After 30 years, Peter Ostrander is hanging up his presidential panama, but not without first passing it on to Nick Dembowski to lead the Kingsbridge Historical Society into the future.
The historical society has been a part of the north Bronx since 1949, focusing on history that spans across the greater Kingsbridge area.
This is a big step up for Dembowski who previously served as the organization’s vice president and web designer.
“I see Nick keeping the long tradition of the society going in, keeping the topic of local history alive and well for future generations of people who live in the West Bronx in Riverdale, Kingsbridge and Spuyten Duyvil and Marble Hill,” Ostrander said in a statement. He will now take on the role of president emeritus and treasurer.
“It’s always good to have a change of leadership with new ideas and capabilities which Nick certainly has proven he possesses.”
Dembowski first showed interest in the society by creating impressive historical maps of Kingsbridge, each layered with history, showing the neighborhood in a different time. He used those maps to first show Ostrander his interest in the society.
Dembowski was sworn in early last month, and is currently taking time off as a teacher to care for his young son who attends preschool part-time. When he is in the classroom, Dembowski opens young minds to what happened in the past, not just in the state, country and world, but in their own backyard, too.
“I had a student that I was teaching at P.S. 24, and I gave him a reading test like we do to all the students,” he said. “The text that I gave him to read was on fishing, and he scored very high on that test, much higher than on any other text that I had ever given him.”
The boy lived in the very urban neighborhood of Marble Hill — not exactly a place where many fishermen might be found.
“I asked him, ‘Where did this come from?’” Dembowski asked. “And he said, ‘Every morning I wake up and I watch the sports channel where they have the fishing show, so I know all about fishing.’ But little did he know that 100 years ago, kids living in that same spot were fishing literally right in front of where his building was.”
One of the books that has personally influenced Dembowski the most is “Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Spuyten Duyvil: New York City, a Historical Epitome of the Northwest Bronx” by William Tieck, the founder of the historical society he now leads.
Even now, Dembowski still points out notable spots to his wife when they’re driving through the north Bronx. Although his children aren’t quite ready for a history lesson, there is a large population surrounding Dembowski, which enjoys that and more. Meetings attract some 60 people, many times taking over public spaces like a “history flash mob,” Ostrander joked.
When he was president of the society, finding a space where members could frequent and the society could store their documents was a continuous job. But Ostrander is confident Dembowski will lead the society to a permanent home.
“He’s just been a great colleague to bounce ideas off of and make me aware of pitfalls that could occur with certain strategies in the society,” Dembowski said. “He’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s the one in the meetings that will make people laugh. I always feel like the straight nerd that delves deep into the information.”
Dembowski not only is interested in George Washington, who fought a few of his battles on this side of New York, but the common folks who lived during that time as well. In addition to expanding the topics the society focuses on, Dembowski also would like to explore the second half of the 20th century and the history of the Latino and Jewish community presence in the area.
“Like these are things that when the society started, it wasn’t history because it was starting then,” Dembowski said. “But that’s history now.
“When you walk around, you’re very likely to hear Spanish being spoken on the street, and I’m interested in knowing how did that happen. What was it like for those first people who came here, those first Spanish speakers? That’s now history and I think it’s important to report and add to the story of Kingsbridge, Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil.”
Online, people can sign up to become members where they’ll have access to updates about society events like historical walks and lectures. Restorative work like grooming the gravesites in Van Cortlandt Park also is a mission Dembowski would like to add. He hopes to work with other local organizations, like the Kingsbridge Riverdale Van Cortlandt Development Corp., and local schools.
“For people today, it takes a little more work to see what was here before,” he said. “And as the neighborhood continues to develop, it becomes harder and harder for people to relate to this ancient past.
“I see the mission of the society going forward as something that’s evolving. Part of the work of the historical society is to make people aware of what once was and what we have now, so that we don’t make decisions that future generations will regret.”