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The Coincidental Suburbanist

The Coincidental Suburbanist
Roger Panetta, Ph.D. (GSAS ’64), is the editor of Westchester: The American Suburb (Fordham University Press, 2006).

By Maja Tarateta

Roger Panetta
Roger Panetta, Ph.D. (GSAS '64)
A chance gaze out his office window at the Hudson River and Tappan Zee Bridge one evening in the late 1960s led Roger Panetta to realize that the place where he lived and worked was fertile ground for scholarly thought. And so began his career-long concentration on the history of the Hudson, Sing-Sing Prison and Westchester as the classic American suburb, which has resulted in a book and a museum exhibit offering a kaleidoscopic view of suburbia.

Panetta’s decision to study the realities and false dreams of suburbia could just as easily not have happened. But his life is a lot like the history he teaches: It’s full of intersecting coincidences.

“We want to see history as a logical sequence of events, but really, it’s more chaotic or counterfactual,” said Panetta, a professor of history at Marymount College of Fordham University. “Our desire to bring order to things compels us to reduce the place of chance.”

Not so for Panetta, as he “unpacks” and “deconstructs” the space that surrounds not only him and his students, but more than half of Americans, according to the 2000 census. Interest in suburban studies is growing nationwide, as students and academics consider it increasingly important to understanding the culture, politics and fabric of America.

Panetta, who holds a master’s degree from Fordham and a Ph.D. from the City University of New York, has written and lectured on such suburban themes as boats and bridges, childcare and hard labor. But for his most recent project—Westchester: The American Suburb, an exhibition at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y., and a companion book published by Fordham University Press—he brought together scholars in film, art, architecture, social studies, landscape and history for an unusual, multidisciplinary discussion of the suburb’s influence on American life, using the nation’s first as an example.

Westchester book cover
“Roger commissioned wonderful essays, which adds tremendous value to the book,” said Robert Oppedisano, director of Fordham University Press. It is unusual, he said, to release a book as an exhibition companion rather than a catalog. “We are more fortunate to have something with enduring value,” he said. “It’s a gift to us as a publisher.”

The exhibition, which ran from January 28 to May 28, also helped set a standard, according Michael Botwinick, director of the Hudson River Museum. “‘The American Suburb’ is multidisciplinary,” he said, “and there’s not a big tradition of this in the museum world.”

Three other Westchester institutions also joined in to explore the suburbs simultaneously through fine art exhibitions, films, lectures and readings.

At the Hudson River Museum, a white picket fence welcomed visitors, who then contemplated the suburbs in TV sitcoms, country homes, dream homes, consumerism and commuting through art, historical documents, advertising and even a station wagon from 1932. One display showcased the lawnmower as a symbol of the domestication of nature; another, the evolution of kitchen design signifying women’s suburban sphere of influence.

“My goal is to get people to see better,” Panetta said. “I want people to think, ‘I may be living out history.’ ”

It’s something Panetta realizes about himself. When he began work on the book and exhibition four years ago, he and his wife, Eileen, a professor of English at Iona College and a contributor to Westchester: The American Suburb, left the New York county where they’d lived for 25 years, and moved to an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. The move illuminated aspects of suburban life for Panetta.

“Moving back to Manhattan gave me a better perspective on how important children were” to the growth of suburbs, he said.

Panetta also imparts the “living history” idea in his classroom. He has sent students into the communities surrounding campus to chronicle the oral histories of African Americans who migrated from the South and to document the types of architecture exemplified in their houses.

“I want students to believe, as I do, that the study of history has meaning in their lives.  My agenda,” he said, “is subversive.”

It’s not a turn of phrase his mother would likely appreciate. Panetta was born in Brooklyn after his parents “made the great suburban move” from Mulberry and Kenmare Streets, where his grandparents had settled after emigrating from Italy. He grew up primarily in Jewish neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and recalls his mother saying, “If anyone asks you what you are, you tell them you are an American.” But nobody, he noted, ever asked.

Panetta’s next project is, of course, touched by coincidence. He is serving as a historical consultant for the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission, planning festivities for 2009 to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyages of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain, as well as the 200th anniversary of the launching of Robert Fulton's steamboat on the Hudson River in 1807. The last time New Yorkers marked these anniversaries, nearly a century ago, Panetta said, the celebration happened literally right outside his apartment.

“The cherry blossoms down the street were given to us by the Japanese in 1909,” during the 300th anniversary celebration, he said. “It’s exactly the type of thing I want to open people’s eyes to.

“It’s a fortunate thing,” he added, “the intersection of your life and your studies.”

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