Joan Hodges, a fiber artist and activist, is among the...

Joan Hodges, a fiber artist and activist, is among the figures who share Long Island's cultural heritage in Long Island Traditions' "Long Island Diversity Back Story Audio Tour." Credit: Long Island Traditions

With midwinter’s chill comes cabin fever, made more rampant this year by new variants and surges of the coronavirus. One way to cope? Take a Sunday drive. In fact, why wait till Sunday to embark on a leisurely excursion through nearby neighborhoods?

Instead of aimlessly wandering on and off highway exit ramps or tooling around quiet residential cul-de-sacs, consider engaging with "Long Island Diversity Back Story," a self-guided audio tour spotlighting landmarks that represent the region’s wide-ranging ethnic communities. It is the third in a series produced by the Port Washington-based nonprofit Long Island Traditions, dedicated to preserving local occupational and cultural customs and institutions, on the mobile platform TravelStorys.

While the guide may get listeners outside the four walls of their own homes — whether they access the app at the featured destinations or peruse online as armchair travelers — the project also looks to break down other barriers.

"Some people welcome, while others are fearful of, different ethnic groups in their neighborhoods," noted the organization’s executive director Nancy Solomon. "Learning about communities through the eyes of the people who live there, through their food, music and craft traditions, helps us to learn about and respect each other’s cultures."

"Human understanding of people is not at an all-time high," agreed Ellie Dassler, who worked on the guide. "We may not have as many chances in the COVID era to meet new people, and the app provides a way to learn and hear from those we might not get to know otherwise."

Nancy Solomon, executive director of Long Island Traditions, co-curated "Long...

Nancy Solomon, executive director of Long Island Traditions, co-curated "Long Island Diversity Back Story," a self-guided audio tour spotlighting landmarks that represent Long Island's wide-ranging ethnic communities. Credit: Brittainy Newman

'Behind the scenes'

The tour provides an introduction uniquely presented through a folklorist perspective.

"We really go behind the scenes of a specific location," explained Solomon. "Folklorists start with what is occurring today and try to understand where it came from and how it has changed. It is a different way of learning about the places we live in."

To that end, the guide relates stories associated with each locale through the voices of community members, from descendants of Black Americans who traveled to the area during the Great Migration and whose artworks have been displayed in the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County to relative newcomers from South Asia living and honoring their native traditions in and around Hicksville.

"I felt a lot of responsibility to represent the participants in a way that they were comfortable with," said Dassler, who, with Solomon, co-curated the audio tour as a summer intern after completing her master’s degree in Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University. "What we do is distinct because we focus on living traditions — expressive activities that communities partake in — and the dynamic role they play in contemporary life."

One of those participants, Denise Silva-Dennis, is displaying her living cultural expressions — traditional beadwork and original paintings — through mid-February at Ma’s House, a communal arts space on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton. Both her art and the venue, a destination on the audio guide — are deeply connected to Silva-Dennis’ heritage, not only in terms of her ethnic roots, but on a very personal level, too.

"Lots of Shinnecock culture is passed down through the matrilineal side," said Solomon. "She speaks on the guide about her earliest memories admiring the beaded regalia at powwows and learning how to make beadwork from her mom."

Denise Silva-Dennis is an artist who creates paintings and beadwork, some of which will be on display at Ma's House on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton. | Photos by Long Island Traditions / Courtesy of Denise Silva-Dennis

Expanding knowledge

In fact, Ma’s house itself was the home Silva-Dennis grew up in, built by her father in the 1960s from materials salvaged from a dismantled church in Riverhead. In 2020, Silva-Dennis’s son Jeremy, a photographer, transformed her childhood home into a nonprofit art studio and library with a residency program for Black, indigenous and people of color.

"Probably 90% of what is taught in public school curriculum is pre-1900," Jeremy notes on the audio guide about Native Americans. "Just that fact alone portrays the idea that we’re static people, we’re stuck in the past, or we vanished as a race, or we’re no longer Indian enough. I really want to show that we have this long connection, especially to the landscape."

Consequently, he has focused his own artmaking on capturing Long Island sites with his camera lens that are significant to the Shinnecock Indian Nation, including Sugar Loaf Hill, a 3,000-year-old unmarked burial site that was part of acreage "stolen" from the tribe, encroached on by a modern mansion, and recently repatriated with funds from Southampton’s Community Preservation Fund and Pink Floyd rocker Roger Waters.

While the ancestral land surrounding Ma’s House is sacred to the Shinnecock, its value is not lost on visiting artists.

"The woodlands, the oak trees lining a path to the water, the deer and flocks of wild turkeys are all so inspiring," said Denise Silva-Dennis. With the arts center’s roster of exhibitions and workshops, it is clear the Shinnecock want their neighbors to benefit, too.

"They want people to see and know they would be welcome," said Solomon.

Tony DaSilva, fifth from left, is director of Rancho Juventude, seen here in a 2004 photo during a Portuguese Day Parade celebration. Accordions, called concertinas, are among the instruments used in traditional Portuguese music. | Photos by Long Island Traditions

The sentiment is shared by Tony Da Silva, director of Rancho Juventude, a folk dance group with the Mineola Portuguese Center, another stop on the audio tour. "Our program is open to Portuguese children, but also to the broader community, people of all different backgrounds," said Da Silva, a first-generation Portuguese American who has been with the troupe since he was 14. "We want to keep our culture alive."

As the audio guide’s listeners learn, the ranchos folclóricos dances primarily represent the northern Portuguese district Viana do Costelo, a region known for its folkloric traditions and agriculture. It was, in fact, the idea of more land that attracted Portuguese immigrants in the early 20th century from New York City to the Mineola area. In 1935, they built the cultural center, and, with plans for expansion, it endures as a vibrant neighborhood hub.

Fiber artist and activist Joan Hodges, see with one her Black dolls, which she began making in the 1960s, and as a child, is among the traditional voices associated with the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County. | Photos by Long Island Traditions

'Hidden history'

Continuing to make its mark on Long Island and beyond, the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum, in Hempstead, another tour stop, has been promoting "‘hidden’ history and art," as described on its website, since the mid-1980s. The audio guide points to a strong community of local African American fiber artists as an example, featuring interviews with artist and activist Joan Hodges and her mentor, the late Ora Kirkland. Both women honored traditional quilt-making while cultivating their own individual "Afro-centric aesthetic" and causes.

On the other hand, Delco Plaza, a shopping strip mall at the intersection of Old Country Road and Route 107, is a less formal showcase for one of Long Island’s diverse ethnic communities. South Asian restaurants, clothing boutiques and businesses thrive in the area, including the Maharaja Farmers Market, where ethnic foods like dhokla, roti and chat are to be had. Just down the road on North Broadway is the Raga Music Academy, offering classes in traditional sitar, Hindustani singing and tabla, or twin hand drums. Sejal Kukadia, a noted soloist, talks about the ancient percussive art form and its importance in the neighboring South Asian communities.

"The Long Island Diversity Back Story" is a tale that is ongoing. Solomon is planning for future chapters spotlighting, among others, the dance traditions of the Peruvian community in and around Glen Cove and the music of Trinidadian steel drum performers in Freeport and Baldwin.

"The arts are so important emotionally," noted the Shinnecock Nation’s Denise Silva-Dennis. "It’s like therapy, you can let yourself go."

Not only a great antidote for its practitioners, with Long Island Traditions’ self-guided audio tour, Long Islanders can now be transported, too.

Delco Plaza in Hicksville is a less formal showcase for South Asian traditions, including dancers, seen with instructor Mala Desai, center rear; tabla soloist Sejal Kukadia, far right, with her students; and produce arrayed at Maharaja Farmers Market. | Photos by Long Island Traditions

Take the tour

“The Long Island Diversity Back Story” can be accessed at travelstorys.com/tours/long-island-diversity-back-story, or download the guide for free through the Apple App Store or Google Play.