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Digging deep into local history

Not long after Christine Ridarsky became Rochester’s city historian, she ventured into a storage area in the stacks of the Rochester Public Library. At least 50 boxes of historical research material left behind by her long-tenured predecessors were waiting to be inventoried, sorted and rehoused. 

Ridarsky has grown accustomed to working amid stacks of books and paper piles; she and her colleagues are the guardians of Rochester’s attic. Ridarsky’s office collects and protects local historical materials. But the days of hanging onto everything are over: Discerning what is of use now and will be in the future is a big part of the job.

Ridarsky, 45, wants to paint a more complete picture of Rochester’s history, one that makes room for everyday contributors along with the big names time tends to remember. Successful communities know how to mine the past to benefit the present, she says.

“Understanding history is important to a sense of self and a sense of community,” she says. “It tells you where you come from. … Why do we treasure what we treasure?

“Different parts of our city have such different stories of why they came to be and how they came to be the way they are.”

All about the story

Rochester has studied its history for years. Standout historians Blake McKelvey and Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck wrote many volumes on the movements, people and businesses that shaped this area. Ridarsky became city historian in 2008. City Hall had eliminated the post a year earlier during budget cuts but restored it as a part-time position at the start of the city’s 175th anniversary celebration.

The job became full time in 2012 when library duties were added. As historical services consultant in the Central Library, Ridarsky took on management of the library’s Local History & Genealogy Division, where her office is located, and a digitizing staff in place at the time. The library now outsources digitizing work. Ridarsky’s office also oversees the High Falls Museum, which has one part-time seasonal employee.

Today the division has a dozen staff members. Its fiscal 2016-17 budget, which includes the historian’s office, is $425,000. Most is used to cover staff salaries. The division collects local historical materials, preserving them and providing access to the public. Increasingly, its holdings can be accessed online. Ridarsky is editor of Rochester History, a scholarly journal about the region’s history and culture, and staff historians write for the division’s blog, Local History ROCs.

A former journalist, Ridarsky is drawn to the stories of everyday people living in remarkable times. These accounts find their way to her office through old journals, scrapbooks and collections. Two boxes she found on a closet shelf contained Grand Army of the Republic medals and buttons for voting rights and the community War Chest. Someone dropped off a plastic baggie containing a Gold Bug pin used in the 1896 presidential campaign of William McKinley, who favored a gold standard for the country’s monetary system.

The work is like a treasure hunt, Ridarsky says. The office’s biggest find in recent years was a previously unknown portrait of Frederick Douglass. Librarian Cheri Crist found the photo, dated to 1873, in a scrapbook donated more than a century ago.

“We have so much material,” Ridarsky says. “Different people have looked at it with different eyes over the years.”

Benefits of history

City administrators value the past as a way to enhance the present, Ridarsky says, pointing to the recent restoration of the Henry Lomb Memorial in the Upper Falls neighborhood as proof. The 48-foot obelisk, dedicated in 1932 to the cofounder of Bausch & Lomb Inc., was refurbished and relit as part of an effort to revitalize a busy intersection.

Not long ago, there were calls to remove the statue, Ridarsky says.

Ridarsky’s work takes her into the community. She is leading efforts with residents and veterans to restore an old cemetery in the 19th Ward, where residents have long embraced the past. Its Rapids Cemetery on Congress Avenue, one of four burial grounds that date to the city’s earliest days, contains the graves of veterans from four wars, including the American Revolution. Volunteers are cleaning it up and resetting fallen headstones after 70 years of neglect. And they are reimagining how some of the cemetery’s open spaces can be used by the public for gardening or fruit trees.

Rochester is the most well-documented midsize city in America, but it could do more by using the stories of its past to toot its own horn, Ridarsky contends. She believes Rochester should think bigger to take advantage of its powerful history. The abolition of slavery, the early push for women’s rights and the spread of new religions figure prominently in the region.

“We should be drawing tourists from all over the country,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve been doing enough. … We could have something in Rochester similar to Boston’s Freedom Trail. I’d like to see us make better use of our history to make Rochester a better tourist draw.”

To illustrate her point, Ridarsky mentions the Broad Street Aqueduct. Spanning the Genesee River in the heart of downtown, it contains three layers of local and national history: the Erie Canal, the Rochester Subway and its current life as a graffiti art gallery that draws visitors from all over the world. Competing groups argue for future uses that focus on one at the expense of the others; Ridarsky contends that any

reimagining of the space could reveal its changing history, with sections devoted to all three. Time will tell if the various visions can come together, she says.

‘Blown away’

In a town where community efforts can be well-intentioned but siloed, Ridarsky is pleased when eager collaboration bubbles up. In her office, deputy historian Michelle Finn is leading part of a project to mark the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York in 2017. The team includes the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester Historical Society, the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology.

The city and Visit Rochester are planning a major marketing campaign for the anniversary, launching New Year’s Eve. Historical nonprofits are building an online calendar with links to regional events. Among the events: A flotilla of packet boats is to travel the Erie Canal to Rochester from Seneca Falls in July, stopping at ports along the way to tell the story.

A summer exhibit at the Central Library will draw from the holdings of each organization to show the range of people who fought for suffrage and the ways they came to be involved, the methods they used and the challenges they faced. Among the planned exhibits is a re-created Harper Method hair salon and a wartime hospital base camp.

The ease of collaboration sets the tone for local events that will mark the national centennial of women’s suffrage in 2020, she says.

“I’m blown away by how our partnership has been working,” she says. “We realized there was not a single one of us who can tell the full story. … It truly is (a group effort).

“I’m so excited because it’s breaking down those silos. We know from experience when you start breaking down those walls, they start to crumble.”

Ridarsky—who co-edited “Susan B. Anthony and the Struggle for Equal Rights,” published by University of Rochester Press in 2012—hopes the centennial will bring to light more men and women who pushed for the cause. Her interests lie in social history, the lives of everyday people and their part in cultural movements.

“I’m interested in the people we don’t know about,” she says. “Susan B. Anthony could not have done what she did without these thousands of other women working in their own communities to get the word out.”

Ridarsky has liked digging for stories and telling them since she was a girl growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. Her mother was a neonatal intensive care nurse; her father, an autobody repairman and mechanic, painted cars in their attached garage. She has a younger sister.

“I always liked to write. As a child, I wrote these really bizarre horror stories,” she says, laughing.

 She and her friends penned plays and joined the history club as middle-schoolers, competing in regional and state History Day contests.

“That’s where I was exposed to this idea of primary research and asking questions,” she says.

It did not hurt that all of Ridarsky’s grandparents lived to old age, including her maternal grandmother, Vera Morrison, who lives in Poland, Ohio. They loved telling stories. Her great-grandmother, Erma Morrison, told a young Ridarsky of shopping at downtown department stores during Youngstown’s heyday.

“She was a rabble-rouser, a flapper, a new woman,” Ridarsky recalls. “I just think hearing her stories gave me an interest in history.”

Ridarsky earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and mass communication and in political science in 1993 at Kent State University. Her first job was reporting for a small newspaper in Chillicothe, Ohio. The Gazette’s office was housed in a replica of Ohio’s first state capitol—a harbinger of her history leanings to come. 

Passionate researcher

It was at her next job—reporting for the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin—that Ridarsky wrote a story about a woman searching for her adult daughter. Police initially had dismissed the woman’s concerns, but Ridarsky’s story led to an investigation that found the daughter had been murdered by her ex-husband. Ridarsky wrote a series of stories as the investigation unfolded.

“During the course of the investigation, I actually did a phone interview with the husband before he was arrested. I interviewed him by phone from my apartment alone at night and am still haunted by it,” she says.

“I really feel like my reporting on that story made a difference.”

Ridarsky digs deep to get to the core of a story and has a passion that drives her to understand, says Karen Osburn, historian for the city of Geneva in Ontario County.

“History is the people. She knows the people breathe life into history. The stories of those people are what bring them all to life,” Osburn says.

“She’s passionate. That’s a word I would definitely attach to her. She’s definitely passionate about the things she finds out and the things she wants to share.”

Ridarsky joined the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1996, first covering the northwest suburbs and then city schools. While working as an investigative education reporter, she started taking graduate history classes at SUNY College at Brockport.

A five-week sabbatical to do an archeological field study in the Finger Lakes National Forest convinced Ridarsky history was her niche. The team dug in old privies and sifted through dirt to piece together what happened when the federal government bought out small farms in the area to create the forest. Agricultural experts had painted a picture of poverty and subsistence on the farms. At the time, large-scale farms were the wave of the future.

The dig itself was not the stuff of Indiana Jones, but in it researchers found another story: Deemed failures, the farms in fact had good soil and grew diverse crops, contributing to the local economy and supporting the families who had worked there.

Ridarsky returned briefly to the Democrat and Chronicle before accepting a graduate assistantship at SUNY Brockport and focusing full time on a master’s degree. She speaks with fondness of an internship at what is now the Rochester Medical Museum & Archives under the guidance of her mentor, then museum director Phil Maples.

Ridarsky became a regional archivist for the New York State Archives Documentary Heritage program in 2002. For two years, she traveled to history organizations in the five-county Rochester region, helping with grant applications and training staffers. It was in this job that she met history pros “who could have just looked on me as this fish out of water,” Ridarsky recalls. “They taught me so many things and just gave me the support and advice I needed to succeed.”

Osburn, one of those mentors, says Ridarsky draws people to herself with an effervescent, enthusiastic personality.

“She just puts her head down and plows ahead,” Osburn says. “I think she becomes energized by what she learns. (She asks,) ‘What can I do with this? How can I learn this? How can I teach people about this really, really neat thing I just found out?’

“She just has much more energy than I would even think of having.”

Ridarsky’s husband, Patrick Rausch, shares her enthusiasm for history: He is a middle school social studies teacher. They live with their children—Adelyn, 8, and Zachery, 7—in Charlotte.

Ridarsky completed all but a dissertation for a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Rochester. She is a trustee and deputy regional coordinator of the Association of Public Historians of New York State, which represents more than 1,600 municipal historians. She also is a founding member of the government historians committee of the National Council on Public History.

In Rochester, she is a member of the steering committee for the Joseph Avenue Arts & Cultural Association. The group is converting a former synagogue into an arts venue for an economically challenged neighborhood—another example, she says, of dipping into the past to refresh the present.

“Rochester has had a lot of success with adaptive reuse of historic buildings. These days there is more awareness of that value,” Ridarsky says. “How can we recognize that historical value and make use of it in a meaningful way for the present?”

Christine Ridarsky

Position: City historian, Rochester, and historical services consultant, Rochester Public Library

Age: 45

Education: Ph.D. candidate in American history, the University of Rochester (completed work except dissertation); M.A. degree in history, SUNY College at Brockport, 2003; B.A. degrees in journalism/mass communication and political science, Kent State University, 1993, Kent, Ohio

Family: Husband, Patrick Rausch; daughter, Adelyn, 8; son, Zachery, 7

Residence: Rochester

Activities: Cooking, gardening, reading, community activities

Quote: “It truly is (a group effort). … I’m so excited because it’s breaking down those silos. We know from experience when you start breaking down those walls, they start to crumble.”

12/30/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.
 

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