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NYFS Newsletter 1998-vol19-no1-2-1
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Winter/Spring 1999 Newsletter

The Queens Folklorist: Reflections on a Folk Arts Program
Ilana Harlow

As a child I was attracted to traditional music, stories, and cultural events. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania I discovered that folklore was an academic discipline and took a couple of courses in it. Although the subject matter appealed to me, I decided against getting a degree in folklore since I wondered, "What will I ever do with it?" Instead, I majored in the very practical field of philosophy.

After college I got an MS in early childhood education and taught pre-kindergarten for a few years but kept thinking about folklore. Eventually I went off to Indiana University’s Folklore Institute. For my dissertation I did fieldwork in Ireland on traditional narrative. I returned to New York, my hometown, to write my dissertation and in 1994, interviewed for, and was offered, the position of Folk Arts Program Director at the Queens Council on the Arts.

Immediately after I got the job, I ran into an English acquaintance of mine on the subway. I told him I got a job as the Queens folklorist. He looked stunned: "Wot? Why’d they hire an American?" So now when I tell people I’m the Queens folklorist I quickly add, "The borough, not the lady."

Queens is the most ethnically diverse county in the nation. One of my first projects at the Queens Council on the Arts posed and answered the question, "How can you travel around the world for the price of a subway token?" The International Express: A Guide to Ethnic Communities along the 7 Train, documents traditional life along the route of an elevated subway train which passes through northwest Queens. The guide provides general introductions to ethnic neighborhoods, pointing out ways by which people transform anonymous public space into meaningful community places, and lists ethnic restaurants, specialty shops, houses of worship, and festivals in some of the communities flourishing in the train’s shadow. I also produced a video which focuses on four communities and four aspects of culture along the train’s route: South Asian fashion, Mexican food, Italian recreation, and Korean art.

In other projects I have been inspired by the intriguing phenomenon that people from neighboring countries on distant continents are now literally neighbors in New York. For instance, a relatively new Turkish community has settled smack in between a Greek community in Astoria and an Armenian community in Sunnyside and Woodside. You could superimpose a map of Greece, Turkey, and Armenia and the settlement pattern here would roughly align with the map. This baffled me considering the political history of those three countries. After pondering how to phrase the question delicately, I asked a young man in the Turkish grocery store in Sunnyside, "Isn’t it hard for you to be living between these two communities?" He replied, "Well, you know it’s like when you break up with your boyfriend—you still want to know what’s up with him."

While the interaction between bordering countries is often defined by war and nationalistic violence, in fact, their people often have much in common and appreciate many elements of each other’s cultures. Cultural interactions between historically related communities continue in Queens. In Jackson Heights, for example, grocery stores advertise Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi products on their awnings. Although these nations have undergone great struggles to separate from one another, their citizens who have immigrated to Queens share the same shops because of similar food traditions. Neighboring nationalities also recognize and enjoy the cultural continuities between each other’s music; Queens’ Afghan community hires Bukharan and Persian artists to perform at musical events just as they would in their home country.

Thus far I have organized a festival of Greek, Turkish, and Armenian traditions, as well as a concert of Uzbek, Afghan, and Persian music. The concert, Musical Bridges: Jewish and Muslim Traditions of Asia, was the most significant of the projects I have done. The program explored Jewish-Muslim relations through the music of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran and aimed to sensitize the audience to the varieties of Jewish and Muslim traditions and historical experience. (e.g. Jews were the court musicians for Bukharan Muslim amirs). The concert also highlighted continuities between the music and poetry traditions of the three countries in general. Fortuitously, the Afghan and Bukharan singers featured in the concert used to perform together when they visited each other’s countries as part of government-sponsored tours.

In 1996, the concert was presented at a Flushing synagogue and at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. In 1997, thanks to a grant from Lincoln Center’s Community Arts program, I produced the concert at Alice Tully Hall. I spent a great deal of time developing a diverse audience. Eleven hundred people attended the concert, and there was a tremendous feeling of fellowship in the room. After the concert many members of the Muslim community called or wrote to thank me for presenting the Muslim community in a positive light.

Most recently I began an investigation into cemetery traditions in Queens. While brainstorming ideas for new projects, I asked myself, "What is quintessential Queens?" The answer that popped into my head, as a lifelong Manhattanite, was 'cemeteries.' (The borough has the largest concentration of memorial parks in the city.) I wanted to demonstrate that cemeteries are not isolated burial grounds unto themselves but rather are connected to vibrant ethnic communities. The research resulted in an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, and in the publication of a booklet, both entitled, Beyond the Grave: Cultures of Queens Cemeteries. The four sections of the exhibition and booklet—Art of Stone, Image and Identity, Visiting the Dead, and Gifts and Adornments—convey that cemeteries are tied to people’s lives through custom, beliefs, and traditional arts and through intimate expressions of love, grief, and faith. They reflect the living as well as the dead.

In my programs I try to promote interaction. Sometimes, instead of presenting a concert, I will present a dance party at which people are encouraged to move to live music. In this way they actively experience an added dimension of the music, and they physically interact with people from other cultures. In a festival I organized called Marketplace Mosaic: A Harvest of Queens Cultures, participants from various cultures presented ways they use fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices for food, traditional medicine, religion, fortune telling, and art. Festival goers were encouraged to ask about unfamiliar produce they saw: "What is it? What do you do with it?" Hopefully, it further emboldened them to ask such questions in their neighborhoods.

Each year at least one of my programs is devoted to presenting artists from areas of the world with which many Americans are familiar primarily through the negative political perspective presented in the news. Such performances provide the public with the opportunity to experience these cultures through a positive artistic perspective. So, for example, ideally people won’t just associate the word "Afghan" with "rebel," but with soaring music and gentle singers as well.

It is possible to reach even the people who don’t come to the actual event through good press. For this reason it’s important to cultivate relationships with like-minded journalists. These relationships are symbiotic; just as we are seeking good coverage, newspaper reporters are seeking good stories. You need to find the ones who share your perspective on what’s interesting and newsworthy. Sometimes I call several reporters at the same paper, and only one is responsive. Sometimes none are. In one case it took over a year to get an article written about a virtuosic Bukharan musician.

It helps to give the reporter an angle. The fact that there is going to be an extraordinary concert or festival or an exhibition is not enough for a good reporter. They need an unusual angle too, and often that angle will hook them on writing the story more than the actual event. The immigrant beat reporter at the New York Times recently wrote an article in conjunction with my Beyond the Grave exhibition. She told me she never would have thought of looking at immigration from the standpoint of cemetery traditions. She got credit from her colleagues for an unusual piece, and I got front-page publicity for my show. Still, at first, the existence of a variety of cemetery traditions was not enough for her. She only got excited when I described ways people adopt and adapt new cemetery traditions they encounter and suggested she write about that.

A potential problem with media coverage is that reporters are trained to look for conflict; for them, that is what makes a good story. Originally the Times reporter wanted to write a piece about immigrant cemetery traditions offending native New Yorkers. Fortunately I was able to provide her with an alternative which she liked.

Public folklorists can create opportunities for the general public to informally and almost effortlessly expose themselves to various cultures. Encouraging interaction is crucial. Communities exist in shared social space, not necessarily shared physical space. New Yorkers become members of the multicultural community that is New York City not just by living here but by choosing to participate in it, by interacting with our neighbors, learning about their lives and traditions, and by sharing our lives and traditions with them.

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“...I told him I got a job as the Queens folklorist. He looked stunned: ‘Wot? Why’d they hire an American?’ So now when I tell people I’m the Queens folklorist I quickly add, ‘The borough, not the lady.’
—Ilana Harlow

Photo of Sari Shop, Jackson Heights, Queens, NY
Sari Shop, Jackson Heights. Photograph courtesy of Queens Council on the Arts. Photograph by Ilana Harlow.

Photo of Korean calligraphy
Korean Calligraphy and Art Association of America. Photograph by Ilana Harlow.

Photo of Ilana Harlow
Ilana Harlow (back row, third from right) backstage with musicians from Musical Bridges. Photograph courtesy of Ilana Harlow.

Photo of St. John's Cemetery at Christmas
A Christmas visit. St. John’s Cemetery, Queens. Photograph by Ilana Harlow.

To purchase Beyond the Grave ($4) and International Express (booklet, $1; video, $15) contact Queens Council on the Arts, 79-01 Park Lane South, Woodhaven, NY 11421-1166.

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