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Canarsie museum is history

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The Canarsie History Museum, a one-man traveling stockpile of photographs, artifacts, and anecdotes detailing the many twists and turns of the area’s past, is no more.

Ramon Martinez — the museum’s creator, curator, and proprietor — has shut its doors, given away its collection, and moved away from his beloved stomping ground. His singular passion for the history of his adopted neighborhood turned out to be a bit too unique.

“What hurts the most is how Canarsie is today,” said Martinez. “I wanted to let these people who came to Canarsie 15 or 20 years ago know how great it was, but I think the people who live there now don’t care about Canarsie. The people that did are gone.”

For 15 years, Martinez channeled a fascination with Canarsie that borders on obsession into trying to get his ode to the neighborhood, his museum and his annual history fairs, off the ground. He spent more than $10,000 of his own money to purchase old photographs and local relics off of eBay, and transport his traveling exhibit to different locations. Martinez applied for grants and registered for non-profit status. He offered to lecture at area schools. He wrote letters to every elected official and politician in Canarsie, but only a couple ever lent any support.

Council Member Alan Maisel (D–Canarsie) got Martinez $5,000 of funding for the museum, and worked with him to get a space at the local American Legion Hall, but Martinez said the space would have needed more than $50,000 dollars in renovations, so it never came to pass. The councilmember said he was disappointed Martinez’s efforts came to naught.

“It always comes down to money,” said Maisel. “If you’re trying to do it yourself, it makes it all the more difficult. But he was very dedicated. His intentions were noble and pure. It was a wonderful thing for the kids and it’s a great loss.”

Martinez, perhaps surprisingly, wasn’t born in Canarsie, nor did he grow up there. Born in Connecticut, his family moved to East New York when he was a child. He bought his first house on E. 95th Street in 1999 at the age of 25. But as soon as he got there, his love affair with the area and its history blossomed.

“The minute I got to Canarsie I felt this connection unlike anything I’d ever felt before,” Martinez said. “It’s a fascinating place. It changed so many times and so often. Every time I do a little bit of research I find something else about it.”

Getting to know an elderly neighbor helped ignite the flame, and encounters with other neighborhood seniors poured fuel on the fire. Martinez used his job as a retail manager at a nearby Marshalls to interact with Canarsie’s old guard.

“I would stop my car if I was driving and I saw a senior citizen,” said Martinez. “If I saw an older person at Marshalls, I’d strike up a conversation. They want to talk about it as soon as they see you have an interest in a place they love.”

Martinez was never particularly interested in history as a young man, but he began spending free time at the library, reading voraciously about the area’s history.

Unfortunately, his passion for Canarsie did not resonate with other neighborhood newbies.

Turnout at his annual fairs was low. He staged them at different locations every year to try to generate new interest, but the only year he had a sizable turnout was in 2009, right after he published “Canarsie: The Real History Behind Brooklyn and New York.”

But then Martinez mailed the book to the principal of every school in Canarsie, and offered to come to do a free exhibit and lecture. None of them called him back.

Martinez held his last fair in June of 2014, and instead focused on producing a documentary called “A Walk Through Canarsie,” detailing the area’s past as a seaside resort community. But even that failed to generate much lasting local interest.

When Martinez finally decided to pack it in, he drove around Canarsie, giving back most of the artifacts or photographs that people had donated. What he could not give back, he gave to a local firehouse, because he thought those things should stay in Canarsie.

Just over a month ago, Martinez sold his house and moved to Georgia, seeking better schools for his daughters. But Canarsie’s Quixotic chronicler said he probably would have stayed put if the museum had taken off.

His hardships with the museum may have caused him heartache, but Martinez doesn’t regret any of it.

“I would do it again,” said Martinez. “I enjoyed the experience, and the knowledge that I gained and that I gave to others. Those few people who came to the fairs and learned, it was worth it.”

Reach reporter Eric Faynberg at (718) 260–2508 or by e-mail at efaynberg@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ericfaynberg.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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