grew. By 1855, 521 people lived in Weeksville. Eighty-two percent of them were African Americans. It was a cosmopolitan community, attracting people from the eastern U.S. (including New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., South and North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland) and also from the West Indies and Africa.

Although only the school principal—Junius C. Morel—was nationally known before the Civil War, Weeksville was home to a variety of remarkable people, including Francis P. Graham, “a man of many eccentricities,” as noted by the New York Times, who was accused of participating in the Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, went to Liberia, and then returned to New York City. He later became a minister, shoemaker, and the largest resident landowner in Weeksville. His nephew (or perhaps his natural son), James LeGrant, became Weeksville’s only carpenter. James LeGrant married Lydia Ann Elizabeth Simmons LeGrant, one of only four women in Weeksville who owned land. All of these people and more lived on the block just north of the current Weeksville Heritage Center house, where the Kingsborough housing project now stands.

How was this community rediscovered in 1966? Was there any historical reason behind this rediscovering moment?

Weeksville was rediscovered in the context of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s. Major credit for this rediscovery goes to Jim Hurley, formerly an aerial photographer with the U.S. Navy and Vice Consul to Pakistan. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Hurley was giving tours of New York City neighborhood through the Museum of the City of New York. In 1968, he offered a noncredit workshop through the Pratt Institute of Community Development called “Exploring Bedford-Stuyvesant and New York City.” Delores McCullough and Patricia Johnson were students in this course, and they focused on Weeksville. This group identified the old Hunterfly Road. Then Joseph Haynes, an engineer for the Transit Authority and a professional pilot, took Jim Hurley on a flight to take photos of the old landscape.

The following year, in 1969, the Model Cities Redevelopment Program decided to demolish several old houses near the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue. Local residents, including William T. Harley, students from P.S. 243, and Boy Scouts from Troop 342 worked with Jim Hurley, who had a small grant to retrieve objects from these houses before they were demolished. Among other items, they found a Revolutionary War-era cannonball (Weeksville was on the pathway of British troops who came to Long Island) and a tintype of woman who came to be known as the Weeksville Lady.

Local supporters organized Project Weeksville to continue this research. Barbara Jackson worked with students in P.S. 243; Robert Swan did detailed research; Loren McMillan and students from P.S. 243 convinced New York City to designate Weeksville as a landmark. Joan Maynard became Director of the new Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant history, bringing this grassroots preservation effort to national attention. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

What are the most remarkable features of Weeksville? 

Weeksville was a success story. So often we hear about the horrors of slavery and the difficulty of African Americans surviving as free people of color. All of this is important. We need to know this. But if we focus not on what people in the dominant culture did to (or for) African Americans and highlight what African Americans did for themselves, we often find a very different, much more positive story.

This book highlights the experience of ordinary people who together created an extraordinary community—a place of physical safety, high levels of property ownership (about thirty percent of adult men owned property), political participation, education and literacy (with a 93 percent literacy rate for young adults in the 1860s), and the development of community institutions (two churches, a school, an orphan asylum, and a home for the aged) that ultimately formed an important grassroots basis of social reform—the Progressive movement—in the early 20th century.

By the 1850s and 1860s, they had attracted the attention of nationally known African American leaders. People such as Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and Rufus L. Perry made Weeksville the headquarters of the African Civilization Society (designed to set up communities of free people in West Africa). Maritcha Lyons made a career as an assistant principal in the Weeksville school, the first person in the U.S. to mentor both African American and European American student teachers together. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, daughter of one of Weeksville’s early landowners, became an early woman doctor.

One of Weeksville’s most noticeable features is that the whole village was dramatically changed—virtually wiped out—by the expansion Brooklyn’s street grid after completion of the Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, only a very few of Weeksville’s pre-Civil War buildings remain, including the ones on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center.

How does remembering Weeksville shed light on the future of African American communities and our society at large?

Weeksville’s citizens wanted to make real in their own lives the American ideal that all people are created equal. Ironically, to fulfill this dream, they had to move to a place outside the control of the dominant culture. As one of about one hundred African American intentional communities before the Civil War, Weeksville fulfilled its goals as a place of safety, property ownership, education, and employment for its residents.

The residents of Weeksville formed a unique community in a unique time and place, but their message transcends that uniqueness to speak to us all, as citizens of this world in the early 21st century. Specifically, Weeksville challenges us as citizens of this world to consider the usefulness of separatism versus integration as a way to create places of respect and empowerment for all people.

As a historian of European American background, how did you become involved in the project?

This project actually started out as a National Register nomination, not a book. In 2003, Pam Green, Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, invited me to work with them on a National Register nomination for the Weeksville houses. We had a wonderful team of people—Cynthia Copeland, Judith Burgess-Abiodun, Theresa Ventura, Lee French, Victoria Huver, and others—with everyone working on different sources. We were all astounded by how much we found. The project kept growing, until it finally became this book.

Truly, in so many ways, I am an outsider to Weeksville. I did not grow up in Weeksville. I did not grow up in any African American community. So there is much that people who grew up there would instinctively know but about which I am completely unaware.

Yet, by their success, the people of Weeksville transcended their own small unique community. They spoke to Americans—white as well as black—across the country, today as well as in the nineteenth century. We all—as citizens of this world—need to know their stories, so that we can learn something from them.

UP Week: Announcing the new Keywords

Happy University Press Week! We are thrilled to once again be featured the final run of the university press blog tour—this year, with a post from Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, co-editors of the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Designed as a print-digital hybrid publication, Keywords collects more than 90 essays—30 of which are new to this edition—from interdisciplinary scholars, each on a single term such as “America,” “culture,” “law,” and “religion.”

After reading the piece, head on over “from the square” to the other press blogs featured today! [Friday's tour includes blog posts from Columbia University PressUniversity of Illinois Press, Island PressUniversity of Minnesota Press, and University of Nebraska Press. For a complete schedule, click here.]

We’re thrilled that the second edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies is finally here. In our roles as co-editors, we have had a great time working with such an exciting group of scholars across a wide array of interdisciplinary fields, including American studies and cultural studies. We hope that you will find their essays as stimulating and thought-provoking as we do.

As we note in our introduction to the second edition, we’ve been working with NYU Press on this “hybrid print-digital publication” even before any of us knew exactly what that phrase could or would mean. It’s been a learning experience for us as co-editors and for the Press. Now that it has arrived, we hope that it will be a rich and engaging learning opportunity for our readers.

The site is pretty straightforward. It includes the digital essays in full, the opening passages of the print essays, and resources for anyone interested in using the publication in courses. We’re particularly excited about the search and category functions, both of which allow users to map uses of a concept across the print, digital, and post-publication keyword essays. We invite you to play with these tools to see what they can offer!

As we mark and celebrate this launch, we also want to highlight one claim that we’ve made across both editions: a keywords project like this one is never done. It is a necessarily incomplete, participatory, and collaborative mapping of knowledge formations across multiple fields and from diverse positionalities. For this reason, we have built into the publication several ways that you can contribute to Keywords.

·      You can propose to author a “post-publication essay,” a contribution that responds to or deviates from the essays included in or absent from the project. Contact us at keywords@fordham.edu.

·      You can contribute to our archive of assignments that have engaged the publication and/or used the Keywords Collaboratory.

·      We can post to the Keywords blog by describing pedagogical or other deployments of Keywords.

If you are interested in doing any of these things, please contact us. That’s all for now. Enjoy Keywords, in print and online, and please do let us know what use you make of it.

Bruce Burgett is Dean and Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell, graduate faculty in the Department of English at the University of Washington, Seattle, and co-director of the UW graduate Certificate in Public Scholarship. Glenn Hendler is Associate Professor and Chair in the English Department at Fordham University, where he also teaches in the American Studies Program. Together, they are the co-editors of Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Second Edition (NYU Press, 2014).

How Katz’s Delicatessen became a New York icon

—Ted Merwin

When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, school field trips meant being schlepped on a bus to the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue, to a multimedia film called the “New York Experience,” in which a kaleidoscopic montage of New Yorkers of different stripes celebrated both past and present life in Gotham. Nowadays, all one needs to do to get a sense of the real New York is to pay a visit to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, where a prickly, pickle-y, briny Yiddish gestalt holds imperious sway in a churning sea of multi-racial, multi-ethnic customers and counter people.

And so “The Ur-Deli,” Jordan Weissman’s recent piece in Slate on how Katz’s stays afloat despite charging $20 for a pastrami sandwich, while it ably limns the economic factors that have raised the price of beef (even beef of the non-kosher variety, which Katz’s retails), only hints at what makes Katz’s emblematic of Jewish life in New York. Katz’s is what the peerless French Jewish scholar Pierre Nora would call a lieu de memoire, a place in which Jewish memory itself is staged and constructed—a place in which every neon sign seems to light up a kind of historic Jewish body electric for the benefit of all New Yorkers. Indeed, there is something Whitmanesque about Katz’s, peopled, often around the clock, by a jostling crowd of cab drivers, tourists, politicians and businesspeople. (Of course, if Whitman had ever been to Katz’s, he would have called his magnum opus “Slices of Pastrami” instead of “Leaves of Grass.”)

We may never know which Jewish delicatessen was the first to open in New York; the deli–from the Latin word delicatus, meaning anything that was alluring, enticing, or voluptuous–morphed in successive stages out of the gourmet take-out stores of Europe, only gradually sprouting tables at the turn of the twentieth century and becoming a particularly relaxed and raucous type of restaurant that brought together Jewish immigrants from different Eastern European nations and enabled them to begin to form a collective American Jewish identity while fressing on smoked and pickled meats, crunchy cucumbers, and spongy, slightly sour, seeded rye bread.

But Katz’s, which opened in 1888 as Iceland Brothers (the brothers were bought out by Willy Katz in 1910, at the peak of Jewish immigration), was certainly one of the pioneers. Its survival is remarkable, given how many similar establishments went in and out of business on the Lower East Side in those years, and how challenging the restaurant business remains to this day. It has profited hugely from the tens of thousands of visitors who descend on the Lower East Side each year seeking to experience, or at the very least to imagine, what life was like in New York more than a century ago.

True, what cemented Katz’s in the popular imagination is its role in the 1989 Rob Reiner comedy film, When Harry Met Sally, in which Meg Ryan’s vociferous “orgasm” articulated the whole “let it all hang out” ethos of Jewish culture (one summed up, perhaps, equally well by the pendulous salamis hanging behind the deli counter). It was—as another non-Jew, Henry James, called it in his (admittedly highly prejudiced) 1905 survey of the Lower East Side—a “Jewry that had burst all bounds.” This is what Katz’s sells: the celebration of excess, the drive to overturn limits, the claiming of one’s irrepressible due.

Katz’s may thus be not just the most “New York” restaurant there is, but the most American and most democratic one. A flash mob last year recreated the notorious scene from the Reiner film in Katz’s with dozens of (seemingly) non-Jewish women simultaneously reaching “climax” in unison, thrusting the deli even more to the pinnacle of American popular culture. As Katz’s has become ever more a destination restaurant, the little carnival ticket that one uses to purchase one’s food gains entry not just to an eatery but to a buoyant, beguiling and boisterous show. For such a bonanza, $20 seems like a true Lower East Side bargain.

Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion & Judaic Studies and Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He is the author of Pastrami on Rye: A History of the Jewish Deli (forthcoming in 2015 from NYU Press).

Why NYC must save the South Street Seaport

—James M. Lindgren

Most New Yorkers think of South Street Seaport as only a touristy shopping mall. But the real South Street Seaport is a historic district with three piers and 11 blocks surrounded by Manhattan’s skyscrapers. It’s a treasure we must protect. Its heart is Schermerhorn Row. Built in 1811-12, the Row was “the city’s first world trade center.” It’s the largest survivor of an era when South Street businesses were making New York “the Empire State” and the United States the world’s rising power.

We owe thanks to the preservationists of the South Street Seaport Museum, who saved what we see today. In 1966, as nearby neighborhoods were falling to bulldozers, they wanted New Yorkers to remember the sailors, captains and merchants who made the world’s greatest port. To recreate its fabled “street of ships” on the East River, they assembled the nation’s largest museum fleet of historic ships.

In a 1967 charter, New York state charged the Seaport Museum with the responsibility of telling that story. Mayor John Lindsay designated the museum as the district’s protector — though he provided no public funding. Through a benefactor, the museum was slated to receive 50 buildings, but the deal fell apart in 1972. Those properties ended up in the hands of City Hall, which leased the buildings and piers to the museum. With big expenses on land and water, the museum struggled. Because of its proximity to Wall Street, developers wanted the museum’s lucrative leases. Finally, after NYC’s financial meltdown in 1975, developers got what they wanted.

In 1981, after arm twisting by City Hall, the museum accepted a more challenging lease and a “festival marketplace” development. But the New Fulton Market (1983) and Pier 17 emporium (1985) only opened after their developer, the Rouse Company, made numerous promises to help the museum, promote local business and enhance the community.

The festival marketplace became the city’s No. 1 tourist destination in 1988, but its popularity was brief. As a result, Rouse failed to keep its promises. It never paid a nickel of the millions it had promised annually to the museum. The Koch administration did nothing to either help the museum or enforce the lease’s provisions.

Why? The festival marketplace’s real winner was City Hall, whose economic development office milked the leases. While Rouse’s shopping mall grabbed the spotlight, the museum was pushed so far backstage that it was invisible to most New Yorkers.

Still, the Seaport Museum rose to become NYC’s No. 3 history museum. In 1998, Congress even named it “America’s National Maritime Museum.”

New Yorkers should have been proud, though few knew about it.

Then came the twin blows of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, which devastated tourism and destroyed the mechanical and electrical infrastructure of the Seaport area. New York City refused to repair the museum buildings it managed — because the Bloomberg administration had, in secret negotiations, agreed to evict the museum.

The Howard Hughes Corporation, which inherited the Rouse contract, is building a new mall on Pier 17. Unable to maintain two large square-riggers, the museum is restoring its ship Wavertree, but giving Peking away. It wants to keep the rest of the fleet for all New Yorkers to enjoy, but can it afford them?

Now Howard Hughes plans on finishing the job — asking the city to evict the museum from the last buildings it occupies and for permission to erect a 50-story hotel complex on the publicly owned site of the 1930s fish market, which has moved to The Bronx.

This would be tragic. New Yorkers and the de Blasio administration need to step in and support the Seaport Museum and the district’s public space.

No 50-story hotel should intrude on the Brooklyn Bridge, the eighth wonder of the world. City Hall should also give the seaport’s small businesses the same consideration as the district’s big players. And, lastly, there should be room among the old buildings for the Seaport Museum’s original purpose — to tell the story of the great port that made the city, state and nation.

James M. Lindgren is the author of Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District (NYU Press, 2014), out now.

[Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Post on April 19, 2014.]

Two NYU Press books honored in 2014 AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show

We are very happy to announce that two NYU Press titles have been selected for inclusion in the 2014 AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show!  The show recognizes meritorious achievements in the design and production of books, jacket, and covers by members of the university press community.  Here are the honored titles.

Congratulations to designers Charles B. Hames and Adam Bohannon—and to our entire editorial, design and production team!

NYU Press wins two National Jewish Book Awards

NYU Press is thrilled to announce that two of our books are among the winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards, selected by the Jewish Book Council!

Congratulations to Hasia Diner and Gennady Estraikh, editors of 1929, and Melissa R. Klapper, author of Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace!

Book Title

WINNER in the Anthologies & Collections category

1929: Mapping the Jewish World
Hasia R. Diner and Gennady Estraikh, eds.
NYU Press

Book Title

WINNER in the Women’s Studies category

Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940
Melissa R. Klapper
NYU Press

The annual National Jewish Book Awards are presented by the Jewish Book Council. Read the complete list of this year’s winners and finalists here.

#UPWeek: Chip Rossetti on the Library of Arabic Literature

Happy University Press Week!  We are thrilled to once again be kicking off the final run of the university press blog tour—this year, with a post by Chip Rossetti, Managing Editor of the Library of Arabic Literature

After reading the piece, head on over “from the square” to the Princeton University Press blog, where today’s tour continues!  [The tour also stops at Columbia University PressJohn Hopkins University PressGeorgetown University Press, Indiana University Press, University of Wisconsin Pressand Yale University Press. For a complete schedule, click here.]

Global reach of university presses: The Library of Arabic Literature at New York University Press
—Chip Rossetti

New York University Press has a long history of championing cutting-edge scholarship, and for many readers and scholars, it is associated with books on contemporary life. Certainly, the Press publishes outstanding books on the modern world, but as part of its contribution to University Press Week, I would like to highlight a global initiative the Press has launched over the last few years that I hope showcases the broad scope of its commitment to disseminating scholarly work. Specifically, I am the managing editor for an NYU Press series, the Library of Arabic Literature, that publishes pre-modern Arabic texts in facing-page bilingual editions. The series is supported by a five-year grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and its general editor is Professor Philip Kennedy, who since 2009 has been based in Abu Dhabi as a faculty member at the new university of NYU Abu Dhabi.

I began work on the series in January, 2011. Along with Kennedy and an eight-member editorial board consisting of scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies, I spent much of my first year laying the groundwork for the series, such as coming up with a wish list of key Arabic texts the editors wanted to see in translation; hiring a digital production manager to set up our XML-first workflow; designing an interior template and series book jacket design; and working out the technical difficulties of publishing books with both right-to-left and left-to-right texts.

Since December, 2012, we have published seven books, with several more in production, twenty more under contract, and a number of others under review. The series aims for a broad range of genres, including poetry, belles lettres, biography, travel and geographical literature, theology, and law. It has been enormously gratifying over the past year to see these books take shape, and to realize that we are taking this enormously rich and varied written heritage and making it accessible to a broad swath of readers who would otherwise be unfamiliar with these works. Most of them have never been translated into English before (or if they were, they are available only in partial 19th-century versions.)

Take, for example, The Epistle of Forgiveness by the blind, ascetic, possibly heretical Syrian poet Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri (d. 449 H/1057 AD): a sardonic, literate tour of heaven and hell (and the famous poets, scholars, kings, and others who inhabit them), it has sometimes been claimed as the inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy, possibly via a no-longer-extant Latin translation. Or take our recent publication of Leg Over Leg, by the 19th-century Lebanese reformer and pioneering journalist Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Often compared to Tristram Shandy, it is a tour de force of language, an “untranslatable” text that touches on everything from modernity to women’s rights, gender relations, freedom of religion, and relations between Europe and the Arabs. Needless to say, neither of these LAL books was available to English readers before the Library of Arabic Literature.

It has been a steep learning curve for all of us, and many of our editorial discussions have revolved around laying down series-wide rules: can we insist that technical or cultural terms in Arabic be translated in a certain way? Or do we allow individual translators the leeway to make their translation their own, even at the expense of consistency across the series? What is the best way to translate archaic poetry coming out of a very different cultural and literary milieu into comprehensible, lucid English? (And as with any poetry, is it still poetry after it’s been translated?)

All of those questions are well worth tackling in and of themselves, but they are in the service of a greater goal that New York University Press is aspiring to for a translation series like this: ultimately, we want non-Arabic-speaking readers to view these authors and their texts as part of their global cultural heritage, so that an educated reader is as familiar with the names of Ibn al-Muqaffa’ and al-Ma’arri as she is with Homer, Tolstoy and Confucius.

Meet the staff: Gemma Juan-Simó

It’s belated news, but another intern at the Press has joined the team as a full-time staff member! Here’s a quick Q&A to introduce you to Gemma, editorial assistant for the Library of Arabic Literature

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What are your interests?
This always feels like a trick question! I’m from Barcelona, although I spent a fair share of my childhood moving around. One of my interests, as a consequence, is language: I grew up speaking Catalan and Spanish at home, English at school, and then a farrago of tongues that I picked up on the way, from Dutch to Arabic (unfortunately, retaining linguistic abilities is a whole different story). I also collect keys from around the world, possibly a sentimental testament to my peripatetic origins. So if you have any old or spare keys, donate them to my cause!

And your role at NYU Press? What’s the most exciting part of your job?
I work with Chip Rossetti on the Library of Arabic Literature series, which is a trailblazing, ambitious venture in the field of translation that I feel immensely lucky to be a part of. Now that the first published books are amassing on the shelf, in their glorious cobalt blue covers, you really get a sense of what a commanding collection this will be.

Why did you go into (academic) publishing?
Despite having largely abandoned any PhD aspirations, I was wary of straying too far from academia, and my love of literature made publishing a self-evident choice. I also like being around and/or part of conversations about current and trending topics, which the academic publishing industry is always anticipating. The answer, in short, is: to further my education.

Most preferred way of reading? Good ol’ book or fancy schmancy e-reader?
At the risk of sounding absolutely ridiculous, I thoroughly enjoy the smell of books. The dustier and older, the better. Basically, it’s not reading if you’re not literally burying your face in the pages. Smelling an e-reader, on the other hand, is creepy and unhygienic. (That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.)

What are you reading these days? Got a favorite NYU Press book?
I’ve been perusing a collection of Henrik Ibsen’s plays and revisiting Denis Johnson’s irreverent short stories in Jesus’ Son to get through particularly misanthropic mornings. As far as new fiction, I can’t wait to get my hands on She Left Me The Gun. I’ve also been known to lurk — actual words of an employee — in the philosophy section of The Strand.

In our NYUP catalog, I’m looking forward to Unclean Lips and, of course, the next volumes of Leg Over Leg, which cover a variety of titillating topics from marital relations and poetry to the sexual aberrations of Europeans. I’ve also been eyeing Arranging Grief in the backlist, which whets my scholarly interest in trauma theory. The list is infinite and overwhelming!

Any insider tips to tackling the great city of New York?
The G line is an unsettling lime green color on the map for a reason. Stay away from the G. Everything else is fair game.

What are some of your hobbies?
Beyond the expected (reading, writing), these days I’m toying around with a Diana+ camera, an analog from the 1970s that produces very neat, raw lomographic photos. I also spend a little too much time in thrift stores; my favorite is Pippin’s in Chelsea. I recently rescued an orphaned 19th-century full-length mirror that took eons to drag home on the subway. I’m verging on Hoarders territory, but it’s all vintage, so that doesn’t count, right?

Have you ever received any great advice about your jobs from a colleague or a mentor?
My first ever employer had a fertile archive of idioms he liked to share gratuitously (I say this with maximum affection). One saying that always resonated with me went: “A mucha hambre, no hay pan duro,” which more or less translates to… for a good appetite, there is no hard bread. In other words, all work is good work. I don’t generally subscribe to mottos, but this would be the closest thing to a guiding principle in my professional life.

Q&A with authors Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: Part 2

September is National Honey Month! In celebration, we’re featuring the second half of a Q&A with Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut, authors of Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (read the first half here). In part two, Moore and Kosut talk about their experience in the field with bees, the truth about the sting, and bees as the new cause célèbre.

Question: What was it like to be in the field with the bees?

Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: The first few times with the bees was intense. We weren’t even paying attention to the beekeepers – it was all about being in the space of the bee and moving slowly and deliberately and respecting their airspace.  We realized if they just sit on your body and you aren’t freaking out, they won’t sting you. We had to get over all the ways we have been socialized by media messages that bees are bad and could attack at any moment.  Bees are actually mostly docile and if you are just smart and contemplative you will be okay. But of course, humans make mistakes.

Beekeeping is also a sensual experience. First is the sound of the bees. The hum can be kind of meditative. It is almost like water in a stream – bees can cause people to really calm down and be in the present. Also, in terms of the embodiment of beekeeping, the hive gives off this extraordinary smell and one of the beekeepers we interviewed, talked about this smell being like truffle oil. She talked about it as being like a “good, heady sex smell” – sort of like the pheromones of sex across species. And we smelled that smell.

When people go and open up the hive, they will sit and watch the bees come and go. These are the intimate embodied relationships people have with the bee.

Q: What about the sting?

LJM and MK: In Buzz, we discuss the sting a lot. There are these affective relationships with bees where fear and anxiety is in involved in the practice. So there is something about the wildness and danger that is attractive to people in New York City in particular. Because beekeeping had been illegal in New York City until a couple years ago because of the fact that they sting, we found beekeepers that actually liked the illegality – it was living on the edge and exciting.

The unpredictability of the bees is also a thrill. There are thousands of them flying in the air and they are making all this noise and it is a little bit intimidating, because they can sting you. People deal with the dangers differently – some beekeepers work without prophylactics. We interviewed this one guy who does beekeeping barefoot. There is a little bit of machoness to it – to quote one of our beekeepers, there’s a “bad-ass-ness” about it. It is kind of a flirtation with wild nature, but not too wild. It is not like keeping a tiger in the city.

Getting stung – being able to say you lived through it and you are going in again – we think that is attractive to people. Because getting stung hurts. The bees die after they get stung, so they actually don’t want to sting you. They do all these warning things to avoid stinging – they release pheromones to signal threat, they change their pitch to show they are angry, they also do this thing called bonking. They fly in and basically hit you on the forehead with their bodies to warn you and make you back off.

Bees die when they sting you because their bottom half falls off. So it is very sacrificial for them – they are sacrificing their life for the security of the hive. The whole is more important than the individual – we as sociologists are very attracted to that idea.

Humans theorize about the bees, comparing the hive to a democracy where all these individuals are working together for the greater good. In Buzz, we discuss how bees are basically this model insect because they are so easily anthropomorphized and a template for how humans are supposed to behave. Historically people have been attracted to bees.

Q: Do killer bees make honey?

LJM and MK: Killer bees are sort of a misnomer – or misnamed.  Basically these are bees taken from Africa and studied in South America – mostly Brazil, where they have been studied for certain characteristics. As they are smaller than European honeybees, they reproduce more quickly. But bees are an unpredictable species. They are domesticated, but they don’t always follow what humans want. So some escaped.

They have the capacity to supplant other European hives with their own queen. Once they install their own queen, a hive can turn over to being Africanized. This has been moving up the borders across the U.S.-Mexico border as far north as about Southern Georgia – maybe a bit further. This is tracked by the USDA and other agencies because of the presumed threat of Africanized bees.

They don’t have more venom in their sting – but if they are provoked, they will go farther and longer to sting. The fact that they nest inside buildings and underneath the ground means that humans’ actions sometimes disrupt those bees more than European honeybees because of their nesting patterns. So in Buzz, we talk about that threat of the Africanized bees and how it has been sort of managed through existing tropes of race and racism. Bees have become another way to express anxiety about the border and race and ethnicity. Bees that are out of control are not paying attention to all the rules about entering the country. They are more robust and heartier and that trait is capitalized on and used in a pejorative sense to make us fearful.

Q: What are some of the surprising findings about bees and urban beekeeping?

LJM and MK: One of the things we found so interesting in looking at bees and urban beekeepers and colony collapse disorder (CCD) is that simultaneously, while it is probably a panoply of causes that lead to bees dying, but primarily neonicotinoid – there is also this movement at the same time to save the bees. We liken this to the 1970s save the whales movement.

Bees have become this new mascot or cause célèbre for people to root for or rally behind and this has effects in the urban beekeeping landscape and also for larger corporations like Haagen Dazs or other companies who make saving the bees part of their way of engaging with consumers. It is a pitch to get us concerned by the environment. Bees are seen as so wholesome and so threatened that we need to help them. This is a far cry from when we grew up and were taught to run from bees due to “The Swarm” and other killer bee movies.

In a short time, we have been taught to be concerned about the bees, to worry for them, to want to care for them, to want to buy products that protect them. There is a real shift in how we have seen bees as a real threat to how we seem them now as completely threatened.  And this becomes part of our own desire in how to participate to try and help them.

Fall books available on NetGalley

We’ve got quite a few gems in our NetGalley catalog this fall, all available for advance review now. Book reviewers, journalists, bloggers, librarians, professors, and booksellerswe welcome you to submit a request!

Not familiar with NetGalley? Learn more about how it works.

 
Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut (September 27, 2013)

We think Booklist said it best: “In this fascinating blend of sociology, ecology, ethnographic research, and personal memoir, the authors range through all of the aspects of the human relationship with the honeybee.”

Ever thought of honeybees as sexy? You might after watching Mary Kosut discuss the sensual nature of beekeeping.

 

Cut It Out: The C-Section Epidemic in America by Theresa Morris (October 7, 2013)

In Cut It Out, Theresa Morris offers a riveting and comprehensive look at this little-known epidemic, as well as concrete solutions “that deserve the attention of policymakers” (Publishers Weekly starred review).

C-sections are just as safe as vaginal births, right? Not true, says Theresa Morris. Watch her discusses this and other misconceptions on our YouTube channel.

 

Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton (October 14, 2013)

Hanukkah will fall on Thanksgiving this year for the first time ever—and the last time for another 70,000 years. Brush up on your knowledge of the holiday in time to celebrate the once-in-an-eternity event. Publishers Weekly, in another starred review, promises a “scholarly but accessible guide to the evolution of the Festival of Lights in America.”

Stay tuned for our interview with the author!

 
Browse all of our e-galleys available for review on NetGalley.

Q&A with authors Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: Part 1

Did you know… September is National Honey Month? We didn’t either. So it’s particularly fitting that our book, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut is coming out this month. What a beautiful coincidence! 

Today we have the first half of a Q&A with Moore and Kosut, in which the two authors discuss the origins of their book, look at urban beekeeping practices in New York City, and give a convincing case for why we all should care about the fate of bees. Stay tuned for part two later this month!

Question: What got you interested in studying urban beekeeping?

Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: We got interested in studying urban beekeeping because it seems as if the bee is the animal of the moment. Lisa Jean said, doesn’t it seem like bees are popping up everywhere? In farmer’s markets, at city fairs, people are taking beekeeping classes, and essentially it was a question of the fascination with bees in New York City.

We were also interested in the DIY movement that is very popular in many urban centers in the United States and in particular Brooklyn, where we live. The ways in which the DIY movement cleaves with urban homesteading. Urban homesteading is where people take some of the country into the city and do things like bake bread, make beer, knit, and raise chickens. Or have fermentation parties – there is connection between fermentation parties and bees – making mead. (And apparently bees are also the gateway drug to chickens.)

As professors, we were also interested in the trends regarding what students do the years after college. It used to be that students would take the year off and go get a Eurail pass and travel around Europe.  But we find now that our students are traveling around to different urban farms, or even rural farms, and doing organic farming – or Woofing – where you stay on organic farms and work in exchange for your room and board. We were fascinated by this need for the return to the land and how it has been modified from the 1970s to be in urban spaces.

Like the green-roof – the Eagle Street Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where they have an extensive rooftop farm with all sorts of vegetables, bunnies, chickens and bees. One of the many places in the city that is bringing nature into the urban as part of greening initiatives. Dropping out while staying in. Having all the luxuries of urban life while at the same time having this alternative identity and practice it.  Bees are part of that practice.

We were also interested in people making things, people getting involved. So in Buzz we talk about how there are these generations of old and young beekeepers who really enjoy both the interaction with the bee but also the collaboration with the bee to do things like make honey and harvest it, making beeswax and beeswax candles. And also in a sense of making something larger – what we would call the pollination of NYC which creates vast opportunities for the flora and fauna of NYC – the urban ecology.

Q: Isn’t Beekeeping in NYC illegal?

LJM and MK: Until recently, a couple of years ago, keeping bees in NYC was illegal. Under Rudy Giuliani, in 1999 beekeeping became illegal. It was a nuisance crime. The local authorities didn’t really go after people that kept bees unless some neighbor turned them in because they felt fearful of bees being in their space.  Fearful that bees would attack or swarm. This is a common misperception about swarming – it is not dangerous. It is just bees moving to find more space because they are such a healthy colony and want to grow. It is a spectacular thing to see a swarm – our informants talk about seeing a swarm live as a lightning strike or a shooting star. Where nature overcomes you.

Q: Has beekeeping been growing in popularity?

LJM and MK: Yes, definitely. When we started taking urban beekeeping classes at the Central Park Arsenal (which is a free six-month course run by New York City Beekeeping), there were probably about 200 – 300 in the room—and by the time we left, there were about 2,000 members… and it keeps growing. Once a week, we pick up the paper and there is a story about beekeeping in there – it is expanding as a hobby.

Part of that is because last year was a terrible year for the bees. In 2012, fifty percent of the bee population was lost. So colony collapse disorder (CCD) is not going away or being solved. It is difficult to keep up on the CCD crisis and how people are trying to fix it – while at the same time more and more people are cultivating bees. More classes are being offered – they are an urban animal now.

Q: Why should people care about bees?

LJM and MK: People should care about bees primarily because they are a native pollinator – not native to the United States, but brought here in the 17th Century. But they are a pollinator that can be domesticated through animal husbandry practices and trained to pollinate certain crops. Pollination is responsible for at least one third of food production and reproduction – both industrial and backyard food production.

And since 2006 bees have been suffering from colony collapse disorder, which we talk about extensively in Buzz. It seems to us that since they have been gone from the disorder, people care about them more. This shows how enmeshed with are with bees as this other species and how we co-mingle in all of these ways that are becoming more obvious to us now.

In Buzz we examine CCD through media studies. Different agencies, scientists, look at it from different angles. Some people write about it as being caused by pesticides, or mono-cropping, or the decimation of local ecologies; other people liken CCD to invader species being brought by urbanization and the movement of mites from different locations to attack bees. Ultimately CCD is caused by a host of factors which are human interventions into the landscape. It is highly politicized – if it is linked to pesticides. There are billions of dollars at stake.

Part two of this Q&A will appear on this blog on September 20th, 2013. 

Notes from an editor: Great books aren’t written, they’re re-written

—Ilene Kalish

All editors love books. At some point in our lives we fell in love with words, sentences, and stories. It happened early for me. In elementary school I never wanted to leave the library; I hid between the stacks. If you don’t like to think about the wellchosen word or the lyrical power of language, then you probably wouldn’t make a good editor.

And that’s okay. But as a scholar looking to write a book, you should take a moment to think about the craft of writing. For here is a secret that editors know: great books aren’t written, they’re re-written. Many authors have done impressive research and spent years (even decades) interviewing, transcribing, and culling data. But if that scholarship is going to make an impact, then there is more work to do. You have to transform your findings into a well-told narrative. You have to draw your reader in.

You must be inventive, creative, and lively with your prose. Introduce us to new ideas, new phrases, new ways of thinking. This is what great writers do. This is what you, the author, must do.

Professors are expected to research, teach, and write. The writing may be last on the list, and there may not be any love for it. Great writing is hard. Great writers make reading easy. The words sing, the sentences flow, the pages turn. That’s hard work. Most great writers are talented, but the process of creating a worthwhile book is laborious. Words can be elusive, awkward, tripped over, clunky, monotonous, pedantic, and clichéd. To paraphrase, words don’t bore people, writers bore people.

Revision, editing, and re-writing must happen in order for a great book to get written. This is what editors do. We poke, we pick, we pluck. We move the words around in the sentence. We move the sentences around in the paragraph. We move the chapters around in the book. We re-phrase, we ask for more, for less, for a different direction. There is an art to editing. I like to think that as the years have passed and hundreds of manuscripts have now crossed my desk (or gone through my computer), I have gotten pretty good at editing. I have never seen a case where a manuscript has not been improved through editing—either from my comments or from the academic reviewers kind enough to take a publisher’s modest sum in exchange for their priceless feedback. A thoughtful and challenging review can transform a book.

I suppose I can be tough on authors sometimes. I still edit by hand, on paper with a pencil. I know that receiving these marked up pages with words circled, crossed out, and underlined, with the margins full of questions and comments like, “say more,” “slow down,” and “repeating,” is perhaps not always the most pleasant experience. But it does make for a better book.

Most of the authors I publish say the same thing, “I want to reach a wide audience with my book.” This is often quickly followed up by, “How can I do that?” The answer is easy: Write. Edit. Revise. Re-write.

Here are a few tips: Start with a good title. Pick one that is intriguing, short, and clear—as opposed to vague, long, and complicated. For example, “Parenting Out of Control,” instead of “The Complexities of Family Dynamics in Risk Culture.” Guess which gets a higher Amazon ranking? The same goes for your chapter titles. Always use deliberate, compelling phrasing. Avoid jargon. Accessibility is not the enemy of complexity; in fact, I would argue that easily read prose is more difficult to produce and more likely to convey meaning accurately. Next, pull your reader in from the start by using vivid chapter-openers: begin with a story, an event, a counterintuitive fact, a staggering statistic. Describe. Do not begin a chapter with, “In this chapter I will show….” Please, don’t do that. Say something new and don’t be shy about highlighting your unique perspective. Be able to answer the question, “So what?” I sometimes ask this after a scholar has spent ten uninterrupted minutes earnestly explaining her project. “So what? Why should anyone care? Why is this important?” Map out the stakes for what or how or why your research is significant. Only you can tell us—that is, after all, why you are writing the book.

Just don’t forget to re-write it, too.

Ilene Kalish is Executive Editor for the Social Sciences at NYU Press. Read her bio here.

[This article appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.]