NEW YORK—In a cozy, 250-year-old brick house with oatmeal-colored walls and paper printed photographs, the Museum of Bronx History struggles to continue educating Bronx residents of their history.
Earlier this month, a commemoration was held for Sol Elbaum Bronx County Historical Society’s (BCHS) major researcher and financial supporter. His passing leaves a vacuum not only in the community of Bronx historians, but also in the society’s funding.
In addition to serving on the BCHS board, Elbaum was also a supervising dispatcher for the Fire Department of New York, inventor, and a philanthropist—though not always the most willing.
“He always said no first,” a board member joked.
The BCHS does not attract as much funding as some other historical societies in the city.
“You never had a Mrs. Astor in the Bronx,” said Lloyd Ultan, the borough historian of the Bronx. Ultan refers to Brooke Astor, a philanthropist who donated generously to various city organizations such as the Metropolitan Art Museum and the New York City Public Library “The Bronx didn’t have the kind of funding like [the historical societies] do in Westchester County, or Manhattan.”
The New-York Historical Society completed a $70 million renovation in November 2011, on one of their buildings in Central Park West, according to its website.
Meanwhile, the BCHS currently only gets around $750,000 a year, according to Ultan.
“It’s not nearly enough for what the society needs,” he said.
According to Ultan, the city government proposes to cut another 54 percent for arts funding.
“The city believes the 54 percent can be made up through private donations,” he said. “But people fail to realize that the Bronx County is the poorest urban county in United States with poorest congressional county in United States.”
The history of the Bronx runs deep and long, including, most recently, Bronx born Sonia Sotomayor joining the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.
Edgar Allen Poe brought his dying wife, Virginia, to a Bronx cottage in 1846, hoping the fresh, country air would heal her. It was the very cottage where he wrote his last poems— “Annabel Lee,” and “The Bells.” The BCHS holds guided tours through the landmark site.
“Most people in the Bronx have no idea how rich their history is,” Ultan said. “People are amazed when we inform people about the things that have happened in the Bronx—many even happened in their own neighborhoods.”
Elbaum and other Bronx history enthusiasts have found ways to celebrate the borough’s rich history on a tight budget.
“Doc” Hermayin, a society member, recalled Elbaum’s ability to find historic treasures without even trying. “He was like a ferret. … He could walk by a garbage can and find something from the 19th century that someone had just thrown out.” A large portion of the BCHS’s early materials are indebted to Elbaum.
Despite the financial challenge and manpower shortage, BCHS remains “one of the most active” historical societies throughout the 62 counties in the state of New York, said Angel Hernandez, BCHS’s webmaster, tour guide, and lobbyist.
“We publish books, do walking tours—there’s a lot of societies that cannot rival us because of our interaction with the community,” he said. “We are that entity that preserves and records the Bronx history, and we will continue to undergo what needs to be done.”
Hernandez also recounted the losses the society has sustained.
“There were four educators in the ’80s, now it’s just me,” Hernandez said.
The diminishing funds are taking a toll on the society’s small office of 11 people. BCHS was forced to close down its research library for the past few months. “We are hoping to reopen it next month,” Hernandez said optimistically.
Members of the Bronx Historical Society say Sol Elbaum was a “shrewd,” and “eccentric” man. “He was a loner … a strange, but good man—he was a genius,” said Nicholas Di Brino, a BCHS member.
According to Hermayin, Elbaum invented the concept of 911.
Elbaum suggested the idea of having a single emergency number to call the police in any city in the United States in 1957, little did he know it would eventually turn into an international procedure. The city awarded him $50 at the time.
“Elbaum wanted people to know about the Bronx, and he did anything he could do to help people learn,” a board member said.
“When the city went bankrupt, he was the one that helped us keep the society afloat,” Hermayin said.
Elbaum spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home, and by the end of it he was not a millionaire, the board members recalled.
“We felt bad for taking his money and he wasn’t happy about that—but he came up with the money,” Hermayin said.
Toward the end, the society owed him a hundred thousand dollar outstanding loan, but he said he didn’t want it back, a member said.
The society has been struggling with funding amid economic hard times, even more so with the passing of Elbaum last October.
Microcosm of the Nation
Ever since he was a toddler, Ultan, 74, has always been curious about history.
“I constantly asked my parents, aunts, uncles: ‘What happened before I was born?’” he said.
Ultan was a history major in college. After completing grad school, he thought to myself: “I know a lot about the history of the United States, New York, the city of New York, but I knew nothing about the Bronx—the place where I was born and lived,” he recalled.
Ultan decided to attend free public lectures hosted by the Bronx County Historical Society.
“It suddenly came to me that the history of the Bronx, is a microcosm of the history of the nation,” he said.
According to Ultan, every important movement that occurred in the United States, also happened in the Bronx.
If it does not hold in the Bronx, it is interesting to ask why Bronx is an exception, he said.
Ultan uses the example of “white flight,” when large populations of Caucasians moved away from ethnically mixed, urban regions in the 1920s. The theory goes that Caucasians wanted to be with their own race and didn’t like mixed communities. Basically, some say, racism.
“This did not happen in the Bronx,” he said.
Caucasians left, African-Americans and Latinos moved in, but racism, he contends, is not the reason why. According to Ultan, World War II provided jobs but no products for people to buy. After 15 years of pent up dreams and savings, people decided to leave for the suburbs to buy houses and cars.
When African-Americans began migrating in large numbers to Mott Haven, in southwestern Bronx, in 1943, the area was largely populated by Irish, German, and Jewish residents.
“They organized events to welcome the African-Americans,” Ultan said. “They took pains to elect blacks as executive members of the local PTAs, and took turns meeting in each others’ homes.”