International Oral History Association Meeting
Rome, Italy, June 23-27, 2004

•  •  •

“Oral history is quite different from academic history. It tells the story through an important filter—how events affected actual people. The advantage (of oral history) is that you’re so much closer to the ground.”

- Alessandro Portelli


The Lower Manhattan Video Archive Project was created in 2002 by a group of residents of lower Manhattan who were living in the area surrounding Ground Zero on September 11th, 2001. Composed initially of parents who had rescued their children from one of the evacuated elementary schools two blocks north of the World Trade Center, it was initially envisioned as a way to gather and preserve personal stories for the future. Over the course of the project’s development, the focus shifted to one of community preservation and resilience. This paper will present the development of the narrative archive as a methodology to promote community resilience following disaster and highlight important themes and dilemmas that emerged.

When the media and government officials arrived in Lower Manhattan after September 11th, a number of narratives soon emerged emphasizing the heroic efforts of the firemen and policemen who had given their lives to save others. Many people outside the area, in the rest of the city, country and the world, did not know that nearly 25,000 people lived within blocks of the World Trade Center. They imagined that Lower Manhattan was solely a business and financial center. The 9/11 narratives that appeared in public tended to marginalized or disregard this community altogether. The diverse voices of the residents and local workers were not often portrayed in the media nor in the burgeoning academic research. Many residents had difficulty sharing their experiences and supporting each other because Lower Manhattan lacks established public spaces where neighbors can convene. These factors reinforced feelings of marginalization and isolation within the community.

The archive group recognized that it was in a unique position to create a narrative archive from the ground, from the streets and homes of Lower Manhattan. They decided to use their resources to speak with neighbors, create a community dialogue, and publicly share the stories of community attachment and resilience. The Lower Manhattan Video Archive Project was developed as an oral history project by community members with the goal of promoting collective narration to strengthen community recovery. The members of the archive group are not outside experts, but local people who went through the same progression of experiences as the people interviewed. In being members of the community they had access to interviewees through their social networks and a shared sensitivity to the ongoing shifts in community sentiment and concerns.


The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 constituted a major disaster. “A disaster is defined as a basic disruption of the social context within which individuals and groups function” (Fritz, 1961, p 651). “In other words, natural disasters, technological catastrophes, and acts of mass terrorism are more than individual-level events; they are community level events that bring harm, pain, and loss to large numbers of people simultaneously.” (Kaniasty and Norris, 2004, p. 2). Research strongly suggests that in the aftermath of disaster, the most important factors promoting recovery and preventing long term mental health difficulties are family and community support (Norris, 2002), and that the most effective interventions are those that facilitate community resilience (Padgett, 2002). Walsh (2003) defines resilience “as the capacity to rebound from adversity, strengthened and more resourceful. It is an active process of endurance, self-righting, and growth in response to crisis and challenge…the ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges.” (p. 4). At the simplest level, we can define community resilience as a community’s capacity, hope and faith to withstand major trauma and loss, overcome adversity, and to prevail, often with increased resources, competence and connectedness (Landau, 2001; Saul, 2002).

A community resilience approach thus recognizes and strengthens the competencies, resources, and natural support systems that may contribute to recovery following a disaster. Community members with diverse skills and ages contribute in different ways to the resilience of the community. The elderly bring memories of coping with previous tragedies, while children may renew the capacity for play and spontaneity. People bring a diversity of strengths and skills based on occupation and talents – from artistic to organizational management skills, from the sublime to the mundane. Thus recovery can be seen as a creative process arising from the synergy of various community actors coming together to work toward a common purpose (Saul, 2004).

Community resilience following major disaster usually encompasses the following four themes (Saul, 2002):

   - Building community and enhancing social connectedness as a foundation for recovery;
   - Collectively telling the story of the community’s experience and response;
   - Re-establishing the rhythms and routines of life and engaging in collective healing rituals; and
   - Arriving at a positive vision of the future with renewed hope.

An important part of process of community recovery is the validation that individuals and families receive from others either in their immediate social environment or outside about their experience. It is important that people feel that their stories are a part of the collective narrative that emerges after a tragedy. This validation or “witnessing” by a community as well as society at large is often described by those who survive major disasters as crucial step in recovering a sense of identity and agency. As we have seen in New York City following September 11, the emerging story after such events needs to be broad enough to encompass the many varying stories experienced. It can be problematic when the dominant narratives are narrow, rigid or marginalize segments of the population (Salvatici, 2001). For example, in Arabic-speaking and Moslem communities in New York and throughout the United States following 9/11, many members have faced harassment, detention, and deportation purely as a result of their group identification. Invariably it is those people who do not have a voice that are further victimized after a collective tragedy.

One of the most important processes for healing is the gathering of people for mutual support and an understanding of the normality of their responses. Sharing stories of survival across time may reinforce ideas of resilience and inspire hope for the future. The rituals that keep communities alive across time are critical for re-establishing routine, and providing a format for constructive community action. (Landau & Saul, 2004).

Over twenty years ago, the Chilean practice of collecting oral histories or testimonies of political violence that could later be used to prosecute war criminals was found to have positive effects on the mental health and social adjustment of those who had been tortured and severely traumatized. Later the “testimony method” emerged in Scandinavia as an effective approach to working with individual refugees and other survivors of political violence and is now standard practice worldwide in therapeutic work with such survivors. Recently, oral history methodology has been employed with communities in the form of memory archives in Kosovo (Salvaticci, 2001) and “theaters of witness” or oral histories collected by theater companies and represented theatrically to promote the strengthening of community resilience following major traumatic events (Saul, 1999).

The creation of a community based archive, a site for public witnessing, that documents the diversity of community members’ experience, promotes public discourse, and is developed and maintained by community members themselves can be an important strategy for strengthening the community’s resilience as well as promoting its recovery.


Lower Manhattan was the site of the first Dutch Settlement in New York. Brokers began trading in the Wall Street area in the 1700’s, continuing without interruption to this day. In the 1800’s, the area now known as Tribeca grew to become one of the major food and dry goods markets in the eastern United States. The growth of the Financial District eventually drove the residential population north. Commerce continued to thrive downtown until after WWII when many businesses began to relocate outside of Manhattan. The exodus created a vacuum, and artists began to move downtown to live and work in the large industrial spaces and empty office buildings. Beginning in the 1970’s, concurrent with the construction of the World Trade Center, large-scale housing complexes were developed to promote Lower Manhattan as a new residential community. As the population grew and more families came to the area, schools were built and other services came downtown. Today, Tribeca, Battery Park City and the Financial District are composed of predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle class residents. Artists still maintain a strong presence in the area and it is the fastest growing residential community in Manhattan.

The Lower Manhattan Video Archive Project concentrated on these three residential neighborhoods in lower Manhattan that are closest to the World Trade Center. Each of these is a distinct neighborhood with its own residential buildings, parks and restaurants, but they all are under one community board and use the same schools. These are the neighborhoods that included the children, teachers, parents, residents and workers who experienced the greatest physical exposure to the events of 9/11, including witnessing the planes crashing into the towers, the buildings burning and collapsing, and people jumping/falling to their deaths; the disappearance and deaths of friends and family members; direct threat to life and harm from the debris storms; emergency evacuations from workplaces and schools; displacement from home, school and business, and environmental contamination. Additionally, in the aftermath, they experienced the series of terrifying events faced by all New Yorkers, including a plane crash in nearby Queens, the anthrax contamination, numerous threats of other terrorist attacks, heightened terrorist alerts, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are two parallel communities in Lower Manhattan: workers who commute each day to work in the area and residents who either work at home or travel elsewhere for employment. The chasm between these two communities became most apparent on September 11th, 2001. Most of the office workers who died or were injured in the WTC attacks were commuters. The residents of Lower Manhattan did not lose many lives, but there was a great deal of disruption. Thousands of people were displaced for up to 6 months. Ground Zero was declared a crime scene and all vehicular and pedestrian traffic was banned. Residents had to show identification to military personnel or police each time they needed to enter the neighborhood and return to their homes. Because of damage from debris and toxic dust, some people had to find other places to live until their apartments were repaired and professionally cleaned. Four months after September 11th, occupancy in the area had dropped from 95 to 65% and would not rebound until the following autumn of 2002.

There are several primary, intermediate and high schools located within blocks of the World Trade Center site. On the morning of September 11th, the students were all safely evacuated by parents and teachers. For the next five months, the children attended temporary schools in other parts of New York City. Downtown parks were closed or inaccessible for months. There was little information on the restoration of basic services such as electricity, water and telephones. Food supplies in the neighborhoods were depleted and local pharmacies were closed. Communication was difficult as neighbors were scattered in temporary housing. Because they felt lucky to be alive, the residents felt conflicted about how to evaluate the damage to their homes and neighborhood. To many, there seemed to be a hierarchy of suffering with residents perceived as low on the list.

Within this fairly homogeneous community, there was diversity in the residents’ response to the attacks. For many people, their strong attachment to the neighborhood was not destroyed on September 11th. In spite of the chaos, most people were drawn back to their homes as soon as the streets were opened and their homes cleared of damage and debris. Many residents who were forced to live in hotels for several months chose a hotel near Ground Zero. They needed to be near home and drew their strength from contact with the community. However, not everyone returned. Approximately ten percent, or 3,000 community members, relocated elsewhere, to other parts of the city, upstate New York and even other countries.


During the weeks following September 11, 2001, residents of Lower Manhattan reached out to their neighbors in new ways. Distant acquaintances embraced and cried on the street, and strangers asked each other how they were doing. A spirit of volunteerism and cooperation prevailed. People told and retold their experiences of September 11, what that they witnessed and lived through. In the following months, the stories came to include environmental concerns and feelings about the coming war. The government declarations and national media coverage were often at odds with the experience of those in Lower Manhattan. Some people felt that the voices of the communities at Ground Zero had been disregarded or lost. It was in this context that Lower Manhattan Video Archive Project was established.

A. Formation of the archive

In the days that followed September 11. 2001, parents of children from the schools in the vicinity of the World Trade Center who were also mental health professionals, first established family support programs where parents could drop in for help with difficulties they were having with their children or in their families.
These family support programs made connections across school communities to share ideas about how to address the emotional issues in children and parents as a consequence of the events that had taken place. The meetings and goals changed over time. The groups focused initially on the needs of the children, parents and teachers, and shifted over time to more community-oriented projects including hosting community forums. A needs assessment was conducted during one of the community forums in the months following September 11, 2001, which prompted community members to join forces and develop the Downtown Community Resource Center for Lower Manhattan ( The primary goal was to provide a public space where community members could come together and share ideas, projects, resources, and their combined creativity (Prendergast, 2003). Through the Center, community members were able to engage other residents and workers to develop a number of active projects, including the creation of the community narrative archive. A year after 9/11 a core group of five people interested in developing this archive of community stories began to meet weekly in a local restaurant. They came together with different kinds of experiences and with their separate connections to the neighborhood. Their professional backgrounds were mainly in mental health and filmmaking.

Despite their expertise, they did not have professional detachment from the charged nature of the material. First and foremost, they were local community members who had also been through a difficult, often traumatic, period of loss and transition as a result of September 11th. They worked “from the ground up”, exploring their own notions of community, and used the group to reconstruct their own narratives and connections with each other and the community. Trusting relationships were built through the telling and retelling of their own stories. The group believed that this process of peer support and disclosure would also have an impact on their interviews with community members. To the extent that they could be comfortable in telling and listening to each other’s stories, they felt that they should be better able to elicit and listen to the stories of community members participating in the archive project.

The group became a microcosm of how their community “processed” the disaster. The group members found that even in their small group, members differed in terms of when and how much they were ready to disclose to others in the group. This process, more ad hoc than a formal interview, where memories were elicited in a group context, resembled the peer support groups which are such an important intervention following disasters.

A distinct focus for the project ultimately emerged through the group’s small, intense weekly meetings. Their mission was to create an archive of community voices, housed within a local center accessible to all residents with the intent of fostering a community dialogue. They wanted residents of Lower Manhattan to be able to view the stories and add their own in response. Framing the narrative project as a grassroots project to support community resilience distinguished it from other more formal and academic oral history projects taking place across the city in the wake of September 11th.

A number of themes or dilemmas began to emerge:
The first had to do with establishment of boundaries. Unlike other oral history projects where outside experts come in to record communities’ struggles following a disaster, the archivists began as insiders. Their experiences matched those of their subjects. At first, they found the absence of the usual we/they dichotomy that exists between interviewer and interviewee appealing. In time, however, the group members came to realize that this lack of a we/they boundary posed a difficult challenge. They needed to construct strong yet fluid boundaries, in a sense to become outsiders as well as insiders. On the one hand, they had to be outsiders to have the necessary distance to do our work as interviewers. On the other hand, the boundaries had to be permeable enough to allow them to empathize as peers with their fellow community members.

The second theme focused on presenting alternatives to the dominant narratives of September 11th, 2001. The media had quickly determined what the September 11th “story” would be and who the important characters in the drama were. The stories told to the archivists by downtown community residents would serve as a “history from the ground”, shifting the focus from victim to witness. This would counteract the loss of voice expressed by many community members. These testimonials would serve not just as the restored voices of those interviewed, but as the group member’s own voices as well.

The third theme was to ground the experience spatially. The group members wanted to explore the events before, during and after September 11th, within a geographical context. This was a profound shift of focus away from victimization and survival on September 11th to an examination of history in the community, the role of community in recovery from the disaster and how relationships to the community had changed since September 11th, 2001.

The fourth theme had to do with time and its influence on the interviews. The very nature of memory is such that the narratives changed with time. Also, the topics of greatest concern to community members shifted with time. At different points, interviewees and the project members focused on the environmental concerns, the first anniversary, terrorism alert levels, and redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. As the project evolved over time, the archivists also changed. As they grew more comfortable in their roles and with the material, they developed new entry points into the interview process.

B. Preparation for Interviews and Networking

It took many months before the first interview was conducted. The group needed to learn about oral history and narrative methodologies, and drew on the experience of visiting scholars and experts within our community. They met with documentary filmmakers and oral historians and did community outreach at large open forums downtown to introduce the project and to invite participation. They also attended relevant lectures and workshops in New York City.

The archive team slowly designed a questionnaire that reflected the project’s goals and themes. (See Appendix A). It was the subject of intense focus for many weeks. The questionnaire became the concrete form of the project; a kind of “transitional object” clung to for safety. It was almost as if the group members forgot that the interview would be a dialogue. Instead, they held on to our carefully constructed list of formal questions. The questionnaire was the first “passport” giving them the justification they needed to ask neighbors intimate and difficult questions about their experiences, and to work simultaneously as community members/interviewers.

At one point the group seemed to reach an impasse. Despite diligent preparation, no interviews had been scheduled. The boundary issues became more challenging, as the team members were unsure of their identities as insiders or outsiders. They were concerned about further exploiting members in the community in ways that they had felt exploited themselves by outsides arriving with well funded projects looking for participants. The archive group members also debated about whether to include children in the interviews. Ultimately they decided to let parents make that choice on an individual basis.

Interviewing finally began in June, 2003 and by December, approximately 30 interviews were completed. Names of potential interviewees came through networks and outreach within the community. Each candidate was discussed and it was decided as a group which project member would conduct the interview.

C. Interview method

Initially each subject was contacted on the telephone by a member of the archive team. This conversation was actually the first step of the interview, during which the project was described and ‘legitimized’. The project was presented as an archive to preserve and share stories in a community center with the hope of facilitating dialogue between individuals. The project was initially called the Downtown Community Archive.

Some participants were understandably wary, having been approached often by journalists after 9/11. Sometimes several phone calls would be made before the interviewee would agree to participate. During these initial conversations, participants’ questions were answered regarding the project’s themes and goals, as well as specific details of the interview process.

The interviews were conducted at a location of the interviewees’ choice, usually at their homes or workplaces. Archivists deferred to the subjects’ wishes when making arrangements, for example interviewing a husband and wife separately or selecting a time when children would be not be present.

The interview team consisted of an archivist interviewer and one camera/sound person, who arrived at the interview location together. The participant was asked to find a comfortable position and the camera was framed to capture body gestures as well as facial expressions. Interviews were recorded on mini digital videotape with a single small Sony DSR-900 3CCD camera positioned on a tripod. Except for some small adjustments, the camera was stationary. Generally, no extra lighting or setup was used, in order to keep the setting as natural as possible. If the subject was a single person, a lavalier microphone was used. For two or more people, the built-in camera microphone was used. Every effort was made to minimize the impact of the camera and the cameraperson on the subject and create the atmosphere of a conversation rather than an interview.

Interview recording sessions lasted from one to two and a half hours, and always commenced with the reiteration of the themes and goals of the archive project. Because one of the goals was to ‘give the community a voice’, subjects were encouraged to speak freely about the issues that were particularly important to them. The interviewer was always very careful to mention that it was not necessary to discuss details of their experiences on 9/11. Without exception, at some point in the interview the participants made some anecdotal reference to the day of the attacks. In many cases, the interviewees spoke immediately about this, as though it was the ‘anchor’ for any narration that followed.

The archivists strove to let the subjects speak as long and naturally as possible without interruption. The original questionnaire was used as a rough guide, but the team ultimately found it was unnecessary to follow it closely because the interviews became dialogues. As the interview drew to its conclusion, the interviewer would always ask if there was anything else that the subject would care to speak about. Occasionally this prompted a long and candid ‘postscript’.

After the interview was complete, the participants were asked to provide demographic information, sign a release, and the interviewer promised to send the subject a VHS copy of the full interview.

D. Editing: Showing the diversity of voices in the community

Editing was necessary to transform the hours of raw interview footage into a manageable length and format for viewing in the context of a public space, specifically a community center planned for the downtown neighborhood. The archive team was aware that to excerpt from long interviews is to distort the narratives. Therefore, the team continued to meet regularly and thought very carefully about what criteria would be used to make editorial decisions.

One of the archivists recommended a professional editor from the community who agreed to lead the editing process. Before starting the project, the editor met with the archivists and was asked to look specifically for material that related to the themes of ‘resilience’ and ‘connectedness’ within the community. As the editor began working independently, the material evoked her own personal experiences on 9/11 and the days that followed.

It was evident from viewing the unedited material that some people appeared more resolved about what they had been through on 9/11than others. Some interviewees cried often and spoke of great sadness in their present lives. There was a clear contrast in the degree to which interviewees had processed and reoriented themselves to their past, present, and future lives. The archivists attempted to balance their own conscious focus on community and personal resiliency with the flow and drama of the interviewee’s stories.

The logistics of editing were challenging. Each member of the team, which now included the editor, had an opinion about which elements should be included and how to share responsibility for editorial decisions. After a long and difficult period of trial and error, a working method was finally agreed upon. Each archivist would review the footage of the interviews they had conducted and make note of the important points. These notes would be shared with the editor who would pull these ‘selected’ clips from the footage, assemble them as a rough edit and refine it with the interviewer. The archive team would then view this version as a group and make final adjustments.

Early in the editing process funding for a public space was withdrawn, and the projects’ strategy for public presentation of interviews shifted to a web-based archive. To accommodate streaming technology, it was necessary to cut the interviews to a small fraction of their original length. Editing then became an even more subjective process that aimed to present only the ‘essence’ of the interview. Viewers interested in accessing the complete interviews would be directed by the website to the archive at the Downtown Community Resource Center office.


A second and parallel narrative project implemented by the Downtown Community Resource Center was the development of an ensemble of professional actors that collected community stories from group interviews following 9/11 and transformed them through improvisation into a theatrical performance. Ironically entitled, “Everything’s Back to Normal in New York City: Below Canal – a Work in Progress,” the piece was performed in the community and the performances were followed by talk back sessions between the audience and actors. Each evening the ensemble incorporated the community’s reactions into the next performance. As a work in progress that follows and interacts with the shifting experience of people living and working in Lower Manhattan, this theater project envisions itself as an ongoing catalyst for community conversation during the coming year


Though the Lower Manhattan Video Archive Project is a work in progress, it can be concluded at this point that as a methodology for promoting community resilience in the aftermath of disaster, it holds a great deal of promise. Initial feedback from community members to both the Archive and Theater projects have been very positive with participants claiming that their participation helped strengthen their connection to family, neighbors, and community and gave them an important opportunity for personal expression. Each project represents an alternative site in the community where people can engage in an ongoing process of witnessing, validation of others’ experiences, and can promote the ongoing integration of their experiences connected to 9/11.

The before mentioned themes and dilemmas that emerged as the project developed have been rich sources of learning and experience that could be helpful in the future to other communities that would like to create narrative archives. Despite the initial challenges of creating a workable boundary that allows interviewers to be insiders with some constructive distance, or as Anne Cubilie (2004) describes, “both witnesses and witnesses of witnesses,” it is clear that this project can only be carried out and sustained by tapping into the competencies and resilience of community members. As we have seen in other community resilience projects, supporting members of natural support systems to address concerns in their community can have a rippling effect throughout the entire community.

The importance of providing a site that can give voice to the multiplicity of community members’ experiences was clearly found desirable among the many people who participated both directly and indirectly in the project. At a time when it is common to hear New Yorkers say they have had enough with 9/11, many residents in Lower Manhattan are very much wanting to be interviewed as well as have their stories presented in public.

From its inception, the Lower Manhattan Video Archive was not meant to be merely a catalogue of oral histories collected for later study, but a vital site within the community that could both document a range of experiences and be a catalyst for ongoing public discussion. At the time that this paper was written in early 2004, the first eight interviews were being prepared to go up on the DCRC website, initiating the next phase of the project. Over the next few months, while interviews and editing of new “short histories” will continue, the archive group will be faced with the challenge of finding ways to draw people to the website and possibly a physical site in the community where they can view and respond to the interviews. If the previous stage of the project could be viewed as one in which the archive group widened its conversation to include others in the community through the archive interviews, the next phase could be seen as a further opening of the conversation to the community at large. Putting the archive interviews on the web creates even greater possibilities of access to society at large.

Appendix A
Downtown Community Archive Project

A. Opening questions

These set the tone of the interview and help the interviewees feel comfortable. These questions that are more straight-forward are easy to answer and help dissipate any performance anxiety participants may have.

    1. Who are you?
    2. What kind of work do you do?
    3. Who is in your family?
    4. Who lives here with you?

B. Relationship to the community

These questions address the interviewee’s definition of community, the importance of community and the interviewee’s history within the community.

    1. Tell me something about where you live?
    2. How long have you lived here?
    3. What do you consider your neighborhood?
    4. What kind of changes have you noticed in the community since you moved here?
    5. How do you view community?
    6. Do you feel part of a community? Which community?
    7. Is your sense of community a geographic one or one of shared identities or interests?
    8. What do you think the strengths of this community are?

C. Family

These questions address the sense of family and locate it in a sense of place. It is meaningful to note who lives far away from all other family members.

    1. Who is in your family?
    2. Where is your family?
    3. Do you have family in the community?
    4. What do you think the strengths of your family are?

D. Coping with challenges

These questions look at how the interviewees got through the immediate crisis and long term issues following September 11th. Did they rely on family and the community? Did the aftermath bring them closer to their community and or family? What strengths did they draw on?

    1. Do you think the community has changed since 9/11? If so, how?
    2. How, if at all, has your relationship to the community changed since 9/11?
    3. Do you know people who left the community?
    4. Did you leave or consider leaving? How come?
    5. Do you think your family has changed since 9/11? If so, how?
    6. What do you think helped your family thru the difficult times?
    7. Did different family members have different reactions?
    8. How has your life changed, if at all?
    9. How has your inner life changed, if at all?
    10. Are there any particularly poignant or transformative memories you have?

E. Visions of the future

These questions look at preparedness and changes in the way the future is viewed

    1. What are your visions for yourself, your family, your community?
    2. Has your sense of the future changed since 9/11?
    3. Do you feel more prepared for a disaster in the future?
    4. What did you learn from the last 1 1/2 yrs that would make you better prepared?
    5. Do you have a family plan?


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