(Unintended) Research Discoveries

The winter break brought a particularly heavy period of work on my dissertation, “Drop Dead: Municipal Crisis and the Geographies of Performance in New York City, 1972-1982,” so I thought I’d share some of the fun of the process– and maybe you’ll share your own errant discoveries back. My topic is centered in the world of 1970s theater and performance, which means I’m well-positioned here in New York to visit landmark archival research centers, like the NYPL Performing Arts Library and the Schomburg Center. I’ve  consumed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside of them all, as I researched the crannies of performance in New York City during one of the largest fiscal crises on record. Then there’s the added benefit (distraction?) of tools like YouTube to add layers of multimedia to my searches. That’s a lot of information, tucked into desktop files and overflowing drawers. But some of the fruits of the process are truly random and not at all destined for inclusion in the final draft. Here are some recent noteworthy and unintended discoveries:

1) This music:

I love people who put their records on YouTube– it’s a treasure to hear the crackle of the needle, to think of the devotion that prompted this person to record and upload their LP collection. And to discover something out of print, too– I boast an electric typewriter, but no record player, and New York is rapidly losing its record stores. Type “Novella Nelson” into Spotify, and nothing will come up. But thanks to some fan in Austria, this isn’t the case on YouTube. Here’s another one:

I hadn’t previously been aware of Novella Nelson’s acting career, but I came across her work in downtown theatre during the 1970s in a 1973 Black World/Negro Digest article that described Nelson as a tireless advocate for black playwrights, even bullying the (brilliant!) bully of the Public Theater, Joseph Papp, into presenting a series of one-act plays by seven black playwrights. Is that story true? Who knows. It may not make the cut of the dissertation chapter, but her music certainly will.

2) In 1969, the New York State Council on the Arts collaborated with Columbia’s Medical School to present 150 children from disadvantaged neighborhoods with an “inside look at the medical profession.” How? By demonstrating the removal of an appendix from a dog, which the elementary school students– shocked!– watched “up close” as five medical school trainees described their surgical process in an old auditorium. The photos look like a Diane Arbus rendering of a reality TV medical drama, and I would post them here if my copy didn’t have “restricted” stamped all over it.

3) The travesty to New York-area studies that is our Municipal Archives. Maybe some altruistic billionaire will step forward, anxious to have his name attached to an ambitious undertaking like the overhaul of our municipal library? A billionaire interested in both his legacy as a public steward, the archiving and maintenance of urban history, and the ethics of public information? Let’s give the history of the city a better vault.

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4) Head shots were both different and not-so-different forty years ago.

Headshot: Julie Bovasso

Headshot: Julie Bovasso

5) But the dismal street-crossing etiquette of New Yorkers was not.

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