“Lockdown Staten Island” Captures a Fleeting History

Dr. Susan Smith-Peter has led an effort to gather and preserve Staten Islanders’ recorded experiences from the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown—and you can be a part of it.

By Yasmine Abdeldayem

Dr. Smith-Peter’s photo, displaying the Staten Island Ferry at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, is among the seven selected from “Lockdown Staten Island” for the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit.

Staten Islanders are used to being forgotten.

The preservation of our recent history is necessary to shape a cohesive identity for a place that has often been dismissed as fractured or willfully isolated.

CSI History Professor and John J. Marchi Fellow Dr. Susan Smith-Peter has taken on this responsibility. Working with Professor Joseph Frusci, she called on her community to join the mission to publicly archive Staten Island’s early pandemic experiences.

“Lockdown Staten Island” is a project that seeks to document Staten Islanders’ lives during the lockdown that took place from March to June 2020—one of the most intense and memorable periods of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, the CSI Public History Program has called for submissions from all Staten Islanders, including stories, photos, video blogs, and various posts and captions from social media platforms.

At the start of the pandemic, submissions were largely collected and showcased through the project’s Facebook page: “CSI Public History Coronavirus Chronicle.” One image, which showed the front of an MTA bus being sectioned off for social distancing among riders, was captioned with a sentiment that appears to be the heart of this project: “Someday this photo will be historic. For now, it’s just everyday reality.”

The Facebook page has permanently closed for submissions but “Lockdown Staten Island” has not yet closed its portal to Staten Islanders who wish to contribute their experiences. Dr. Smith-Peter and her colleagues will continue to encourage submissions via Journal of the Plague Year until the deadline of March 31.

Gabriella Leone, the Archives Manager at the Staten Island Museum, submitted a photo of Historic Richmond Town’s clever enforcement of social distancing.

New York Responds: The First Six Months, an exhibition that opened in December 2020 at the Museum of the City of New York, featured seven submissions from the project.

Two were taken by Dr. Smith-Peter herself. One displays the interior of the Staten Island Ferry in the middle of the day, occupied with more taped X’s for social-distance-friendly seating than actual occupants.

The second photo captured a simple, heartfelt sentiment aimed at the pandemic’s frontline workers: “Thank you, heroes.”

The official Instagram account managed by Dr. Smith-Peter and her public history students, @csipublichistory, began sharing these meaningful glimpses of New York, and Staten Island in particular, in April 2020.

“If it wasn’t for this project, you wouldn’t have had much presentation or anything from Staten Island,” said Dr. Smith-Peter in a Zoom interview.

Once the 2020 lockdown transitioned into a shaky attempt at normal life, Dr. Smith-Peter and her graduate-level public history students gauged the common threads of the submissions they’d received from Staten Islanders.

From there, the project’s emotional narrative shaped into the following themes: disorientation, fear, scarcity, isolation, and resilience.

A trailer for “Lockdown Staten Island” debuted for the CSI community on February 24 via Zoom. It compiled submissions the project has gathered so far.

“One of the things that struck me in putting together the trailer was how much the theme of resilience was connected to the idea of New York, you know? ‘New York Strong’, ‘New York Tough’,” said Dr. Smith-Peter. “It was very powerful.”  

The @csipublichistory Instagram shares a snapshot of a Black Lives Matter art-making demonstration in July 2020.

“Lockdown Staten Island” is part of the curatorial collaborative, Journal of the Plague Year—a title that directly references author Daniel Defoe’s novel about a man’s experiences during the Great Plague in 1600s’ London.

The digital archive began at Arizona State University and since expanded to include collections from Australia, New Orleans, the Philippines, Boston, Canada, Las Americas, and Sacramento. Fellow CUNYs such as Bronx Community College, Brooklyn College, and City College have also joined the effort.

Dr. Smith-Peter, in stressing the importance of curating such a project, referenced the 1918 influenza pandemic. While people suffering in the early twentieth century considered it a private affair to be kept within the household, modern-day historians mourn the scarcity of documentation for that period.

“If there were letters or just everyday experiences of people from that time period, it would just be a tremendous trove for any historian,” said Dr. Smith-Peter. “People think, ‘Oh, I just have everyday stuff.’ Well, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Another photo shared by Dr. Smith-Peter, showcasing Staten Island’s appreciation for workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, was selected for the New York Responds exhibit.

According to Dr. Smith-Peter, Staten Islanders were quite receptive when the first call for submissions went out during the 2020 lockdown. As people inevitably attempted to move on with life as usual, the frequency of submissions naturally lessened.

But her efforts haven’t slowed down in the project’s last few months before the big reveal.

An event for “Lockdown Staten Island” will be held at the Staten Island Museum on March 25 from 2-4 p.m. Dr. Smith-Peter and her team are encouraging all who are interested—and those who have materials they’d like to share from lockdown—to attend.

“The experiences that you have are part of history but unless you submit it to historical archives, they won’t literally be used to write history,” said Dr. Smith-Peter. “This is a way that you can be represented in the story of the lockdown on Staten Island and in New York City history more broadly.”

The final documentary will premiere at CSI’s Lecture Hall on May 9.

You can share your “Lockdown Staten Island” story here.

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