Monday, February 20, 2023

Cleaning Up Cleaners

by Monica Groth, curator

Brownfields are defined by the EPA as areas “complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” The term was coined in 1978 as part of a growing government effort to identify and remediate highly polluted property. Pollution, often the result of industrial development, can linger in soil and groundwater decades after businesses close and properties change hands. Dangerous contaminants can affect the health of future residents.

Because of Elmira’s long history of supporting heavy industry, the county is home to many brownfields. Some, identified by New York State on the map below, are well-known. They include factory sites like Kennedy Valve and Westinghouse Co. as well as old oil fields and landfills. One of the most famous brownfield sites in the county is Elmira High School, on the city’s Southside, where the former Sperry/Remington Rand factory once sat. Most recently, efforts to remove contamination from the Old Elmira Gasworks has been ongoing on East Water Street.

Map of Chemung County brownfields being remediated under
New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation

However, in looking at this map, we were interested to discover that a large number of sites containing hazardous wastes fell into another category entirely. Seven are dry cleaners.

Before individual homes had machines, industrial laundries and dry cleaners handled community laundry at large facilities like Perfect Laundry, pictured below.

Workers wash clothes at Perfect Laundry in Elmira, c. 1920s

The process of “dry” cleaning utilized petro-chemical based solvents to remove stains without the use of water. Dry cleaning advertisements begin to appear in the Elmira Gazette & Free Press in 1896. In the 19th century, dry cleaners washed clothes in open vats filled with gasoline, kerosene, or turpentine. However, such chemicals are highly flammable. By the 1900s, especially as machines began to be used in the dry cleaning business, less-flammable chemicals were experimented with as cleaners.

Ledger Book from Ruddick's Dry Cleaning, Elmira, c. 1915

By the 1940s, tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene - or “perc” for short - was the most popular solvent. An estimated 1 million metric tons of perc was produced worldwide in 1985.

Ad for C & K dry cleaning, 1953
C & K Laundry and Dry Cleaning in the old Robinson building, c. 1970

Perc has been listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a “potential occupational carcinogen.” The process of legally listing substances as carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, is complicated and requires long-term studies and tested scientific data. Different agencies with different interests assess carcinogenicity differently. The National Toxicology Program deemed perc “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated perc as a “probable human carcinogen.” The EPA assessed perc to “likely be carcinogenic to humans” and updated its assessment of the chemical in 2022 by determining it “presents unreasonable risk to human health.” Today, perc dip tanks and transfer equipment is prohibited at dry cleaning facilities, and no perc is allowed to be used in residential buildings. However, the chemical is still legal and pollution from previous decades lingers in soil and water long after businesses close or regulations change.

Sites listed on the above map are undergoing remediation so they can be cleaned and available for future development. In a 2008 survey in the Star-Gazette, 67% of the surveyed thought safely remediating brownfields would help economic growth in the area. In 2017, there were 8 sites in Chemung County listed by the DEC as “Class 2” meaning they posed a “present foreseeable, significant threat” to the environment. Two Elmira dry cleaners were classified as Class 2 sites. The site of the former Diamond Cleaners, which was occupied by multiple dry cleaner businesses from 1950 to 2001, was remediated in the early 2000s by the removal of 600 tons of perc-contaminated soil. A plume of perc-contaminated water was identified heading toward the Chemung River from Castle Cleaners around 2017, and $2.1 million was proposed to treat it.

Invoice from Diamond Cleaners, 1994

Monday, February 6, 2023

Collecting Objects

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Last year, someone accused us of collecting objects just to squirrel them away into drawers. A thought that if true, might explain the overflowing condition of the museum's storage areas. Drawers, closets, and storage rooms around the building are full of artifacts and documents connected to life in Chemung County. The Historical Society doesn't collect items just to accumulate them, we collect them to tell a more complete story of Chemung County’s history. That story is more fluid than many people think.

Items on display and in the archives come mostly from donations. Before being added to the collection, they are reviewed by a committee made up of members of the public, staff, and board members. Staff at the museum are trained to evaluate an item’s potential and the reasons why things are declined vary. Sometimes it’s because we already have an item, or the item has no connection to Chemung County. Other times, items are in poor condition, or we’re not able to care for them properly. Only when the committee feels an item helps tell a more complete story of the area, is it accepted. Our collection is constantly growing, and currently the number of items we hold is well into the hundreds of thousands. 

No matter what anyone thinks, museums are not neutral spaces, and that might be different if humans weren’t involved. It’s also the reason your grandparents' visit to the Chemung Valley History Museum does not look exactly the same as yours today. For instance, the Barbie lunchbox on display in the Bank Gallery often surprises people.

Barbie Lunch box 1984

The museum's mission-- 

To deepen our understanding of history and to provide an appreciation of our community's place in state and national history

requires us to constantly refresh our understanding of what our community looks like in order to tell the stories.

A great example of this can be seen in our new exhibit, “Faces of Chemung County.” At first glance on display in the Howell Gallery, are nine framed portraits from our permanent collection. The portraits capture a likeness of each person and show off the artists’ skills. But, and here’s where art museums and history museums differ, the images are accompanied by artifacts, carefully chosen to tell more of each person’s story.

Faces of Chemung County exhibit

From the paintings and drawings, we learn about the person by noticing what is and isn’t included. Asking questions -- what are they wearing, are there any objects included in the image, what is their posture, how are they wearing their hair, what hand gestures are they making, or even what color of clothes they have on -- gives us information from the artists' point of view. It is a visual story. The artists have left nothing to chance, no choice is random. Yet, the two-dimensional images tell only part of each person's story. The  artifacts nearby add depth to our understanding. Their physical presence reminds us the people were real.  

The reason each artifact was included varies.  Objects  might have belonged to the person, or might be linked to them in some other way. For example, near the portrait of Colonel Liscom, who fought in the Civil War, there's a saddle and blanket. The saddle is from the time period but he didn't own this one. The saddle blanket was one he owned, but came from a slightly later time period. We've included objects that might be tools of their trade, evidence of their social class, bits from hobbies, or might even reference something about them now missing or unrecorded. And by the way, the object that the donor feared we were squirreling away is currently on display in this exhibit.

"Faces of Chemung County" is not about rewriting history, it’s about using what we know in the 21st century to step back and get a deeper understanding of particular people, events, and stories from our past. Here, we have the advantage of stepping into nine different pairs of shoes to better understand who these people were in society, what choices they made, and the pathways they followed. We can see how their lives might seem similar or different from our own.

Better understanding the past helps us make sense of our current events, society, and culture and can guide our future choices.

The Historical Society is continuing to add to our collection and we are currently searching for objects to include in an upcoming exhibit on Polish culture. This is the first of many ethnic groups planned for future exhibits, and we encourage you to think about donating items to help preserve our county’s history for generations to come.

 Museum hours are 10 am - 5 pm Monday through Saturday.