The Kingston Reher Center: A Haven for History | History | Hudson Valley
At the corner of Broadway and Spring Street, in Kingston’s Rondout neighborhood, is a 19th century building that you can tell has a history, even from a quick car ride. The first time I noticed it, I saw “Bakery” stuck in white on its windows, but I could tell there was more going on behind its green doors. This is due in part to the black and white photos in the upper arches of their storefront and the buttercream and green facade that stands out against the dilapidated exposed brickwork of the rest of the building.
As an immigrant-owned Jewish bakery, it was a staple in Kingston in the 1900s. Now, director Sarah Litvin hopes the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History will become a space to celebrate the diverse communities and cultures. The attractive new facade is no accident. Litvin says it’s an effort to use the exterior of the building to tell the stories of immigrants, not only because of COVID-based capacity limitations, but also because they don’t have the resources to be open to full-time.
The bakery of yesterday and today
The history of the bakery dates back to 1908, when Frank Reher, a Jewish immigrant from Krakow (in Austria-Hungary, now Poland), founded it. Originally landing in New York City, Reher moved to Kingston with his wife and two daughters, but after having their third daughter, Reher’s wife died. Within a year, Reher remarried. He had six children with his second wife, Ada. Together they founded and ran the Reher bakery.
Hymie Reher, the last of the Reher family’s bakers, closed the bakery in the early 1980s. The chain of events that took it from a state of disrepair to a bustling new cultural center began in 2002 , when historian Geoffrey Miller noticed the abandoned bakery and told his friend Barbara Blas, whose family had long been friends with the Reheres. After Reher’s death in 2004, it was transferred to the Ulster County Jewish Federation. The center as it stands today, an accredited museum in New York State, was Miller’s vision; he is now chairman of the centre’s board of directors.
Litvin, who began her career as an oral historian, first heard about the project through her boss Annie Polland at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. âI loved the vision,â says Litvin, ânot only to preserve it, but to use it to tell the stories of immigrants to the Rondout neighborhood. And, to connect it, use it to round up newcomers now. ”
When she first entered the bakery, Litvin looked at the shelves still overflowing with things left behind when it was closed, wondering what the story was behind it all. After speaking with people across Kingston, she slowly put it back together, through their memories. âI discovered that the building itself told the story they were trying to tell,â says Litvin. âWe’re talking about this specific family with this bakery here in Kingston. Yet there are so many ways that people can relate their own family stories to it, âshe says.
Visits to bakeries and community crafts
During the summer and fall of this year, the center hosted 45-minute tours of the historic bakery, where people get a glimpse of Sunday mornings back when customers were buzzing. The center chose to focus its tours on 1959, the height of its activity in the multiracial and multiethnic working-class neighborhood. The area surrounding the bakery was home to a diverse community, then mainly Irish, Italian, German and Polish immigrants. âEvery Sunday people would go to church in nearby churches and then come to this kosher Jewish bakery. The stories I have heard about it are so powerful. she says.
The COVID restrictions last year became somewhat of a blessing, as she was also able to contact schools and do Zoom classroom presentations to show what the center was doing. And therefore, “teachers are now ready to bring their lessons to us on field trips,” says Litvin.
One of the first teachers to approach the center, eager to bring her students for a visit, was Ann Mino, a grade 7/8 teacher at Kingston Catholic School. As Litvin explains: âEvery year,â she says, âshe would organize a field trip to the Tenement Museum in New York. When she found out that I had worked there and that I was developing a historic bakery tour based on the same storytelling model, she was thrilled to bring her students to the streets. rather than a several hour bus ride! ”
In the fall of 2019, the students were the first school group to visit the on-site bakery. Mino’s class also participated in the Stitched Together project in 2020. Now the center plans to work with other schools to develop a range of on-site school programs. âWe have what it takes to create memorable multisensory experiences that use relatable local history to help students understand the basics of the K-12 curriculum, including community, immigration, civic engagement and much more. In August, the center received a two-year grant to work with a small group of grade 2 and 8 teachers to pilot on-site school programming, which will launch in fall 2023.
The city as a character
Another project, Rondout Revisited, was a three-part exhibition, an excellent overview of the neighborhood of this city which played as important a cultural role as the bakery itself. Documenting the changes the region and its people have undergone over the past 150 years, it begins in 1820, when the Rondout was still Kingston Landing, until the urban renewal years of the 1960s.
“We learn the experience of managing the bakery, then we end up thinking and talking about what happened during the urban renewal, when the neighborhood has lost not only its population but its social cohesion”, explains Litvin. .
Litvin also wants to encourage conversations about moving housing. âHere we are in this neighborhood with a history of housing displacement due to urban renewal. And there is so much relevance to what’s going on in the city right now, âshe said. She adds that while the contexts of urban renewal and gentrification are different, there are ways to connect and learn from the past.
A focus on community
Since neither Litvin nor I grew up in Kingston, through much of our conversation we run through the idea of ââcommunity. How do you find yours? What does it mean when you are on the border between different communities? Something the Reher Center wants to encourage is the idea that community should not be based on a single group of identity or geographic values.
She mentions a 2019 series called “The Spaces Between”, a series of art, panel discussions, film screenings, etc. cultural contexts in your life.
This month, you can also see an installation of the Cultural Craft Project of the Ninth Annual Kingston Multicultural Festival, the âWorry Dolls Project / Proyecto MuÃ±eca Quitapenasâ on display in the front windows.
Litvin is excited about the future and especially proud of the recent board decision to install an audio induction loop in space. “We are going to be the first site in Kingston to provide this integrated hearing access, âshe says. They also have a range of eating plans, but if you’re looking to taste a slice of the past, you might have to wait a bit longer; as Litvin explains, they do not yet have the recipe for the famous Reher Rolls, nor a functional kitchen. She wants to work with former customers and bakers to serve fresh bread on future tours.
In March of next year, the âCouture in Kingston: The Common Threadâ exhibition opens in the centre’s newly renovated gallery. âIt explores how Kingstonians of diverse backgrounds have used sewing as a source of income, an expression of creativity and a vehicle for cultural transmission,â she says. The school is currently trying to reach a fundraising goal of $ 30,000 at the end of the year. So now is a great time to show your support by visiting or donating online.
For Litvin, at the end of the day, it’s very exciting to be able to continue welcoming people into this community at the Reher Center, where she says, âThere is no such thing as a ready-made community. We are building it.