Searching for Historical Perspectives

My visit to Columbia University is drawing to a close. The four months I have spent here have been an extraordinary period, and I’m grateful to Fulbright for making it possible. It is next to impossible to describe in detail all the highlights and opportunities that the program has granted me.

As a visiting scholar focusing on economic and business history, I have been able to pursue my research under expert advice and have had the opportunity to explore historical archives that have proved not only beneficial to my work on the development of venture capital in Europe and the role the various American businesses played in this process, but also interesting from a general historical perspective. I have found new lines of inquiry, which I may follow in future work.

For an economic historian, there have been goings-on worth following. NAFTA being replaced by USMCA, the trade war between China and the United States, the highs of the stock market and the sudden, although unsurprising, crash of said markets in December, and the speculation of the direction of the economy in 2019. From an academic perspective, it has been interesting to gauge the reaction at a local level, not from all the way in Europe, as it allows for better contextualization and immediacy. Yet not all has been bad news. It has been worthwhile to familiarize myself with organizations promoting entrepreneurship and discuss the differences between the various European and American systems and attitudes. Especially a conversation with a Fulbright Alumni, who worked in private equity in Europe in the 1980s, springs to mind.

Although important, work has not been the only highlight of my experience here. It has been an opportunity to meet new people from different backgrounds, whether it has been through Fulbright, Columbia University or meeting the friends of friends I already had here. These encounters, and friendships that have formed, have produced multiple quality debates, insights into different cultures and customs, and moments of sharing personal histories. It has facilitated connections and once again affirmed that what differences there may be, they are something that should be embraced and celebrated.

And then there has been New York, the city where I made my home. It is certainly a city that captures the richness and the diversity of the world in its unique manner. You don’t have to take my word for it. Many novelists and poets have described the elusive rhythm and appeal of the city far better than I ever could.

Yet there stand testaments to the rich history throughout the city. The Mother of Exiles, as Emma Lazarus called the Statue of Liberty, which has greeted arrivals to New York since 1886, might capture something of that spirit, and Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” has become a staple of the political realm, too. But maybe the other Statue of Liberty, currently residing in the parking lot behind the Brooklyn Museum, reflects that, too.

The 30-foot replica statue was commissioned in 1900 by William H. Flatteau, a Russian-born auctioneer, to decorate his Liberty Warehouse located in Upper West Side. Although it was only one of the many replicas made of the original, it was the most prominent as Flatteau’s warehouse was one of the highest points in Upper West Side during the period and the replica’s interiors were open to the public until 1912. Since 2005 it has resided in its current location.

It is not only the more famous sights and museums that deserve attention. When I was taking the subway from Columbia back to Brooklyn, one always passed the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station. I was unsure about the pronunciation at first, but sometimes the conductors were, too. Announcing only “This is Hoyt” certainly solved the problem. But who was this elusive Schermerhorn? A Dutch businessman, who owned a rope factory in Brooklyn in the late 18th century. According to stories, the rope needed to be stretched, creating what is called a ropewalk, and the path the rope was stretched on eventually became Schermerhorn Street.

When going home, I got out at the Nostrand Avenue station. A small stretch of the street has been named Birdel’s Records Way. A famous music shop, which allowed the likes of Notorious B.I.G. to sample vinyl records and which, according to hearsay, brought together music lovers and musicians not only from nearby, but also from further away as apparently the owner had an uncanny ability to predict what was going to be hot in music beforehand.

There are many places one could talk about, although focusing only on the places close to where I lived tell stories worth telling. It is possible to describe the tunnels dating from 1850s that were originally used as beer tunnels. Recently they have been repurposed for aging cheese. It would be possible to mention David’s Brisket House. Originally founded by a Russian Jew, the ownership of the restaurant has changed hands throughout its half a century existence more times than I could follow. Yet the pastramis are delicious. One can find artefacts of the newspaper Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the Brooklyn Public Library, too.

It feels like the city and its neighborhoods have a strong sense of local history, and it is knowledge that is worth pursuing, as is looking for those more off-beat historical narratives. I, for one, am glad that I had enough time to pursue that, too. Maybe it is also because one of the factors that really took me by surprise here was the strong sense of community and hospitability in the neighborhood that I lived in.

Going on a Fulbright, it is important to think big – certainly think big about your work, the networking, what you want out of it. But it is important to think small, too, and engage and learn about the local community and their history. Many engaging, varied things and stories can be found right next to you, no matter the place.

Joona Nikinmaa is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy, and a 2018-2019 Fulbright-Schuman Visiting Student Researcher. His research focuses on the foundations of European venture capital from the 1960s to the 1980s and how innovation financing changed throughout this period. Before starting his PhD, Nikinmaa studied economic and social history at the University of Helsinki and held numerous positions as a research assistant and an analyst in academia and in the private sector. His main historical interests include innovation and innovation financing, history of technology and business history.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.