Thoughts on balance

This is the first post in a series I’m calling “Thoughts”. My intent is to give some background on what happens “behind the scenes” of my project, and to flesh out some ideas that don’t really fit in anywhere else.

I’ve now completed six weeks of my travels, and I think it’s as good a time as any to reflect on what I’ve learned so far about researching and writing.

I figured out early on a formula that works for me. With exceptions where required, I announce the nabe on Sunday; I hit up the library on Tuesday afternoon, and research and write a history over the next day or two; I visit the nabe later in the week, and write that up; last, I create a gallery of photos that I couldn’t fit into the recap of my visit.

My main struggle is with balance. I find that I have to seek compromise in a few different dimensions.

The most prominent dimension is length. My problem is I don’t have much time to do research. I would love to spend weeks rifling through piles of old newspaper articles, budgets, minutes to meetings, censuses, and so on. But with a limited amount of time, eighty nabes in all, and another pursuit that demands my energy, I can’t be as detailed as my sometimes-perfectionist self would like.

Over the last few decades, Brian Merlis, Lee Rosenzweig, and Oscar Israelowitz have put together a great string of books on individual areas of Brooklyn, about one a year. They provide a detailed history, and they’re filled with lots of vintage photographs. They’re often a starting-point for my research when they’re available for a given neighborhood. But I would wager that if you asked them, they would say they had to make some compromises on length as well.

This leads to the secondary dimension: concentration of interest. What is most interesting to me? What might be most interesting to a person reading my post? You might have noticed that my histories tend to skew toward transportation. My bedroom has three maps and I have a subway shower-curtain, so this is clearly something that fascinates me. (My guess is it also interests my readers, since no one really gets over his childhood obsession with old vehicles like trolleys and steam locomotives.)

Unfortunately, this tends to come at the expense of details like cultural shifts, e.g., there were x Irish families living here in 1950, compared with y German families, and then there was a gradual influx of Haitians and Orthodox Jews over the next twenty years. Perhaps I’m less interested; perhaps it’s because finding those shifts would require too much time. My usual intent with something like this is to give a very basic overview with links to further information.

Finally, I worry about readability: for example, how do I balance basic factual information (which can be very dry) with trivia or interesting visuals? This is more of an aesthetic point, and I think I do a good job. Visit-recaps are easier than histories to craft in a readable manner, since I’m basically just taking you along for a walk; for histories, I have to dig up interesting pictures and maps from the past, which are not always easy to find. It’s a good thing I don’t mind spending time in the library.

Funny story: in my post on my trip to Windsor Terrace, I wrote about visiting the marshal’s office. I had thought about putting in the marshal’s name, but I figured it would be extraneous and therefore a waste of space. Lo and behold, one of the search terms that hit my blog this morning was “who is the marshal with the office on the corner of 20th st windsor terrace?”. I guess even here I can’t please all of the people all of the time! (For the record, the marshal is Charles J. Marchisotto.)

On a side note, it’s quite exciting to write about something new. One example is my post on the failed plan for Jamaica Bay — the information had long been available, but as far as I know, no one had ever synthesized it into a coherent story. Maybe I’ll give it (or some other topic) more attention once I’m done with this project.

Now you have an idea of my evolution through the first month and a half of this undertaking. I’ve been lucky enough to share some or all of these thoughts with a few of you in person, but much of my readership comprises people I don’t know and might never meet, some of whom might be putting together a blog for the first time and are going through the same thing. If so, I hope this helps.

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