Sunday, February 15, 2015

River of Words and the Historic Review Commission: Contestations Over Neighborhood "Value"

River of Words was the first of a series of temporary public art commissions installed in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood, along a public thoroughfare called the “Garden-to-Garden Artway.” The project, led by writer Israel Centeno and visual artists Carolina Arnal and Gisela Romera, natives of Venezuela explored the way words are a “metaphor for neural synapsis and the connection between human beings and places.” The artists worked with residents to choose words, which the residents then “hosted” on the exterior of their houses and gardens. The project was opened on July 25, 2014, and was set to close at the end of the year, on December 27, 2014. However, in the interim, something curious happened. The residents fell in love with their words. These words, which included “resilience,” “poem,” “passion,” and “friend,” served as a way for residents to represent themselves to their neighbors, and to the world. On December 27, 2014, the “hosts” received letters that noted that the exhibit had run its course, and were they to keep their words on display, they would have to pay a $100 application fee. Why the fee? Part of the Northside neighborhood is within the historic preservation district, and as such, is subject to strict guidelines on the maintenance of the exterior of houses. The fee is to apply to have a hearing to get permission to keep the words on their houses. However, these words, installed on the interior of windows, or with one-inch screws within the mortar of brick walls, were low to no impact, and the benefit, according to residents was immense. On February 4, 2015, a Pittsburgh resident addressed the members of the Historic Preservation Commission, trying to gain an exemption for the project.

I am Glenn Olcerst, the applicant, owner of 1200 Resaca, a 39 year resident of the Mexican War Streets Historic District, and the host of two of the 140 words in the"River of Words" art installation --which is the product of a partnership between the City of Asylum and the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art.  I’m appearing today on behalf of my words, and all my other historic district neighbors who also want to keep their words.
In addition to its beautiful historic buildings, our neighborhood boasts a thriving art community.  The"River of Words" Garden to Garden walkway art installation involved extensive cross cultural collaboration within the Central Northside community and between the residents and the artists.‘River of Words’ has received much favorable press – even internationally – and requests to display Words by homeowners in other historic and non-historic Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
If a purpose of historic preservation is “to preserve and restore the harmonious outward appearance of structures which attract tourists and residents”, then ‘River of Words’ is helping the City reach this goal in our historic district.  Since 42% of Words are affixed to houses inside the Historic District, when homeowners were told that their Words must be removed by December 27, the Commission undermined its mission by conveying a negative message about living in a historic district….  
I will share two positive excerpts from the Facebook page on this subject: “river of words is not an insignificant matter – it is public art very well conceived and embraced by the whole community. Preservation need not be at war with artistic expression.”  A second post noted that "I think river of words is the best thing that has happened to our neighborhood since I've moved here. If homeowners desire to keep their words, there is no better neighborhood suited to housing the project long term than ours. I think the words complement the historic backdrop, and have given us much needed positive press and excitement.”
Mr. Orcest went on to discuss that the project, wherein residents chose a word that was meaningful to them and displayed it somewhere visible on the exterior of their house, was a vital exercise in free speech. It was a way to get residents involved in public discussion and deliberation, as well as a means to further unite the neighborhood.

            The Historic Review Commission, peopled by Chairman Ernie Hogan, Sarah Quinn, Ray Gastill, Joe Serrao, and Erik Harliss, is responsible for overseeing permit approval for construction and repairs made in the historic districts throughout Pittsburgh. Their job is largely to ensure that the “historic” character of a neighborhood perdures and so they serve as the gatekeepers of style, and of maintaining (and as such, defining) the character of a neighborhood. Theirs is a complex discursive argot of architectural vocabulary; knowledge about different building materials and their historic provenance; and a more situational operation of judgment about what constitutes appropriateness.
            The three hours of public hearings that I observed included a couple of property owners violating historic district requirements by installing glass block windows (the kind one often sees in commercial buildings, and/or in bathrooms, these windows are multilayered and opaque); a fencing company forgoing the style of an older railing and hence breaking with the “original” style; an architecture firm requesting to put a permanent awning on a restaurant in Market Square, a request met with refusal on the grounds that it would set a precedent for awnings and “turn the square into an arcade”; and a builder requesting, on behalf of property owners, to replace the rotting shingle from an 1830s railroad car house with “hardy plank,” a fibrous concrete, a request that was met with refusal with the demand that they investigate the possibility of rehabilitating the wood, to “save an important part of history.” These four moments, of about seventeen, index the way that value is articulated within the framework of the HRC. “History,” “origins,” and “authenticity,” are key terms for navigating the exigencies of urban transformation. The historic is the valorized term the contemporary or ahistoric devalorized. Other concerns (security, cost, feasibility) are for the most part understood as second-rate. And gatekeeper identity seems fully internalized by commission members. “I can’t allow it!” many would express after minutes of fidgeting, consternation, and questions. Moreover, the priority here, is architecture, community understood as building materials, not culture as social process. This is evident in the procedural language, “Is item number 1 here?” “Is agenda item, 324 Carson street here?” Not property owners, but buildings.
            The commissioners exercise a significant amount of situational judgment, given that each building is treated on a case-by-case basis, even though there are general requirements. For instance, the glass-block case occurred on a corner-house that was across the street from another building that also had glass block windows on the basement level. However, this analogy failed to persuade the commissioners, who noted that the building could be outside the boundaries of the historic district, or could have been updated before the district was created, or even was violating the rules but had not been caught yet. These three possibilities illustrated how district standards are difficult to enforce, and hard to actualize in a uniform manner. In the case of the metal railing, where the ironwork company defended their actions, they too, used the example of another building they had worked on in the district which had received approval. They also pointed to other aspects of the building (leaf designs, scrolls above the doorway) that allowed them to create an “authentic” style. This claim, however, was met with disgust by two neighborhood watchdogs, two men who testified on multiple cases about violations of historic standards. However, their arguments, about the authenticity of the prior railing “because it could not come from the 1950s when the economy was depressed” were not grounded in cited evidence. Nevertheless, they swayed the commission. Thus, the public hearing is a rhetorical space of contestation of competing arguments about origin, history, and authenticity, and as such, this realm is ripe for rhetorical analysis.

            Where does the River of Words project fit in here? Given that the project is a series of public texts, challenging because such texts make their own arguments about the community, its identity, and origins. Moreover, it is a collision point between understandings of neighborhood identity that place value and importance on resident activity and communication or physical spaces and their appearance.

            Moreover, it is a free speech issue and raises the question, how does one evaluate private property as a zone of free speech? Does it make the public private? To better understand the controversy, and River of Words’ importance in residents and word hosts’ lives, I will be conducting a series of oral history interviews during the month of February, publishing the audio and transcripts. Stay tuned.

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