Editor’s Note: We had another busy, successful month in October at the Center for Women’s History. Below, CWH intern Brigitte Dale recaps our participation in the Women’s Building Block Party, and CWH special assistant Allee Surgeary reports on our Spicy Talk salon conversation. Sign up for our mailing list to stay tuned for more great Center for Women’s History events in November, including the opening of our newest exhibit, Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean this weekend and a salon conversation on Female Remedies and Wicked Women: Reproductive Health in 19th Century New York on Friday, November 16.
The Women’s Building Block Party: A Bright Future for the Transformation of a Former Women’s Prison
Amazing things happen when women take to the streets. At the start of the French Revolution, Parisian women led the march to the palace Versailles, demanding justice from King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Suffragists in the 1910s marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, demanding political equality through the right to vote. And on a recent October weekend, the third annual Women’s Building community block party filled an entire block of 20th Street in Chelsea, featuring over thirty exhibitors and performances from nine different artistic organizations.
The New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History set up a booth alongside dozens of other organizations to promote our own upcoming exhibitions and programming, as well as to support the Women’s Building. The Women’s Building project is a plan to rebuild and repurpose a site with a fraught history in Chelsea and transform it into a safe space to house organizations working for women’s rights.
The building, originally designed in 1931, was established as a YMCA and served the merchant sailors who worked the Hudson River’s nearby docks. In the 1970s, the building was converted into a women’s prison, Bayview Correctional Facility. Many of the women incarcerated there had endured lives of poverty, addiction, and sexual trauma. The site remained a women’s prison until 2012, when the 153 inmates were evacuated to upstate New York during the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Damaged by the storm, Bayview Correctional Facility has remained closed ever since.
The NoVo Foundation’s Women’s Building project aims to transform the space from a prison to a hub for non-profit organizations that work on behalf of the rights of women and girls. There are many such organizations in the New York City area and they provide important services and resources. Due to high rent and operating costs, these organizations often struggle to achieve maximum impact. The Women’s Building strives to change this, and by providing resources and support through a shared workspace, the building will become a hub of activism, collaboration, and positive change.
Architect Deborah Berke, of NYC’s Deborah Berke Partners, won the 2016 competition to design the future Women’s Building. Berke’s design will feature offices, conference and event spaces, and even onsite childcare. As the site transforms from Bayview Correctional Facility to the Women’s Building, the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History was eager to get involved and celebrate the increasing opportunities for women’s empowerment projects.
The Center joined the party for the second consecutive year with a booth that featured interactive activities, including selfie-sticks with quotes from some of America’s most remarkable women. A sign featuring African American anti-lynching crusader and journalist Ida B. Wells read, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” In another section of the tent, visitors posed for photos with a cut-out of woman suffrage activist Carrie Chapman Catt, displaying her quotation, “Roll up your sleeves; set your mind to making history.”
Indeed, the making of history was a critical part of the conversation at the block party. We posed the question: “Women’s history matters because…” and received countless responses. One visitor wrote, “without women, we only hear half the story.” Another aptly replied, “women are the future.”
Visitors also gained a sense of the N-YHS exhibitions and upcoming events, including our fall salons on Spicy Talk: The Dish on 7 Decades of Food in New York City and Female Remedies and Wicked Women: Reproductive Health in 19th-Century New York. Through dialogues at the block party, we at the Center discussed the stories that most resonated with community members, such as the Monumental Women project that is bringing a statute of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to Central Park, the first-ever statue of real women in the Park.
With performances from groups including Girl Be Heard and the Brooklyn Express Drum Line, the afternoon was a lively and engaging event. Even as the block party came to a close when the October evening grew chilly, we can be sure that the event made its mark. Dozens of visitors left our tent with purple pins proudly proclaiming, “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.”
As the Women’s Building transforms into this new iteration, we are eager to witness the history that each participant contributes. One thing is for sure: this project will make an impact on the future of women and girls in New York City and beyond.
– Brigitte Dale, Center for Women’s History
Spicy Talk: The Dish on 7 Decades of Food in New York City
On October 24, a crowd of New York foodies joined the Center for Women’s History in Dexter Hall for an evening to remember at our Spicy Talk salon conversation. Moderator Dana Cowin, the longtime editor-in-chief of Food and Wine magazine and now the creative mind behind the food radio program, Speaking Broadly, welcomed legendary food columnist Mimi Sheraton (the first female restaurant critic for the New York Times) and chef Angie Mar of the Beatrice Inn for a smart, funny conversation about how the city’s restaurants evolved from eating dens to dining establishments, how restaurants progress from fads to fabulous, and their own unlikely friendship. Angie Mar’s team provided the fantastic food, a perfect compliment to the “spicy talk” onstage.
– Allee Surgeary, Center for Women’s History
Top Photo Credits: The Center for Women’s History booth at the Women’s Building Block Party, October 13, 2018.