Michael Toscano in Williasmburg circa 1940. Courtesy of Vera Toscano/Brooklyn Public Library

The Our Streets, Our Stories project collects narratives and ephemera to preserve memories of a changing borough.

P.S. 44 sits at the corner of Throop Avenue and Monroe Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It’s a square, brick building, bordered to the north by a playground and to the east and west by rowhouses—a hodgepodge of the neighborhood’s varied architectural imprints. But around the turn of the century, long before the school existed, it was the site of a horse stable.

This fact is not recorded in a textbook. It belongs, instead, to a collective memory that’s growing dimmer as the neighborhood around it transforms.

Our Streets, Our Stories, a project run through the Brooklyn Public Library’s Department of Outreach Services, gives those memories a way to persist into the future. It began in 2014 at three library branches— Leonard, Flatbush, and Kings Bay—“literally a line up and down Brooklyn, from north to south,” says program manager Taina Evans. Since then, it’s expanded to ten more locations.

Antoinette and Norfie Toscano, circa 1930. Photo donated by Vera Toscano on July 18th, 2015 at the Leonard Library. (Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library)

The project aims to create a network of searchable neighborhood archives in the form of oral histories and scanned ephemera—photos, documents, and memorabilia that contain something essential about life in a Brooklyn that many of its current residents never knew. The New York Public Library is in the process of collecting a similar archive of stories from neighborhoods in Manhattan and the Bronx.

“Our hope,” Evans says, “is to capture the Brooklyn that is, and the Brooklyn that was, and the people that make up the communities.”

Ray Haskins, an educator at the Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant in his mid-sixties, brought the story about the stables on Throop Avenue to a recent recording day at his school; the audio will be available next month, along with more stories from neighborhood residents.

(Courtesy of Irene Dobronski/Brooklyn Public Library)

As Our Streets, Our Stories has grown, it has developed partnerships with community organizations throughout the borough. From gardeners affiliated with the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, Evans says, they’ve recorded the evolution of community gardening initiatives. “Their spaces started out as vacant lots and junkyards; they developed them into these beautiful gardens, and now they’re seeing them being taken away for housing,” she describes. Pioneer Works, an art center in Red Hook, has provided narratives about life before and after Hurricane Sandy in the waterfront district.

An article from the spring 1991 issue of the Prospect Place Paper, the newsletter of the Prospect Place Block association in Prospect Heights. (Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library)

Over the past decade, the Prospect Heights community has undergone substantial change in the form of new arrivals and the developments built to accommodate them. Denise Cataudella, who has lived in Prospect Heights since the late 1980s, recalls a time when it was easier to make friends in the neighborhood.

I gotta tell you, nothing beats the Brooklyn stoop… I can’t tell you how many wonderful conversations I’ve had with people just sitting on the stoop, just enjoying the setting sun, people coming home, people walking their dogs. Everybody, even if they don’t know your name, will know that there’s this neighbor that’s there, and we can form this community.

But Cataudella says that newcomers sometimes don’t understand the stoop culture. “I say to them: this will happen, this is how you get to know people. Some evening, just come out here and sit down and smile at all the people walking by.”

Other histories, Evans says, recount a Brooklyn that’s changed for the better.   

A photo donated by Erika Andino. (Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library).

Moving between Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, and Puerto Rico from the early 1990s onward, Erika Andino saw her community and family devastated by HIV and AIDS, which took the lives of her father, uncle, and, in 2006, her mother, whom Andino recalls fighting to raise awareness of the epidemic in the borough. “Even in the midst of disaster and chaos,” Andino says, “Brooklyn has always been home. It’s crazy, because Brooklyn has brought me a lot of my pain—Brooklyn as it was, not Brooklyn as it is now.” Andino now lives with her husband and sons in a Fort Greene apartment that they fixed together. There’s a sense that the city around her has consigned the AIDS years to an unspeakable past, but for Andino, they are inseparable from her time growing up here.

Narratives like Andino’s, says Evans, give shape to a period of New York’s history that has long felt unmentionable, lost to the generation of new arrivals who never lived through it. Now, Evans says, “you hear people saying: ‘I want to share my story to let people know that this did happen here; the streets that you walk on today were not always so welcoming.’”

The Brooklyn Public Library’s project has collected histories from notable residents such as Frank Seddio, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and Susannah Mushatt Jones, born on July 6, 1899 and officially declared the world’s oldest living person. But what Our Streets, Our Stories shows is that no matter where or who it comes from, every story matters.

Documents from the life of Susannah Mushatt Jones. (Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library)

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