Friday, March 27, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Interview with Israel Centeno, Words as Love and Possession

Last Sunday I had a short conversation with Israel about the River of Words project while he drove me to the City of Asylum office to conduct the last of my interviews for the semester. He spoke to some of his inspirations for this collective project, namely, the crucial roles that public names (on houses) play in Venezuela as references to this history of that building and the emotional relationship that it has with its residents. Words, he notes, particular words, or the proper name rather than the common word, are resignifications of the word away from its general or dictionary meaning to one that is more personal and particular. And yet, this is an intensely public practice as well, it is part of the expected visual culture of the city. This insight, about how the words are a terrain for meaning-making, intimacy, and possession, highlights some of the stakes of the project for the word hosts: it is ultimately a question of public identity and recognition. The transcript follows. Thank you, Israel.

CB: Ok, it is March 22, 2015 and I am here with River of Words founder Israel Centeno. Can you tell me about how the project got started and what the goals were?

IC: When I saw that City of Asylum was calling people to a project, I had in mind these two friends from Venezuela who were [working]  with me on similar projects in Venezuela. In Venezuela we developed a project in two huge neighborhoods, so I told them and they brought a lot of enthusiasm to think about a project [for Pittsburgh]. We thought 'What can we do, what can we propose to these themes: words, visual art and design." Because Carolina is a designer and Gisela Romero is visual art, and I am a writer, and we mixed these together and before, in Venezuela, made similar projects. Gisela thought it would be interesting to work with neurons, the word as a kind of neuron in a neighborhood. So, we shared the responsibility, compartimos the responsibility, [on] my shoulder[s] was [the responsibility for]  the words. So I had to think about that, about what kind of words we have to bring, like an Venezuelan artist, to Pittsburgh. I thought, at first, that all of us, human kind share similar archetypes, universal archetypes, and some heroes and some tragedies, and some funny things, so I dug into these things and started to choose some words with that meaning or thought, that we share some archetypes. THe other thing, that was my little knowledge about pittsburgh, has been that moment I was three years living here, and so a few things…one of them, the sense of the Pittsburgh community to be communities in the sense of neighborhoods…I don't know if i am explaining [it right]. So, the other things were that Pittsburgh people used to be very proud of them[selves], of the things that belonged to them. And one of the thing that the people from Pittsburgh think that belongs to them is a kind of [sense] that we are different, we want to be different. So, I chose some words that reflected that thought. The other thing is a human behavior to protect the thing that belongs to you, and i think when you read a book and you make a link with this book, you are making a link with image, archetype, and word, the meaning of the word. So, I wanted to give the people the opportunity to take for themselves like a property, a word, an image of the word, and, you know, the word in a linguistic way is a sign. An arbitrary sign. And I gave them an opportunity to resignificate the sign. To put their own signifier. So when these people make this connection their sense of belonging grows. Because this word means something that you can find in the dictionary, but means [an] other thing, a very particular private thing, for them.

CB: That's great. Have you been following what is happening with the Historic Review Commission, and the kind of controversy with the words that  are on the houses under the jurisdiction of historic review?

IC: No, I am not very into this matter. I was aware, and some news was coming, and I am reading that news, but I just do not understand the U.S. policies about the communal space. In my country, one thing that is important, in my country, we used to put a name to each house. If you go Caracas City or Barquisimeto, where ever, when the people have a house, the people put a nam to the house. It is common. The city and the council in Venezuela takes this name, like the number, its a similar thing. So for me its a natural thing, but I don't know a lot about public policies here in the U.S.A.

CB: So in Venezuela, the name that they put on the house, it is not a last name, it is just a word?

IC: The name for a house in Venezuela, when the people have a house, they want to name this house. Sometime they bought the house with the name and they keep the name.

CB: What are some examples? 

IC: For example if you buy a house, and this house means to you 'effort' you name the house 'mi trabajo,' 'I worked.' Or, this house came from faith, 'La fe.' Or if you love your sons, 'Mis hijos.' If you had a meaning about nature, 'el apamate', the tree, a river. My residence was a building. Where I lived before, I lived in a big building, of about eleven floors, and all of this building had the name of this big river in Venezuela, 'Orinoco,'  another is 'Paris,' like a city. So, every building used to have a name. For me, it was a natural thing when this happened here [ROW] I thought I was bringing to people a little thing, a little gesture from my, a gentle gesture, from my city. Its rare that you find something without a name in Venezuela.

CB: That is really interesting. Do you feel like the residents you have talked to, do you feel that they have adopted the words, in the same way that people have adopted words in Venezuela?

IC: Yes, and this is a fine discover[y] that people want to name their things. You have something, if you love someone, you put a name, a particular name, not a common name. If you love somebody named 'Laura,' 'Ernesto,' you put a nickname, it's for you [the nickname]. It's the way that you call the people. Its the same thing with a car. I don't know if here in the U.S.A. people put the names to their cars.

CB: Sometimes, not always, though.

IC: I didn't put a name to this car yet, so I feel this car is not belonging to me because I am still paying [for] this car. So when I develop this feeling of ownership to this car I will put a name to this car. So, I think at some point we find out that the people wanted to call [their houses something]. We love things with a name. And, sometimes the thing that they don't put a name, they don't love. It's like an archetype. Adam named the things of the universe surrounding him. But, yes.

CB: Anything else that you would like to say about the project that you haven't gotten a chance to talk about too much?

IC: We are developing right now a project proposed to a little community in Caracas, because we are a group, a collective.

CB: What is the name of the collective?

IC: ACeRo. We are developing a Caracas Birds. We have a huge, diverse, a muestra, how do you say this in English?

CB: A work, a demonstration?

IC: No, a diversity of birds, tropical. Actually, when I came to the aviary [In North Side], I came to the tropical area to see birds from my place. So we are developing haikus with the name of each bird, and making some names with the corners of the streets of Caracas. We put a name to corners of the street, not like, you know, here you find a name like Main Avenue, Liberty Avenue, STanton, but we put some weird names to our place like 'esquina del muerto' or 'miseria' 'esquina de miseria', misery, death, or…pele ojo, or perico the corner of perico, Perico is a little bird. So we are developing that for a library in a small community in Venezuela, and this library will put, in some point in the same way surrounding this neighborhood some thing with birds, haikus, this little point with seven words and birds, with haikus, and a lot of color. So this is a project for us now. From this experience with River of Words,  we want to think about that, about how to put more, more than the word, for example we are trying to make the connection with words, birds, and color, with this project in Caracas. Maybe we will develop more surround this similar thing in Pittsburgh.

CB: Thank you.

IC: You are welcome.

Monday, March 23, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Diana Jones, "Mandalas" and the Affective Connections to the River

On February 23rd I had the chance to speak to Diana Jones, a writer who lives in the North Side. Her word is "mandalas," a Sanskrit term that she suggested translates to something like "circle of life," an insight she said she has felt more powerfully and palpably in recent years. For her, the project has taken on an unexpected level of emotional intensity, such that when she is walking her dog around the neighborhood she feels a certain kinship when she sees other houses with words. Diana eloquently elaborates the power and possibility that inheres in public art: a way to transcend, enlighten, and transform spaces, but also means by which communities can reflect their collective identities. Diana wrote an article on her experience with the project, available here. The transcript of our conversation is below. Thank you, Diana.

CB: So the date is Feb. 23 and I am here with Diana Jones as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks so much for being here with me. I am starting with some demographic data. One of my objectives is to get a sense of the diversity of participants, so if you could give me your name; address; age; marital status; race you identify with.

DJ: Sure. Diana Nelson Jones. My address is 1238 Resaca Place, and I am 57. And I am single.

CB: How long have you lived in the North Side?

DJ: Since 1990.

CB: And how long have you lived in Pittsburgh?

DJ: Since 1989. 

CB: Were you born in Pittsburgh?

DJ: No.

CB: Where are you from?

DJ: I am from West Virginia.

CB: Cool. So not too fair.

DJ: Yeah, two hours.

CB: That's nice. Do you know if your house falls within the historic district?

DJ: Yes.

CB: Which one is it in? I know there are multiple. Is it the Mexican War Streets?

DJ: Yes.

CB: Great. Now I'd like to turn to the River of Words project. How did you find out about it, and what was your experience of being involved in it like? 

DJ: Well, Heny and Diane, from City of Asylum put out the word that they were doing the word project, and explained what it was about, and I really wasn't planning to take part but I heard the Venezuelan artists outside my house one day, they were attaching my neighbor's word to their house, and I heard them speaking Spanish, and that's my second language, and I popped out there to practice...and then I wanted a word [laughs] so they had a word for me, they put it up that same time.

CB: What is your word?

DJ: Mandalas.

CB: What does "mandalas" mean?
DJ: The best I can understand is Sanskrit for the circle of life, the cycles of life.

CB: So what does that word mean to you?

DJ: I kind of was surprised that I picked that one, because I would normally have maybe have picked a Spanish word, for many reasons, I don't know. It resonated for some reason. I think that ying/yang, the circle, and all the various sanskrit symbols that I at least infer are part of this definition just appeal to me. Its been a lot of my thinking in recent years that life is a circle and you just keep going around and round and round and round. In a good and a bad way.

CB: Interesting. Can you tell me about any stories that have happened because of your word. Any encounters that you have had.

DJ: I don't know about stories or encounters, particularly, except when I am walking my dog in my neighborhood and I see other words on other houses. I just feel this strange sort of connection to everybody who has a word. I hadn't expected how strongly that river would really, sort of, impact me metaphorically, figuratively, in every other way. It's become such a strong feeling that I have that I hope that my word never comes off my window, and I hope that nobody takes this word down, in spite of the city's potential for fining us.

CB: Well, that leads really nicely into my next question which is, can you tell me how much you know about the Historic Review Commission situation and your opinion on that? 

DJ: Yeah. So they deal with all sorts of exterior alterations to buildings in historic districts, and when that day came up, that they were having the hearing on the word and what that might mean in the future, um, they admitted that they had never really come up upon this kind of situation before. And the argument that I think Glenn Olcerst made was significant, that these words aren't permanent, in fact, this was not supposed to be a permanent exhibit at all. The irony is that people want it to be. Everybody who has a word up, I am pretty sure, wants to keep it, and so what they are going to do in the next month or so is hopefully figure out what a project like this could mean in historic review in general. I doubt that other people will come up with a project like this but there will be other projects that challenge what the ordinance says or doesn't say, and so they will hopefully come up with some plan or standard.

CB: Do you have any thoughts about what that plan might or should include?

DJ: I think that it definitely should include art. Public art. Even if it is permanent. You should probably get permission first, which, apparently, we didn't do. But the fact that any of these can be removed with no damage to any of the buildings, [indicates] to me that this should be a non-issue, and that that should be one of the standards: if it's in the mortar and you can take it out, if you have to repair the mortar, big deal. Who wouldn't do that?

CB: I want to close with your thoughts on public art in general. What do you think the importance of public is in the North Side, and maybe also in Pittsburgh more broadly.

DJ: Oh its inestimable. I think its one of those things that people don't necessarily know how to describe, but they know how it feels to be around it. And I think it is hugely civilizing, and enlightening, and elevating, and I think it is important to a sense of place. It says an awful lot about the people who made those decisions at the time, it says a lot about the scope of artistic possibility in a city. And I think it gives people sort of a guide post for how to go forward with thinking outside the box, or just creating public entities. Entities that anybody, rich or poor, could enjoy. So, I think it is much more important than anybody has ever really made a case for in this city. 

CB: Are you an artist?

DJ: No.

CB: What is it that you do?

DJ: I am a writer.

CB: Do you write fiction, non fiction?

DJ: Non fiction.

CB: So also there is maybe a connection to textuality and public maybe...

DJ: With what?

CB: As a writer, do you feel a sense of kinship with the word, with the mere fact of having these public words?

DJ: Yeah, I mean, writers tie words together. You know those boxes of magnetic words that you can assemble any way you want? I mean, you can put "mandalas" besides "manadas" and you have the circle of life in a herd. My neighbor's word is "manadas" which means "herd" in Spanish, and what's interesting is that their word is green and my word is orange, and our house is painted kind of a sage green with a kind of deep orange trim, and neither one of us chose our word based on color, but suddenly its up there and you are thinking: "oh my gosh, its kind of like its fits!" But yeah, I think so. Putting words together is what writers do and its interesting to see all the words and how you might use them all together.

CB: OK. Is there anything else that you would like to say about the project that I haven't given you a chance to talk about?

DJ: I just think that the artists from Venezuela, when they were here I did practice my Spanish with them and I even got to be friendly with them and I met them at the bar and we had drinks together and I spoke more Spanish and...they come from a country where you can't just say or write or do anything you want without the government maybe having something to say about that and the fact they were in the United States doing this, and now this is being challenged [in Pittsburgh] is kind of interesting to me. But they came into our lives for a brief moment, it was nice.

CB: Great, thank you so much.

DJ: Sure, thank you. Good luck with your project.

River of Words Oral History Project Gary Lefebvre: "Melody" and Historic Districting Difficulties

My conversation with Gary pointed to the way in which the River of Words projects relates to self identity, and community identity...and it's various complexities. His family hosts the word "melody," a term they find an apt descriptor for their musical practice, and taste. He also underscored how the current uncertainty with the Historic Review Commission points to deeper difficulties within the neighborhood for embracing, or resisting Historic District status, complexities that are often based on class differences.

The transcript is below:

CB: Its February 23, 2015, and I am here with Gary Lefebvre as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks so much for being here.

GL: My pleasure.

CB: I wanted to start with some demographic questions. One of my research questions is to learn about the diversity of participants, so full name; address; age; marital status; race/ethnicity.

GL: My name is Gary Lefebvre, I live at 530 Jacksonia Street, Pittsburgh PA 15212. I am 58 years old, actually I'm 57, I'll be 58 in June. Married. Two grown children. I've been living on Jacksonia, it'll be four years in July.

CB: And what ethnicity do you identify as?

GL: Caucasian, I guess, reluctantly.

CB: How long have you been living in Pittsburgh?

GL: For four years.

CB: Where did you move from?

GL: I lived in Washington County for 20 years, and before that Indiana County.

CB: Cool. So, you mentioned to me that your house does not fall within the historic district, is that right?

GL: Its in the national one, not the city one.

CB: So let's turn to the River of Words project. Can you tell me how you came to be involved with it, and what your experience was like?

GL: I've been aware of the City of Asylum and their projects for some time. I'm facebook friends, I get email notifications about their events, and so forth. I learned about it I think through an email invitation through the person who was coordinating the project. 

CB: What word do you have, and how did you pick it?

GL: We picked and we have the word "Melody."

CB: Why "melody"?

GL: We are a very musical family. We always have music playing in the house. We have musicians in the family. We have musicians for friends. It just seemed like a natural. It was among the list, and we picked three, and that was our first choice.

CB: Can you tell me a little about the musician makeup of your family? Who plays what?

GL: Actually, I am a listener, although I did play trumpet in high school. My sons are both very musical, and they both prove that musical talent skips a generation. My younger one plays the mandolin, the guitar, the trombone, bass instruments, and my older son plays the bass guitar, fiddle, guitar. So they play folk style music.

CB: Awesome. So six months later what has the impact displaying your word had on your life?

GL: Um, [laughs], one big impact is that its applied to the outside of my window, and I don't want to take it down, so I haven't washed my window in six months! [Laughs] I'm waiting until Spring to find out if washing it is going to make it come off or if I can figure out a way to get it off cleanly and put it back up, because we like it. 

CB: Are there any stories that have come out of it, or any interactions that you have had that you might not have had otherwise? 

GL: Occasionally we have people, I might be out front and people stop by with a clipboard it looks like they are doing almost a scavenger hunt of the words. On Halloween we had a number of neighbors who weren't aware of the project , and they were all asking "what's that word on your house for?" so we had good conversations about that, and a chance to talk about what City of Asylum is about. Its sometimes surprising: people can live and not be aware of some things going on in their community.

CB: Did you meet new people?

GL: Yeah, but not necessarily out of that. The one's with clipboard were just casual, passing...making sure they weren't there doing some sort of tax research on our house [laughs]. Our house is historic and a lot of people have lived in it over the years, so we have had a lot of people stop by and say "My grandfather was born here, he wanted me to come to see if I could see the inside." Its kind of interesting. Its been interesting living there. 

CB: Do you know what the clipboard people were doing?

GL: They said they were kind of making a list of the words they could find and, didn't have anything better to do that day.

CB: I was just thinking some classrooms, for instance, might be teaching this.

GL: They were younger adults. Folks that might attend the Mattress Factory.

CB: Let's turn to the HRC situation. How much are you aware of that, and if you are, what is your opinion on it?

GL: I'm very aware of the Historic District. It caused a lot of rift in the community last year when it was coming...the possibility of an expansion. It was interesting, paying attention to how the arguments divided out. I had very mixed feelings about it. I felt like the Historic District expansion would be good for us personally, because it would probably increase the value of our house, but we also understood the impact it would have on some of our friends who are longterm residents here, and basically inherited their houses, and lived there very cheaply as a result. But the taxes would kill them. We were also worried that if they had to do historic revisions or any repairs they wouldnt do repairs...they wouldn't do them according to history, they just wouldn't do them. We were afraid that might cause deterioration in the neighborhood. So I think, in all, we were kind of against it but we would have lived with it if it had happened.

CB: So as you probably know, Glenn Olcerst went to the HRC to ask for an exemption to extend River of Words. Do you have any thoughts about what you think the HRC should do in this situation?

GL: I can understand the HRC's concerns about it, but part of the neighborhood has its roots in kind of an artistic use of the houses, and I think they should probably figure out some way to come up with an exception for it. I don't want to see people putting billboards, and neon lights and so on on their houses but places like Randyland and what the City has done with their properties wouldn't have been able to happen under those [HRC] circumstances. And a lot of the people that seem to be really strict in the neighborhood about historic reviews, I've had neighbors who are very into historic restoration and they are critical of some of those folks [HRC Committee Members], and the fact that they didn't faithfully restore their houses. One guy in particular, rails on that one. He said "If they were really sticklers for history, they would have divided lights in their windows...they have single pane, they should have a divided light. They wouldn't be using that kind of mortar!"

C: That's interesting. Finally, I'd like to close with your thoughts on public art more generally, so, for the North Side: What does public art do, and who does it serve? And maybe, for Pittsburgh?

GL: I think it really adds to the quality of life in any area. Personally, I always take note of places that make display of public art, and make it part of their local landscape, I guess. I think it gets people talking. I think it opens peoples' minds. I think it is really good for young people to be exposed to it because it is something, usually, is outside of the normal parameters of what they see on TV, or on YouTube, even. There are much wider parameters these days. I think that the fact that it can happen locally really opens peoples' minds to the possibility that they could do that too. And you hear people say, "Ah! I could've done that!" And you just say, "Well, go for it!" [Laughs]

C: Do you have any additional comments or anecdotes that you would like to share? 

GL: Um, other than, like I said, we'd like to keep the word on our house as long as we can, some of our friends have remarked when they come to visit: "Oh, why do you have that word there?" And then they say, "You sure picked a good one, because it really fits you guys!" And, we have had neighbors...we went to a party at Christmas time last year, it was right next door, and someone said "Oh, you are the house with the word on the window!" And they were from somewhere else in the city, so we had a chance to talk to them about it and it became a real sort of conversation starter. We like it.

C: Great, thanks so much.

GL: You are welcome.

Friday, March 6, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Deena Kelly, Northside as space of Memories and Serendipity

What follows is the transcript of my interview with Deena Kelly. Deena offers some important insight on the way that home is a constantly evolving space of memory, and so, in her view, her words serve as as way to make concrete and visible an ongoing process of memory production and building new social relationships. Moreover, in our conversation after, she pointed to the other important relationship between the words and the street: "stooping" is a verb, oft used on the North Side to describe hanging out on one's porch or outside one's front door, and communing with the neighborhood. Given this social practice, the words serve a function as conversation starters for those already outside engaging in seeing and being seen.

Thank you, Deena, for your time.


CB: OK. So the day is February 28th, and I'm here with Deena Kelly as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks for being here with me on this cold and snowy morning! I wanted to start with demographic data, one of the things I am interested in is the diversity of participants. So, you name, your age, your address, your marital status, race.

DK: Ok. Deena Kelly. I am 56 years old, caucasian, divorced...

CB: And you said you had a daughter, also Caitlyn?

DK: yes.

CB: And what's your address?

DK: 226 Jacksonia street.

CB: Do you know if your house falls within the historic district?

DK: Not the city historic district, the federal.

CB: How long have you lived on the North Side? 

DK: I'll be 3 years.

CB: How long have you lived in Pittsburgh?

DK: Four.

CB: Where did you come from, before that? 

CDK: Right outside, within an hour of the city.

CB: Awesome. Lets turn to the River of Words Project. Can you tell me about your experience with the project? Like, how did you find out about it, how did you pick your word...stuff like that. 

DK: I get an e-newsletter from City of Asylum, and I believe I received a newsletter saying that this project was going to happen, and I'm really involved with the Allegheny City Central Association, so it could've been through there, also, that I heard about it, at one of our membership meetings. I believe we had somebody come and talk to us about it. So, I immediately thought it was a very cool idea and I wanted a word. So, when it came time to choose a word there was a list and ironically, how I ended up here, I had a trip, probably about five years ago, I made a trip to the Mattress Factory, and a friend of mine and I went, and we had such a great day, and I thought, if I ever get to move to Pittsburgh, inner Pittsburgh, this is the neighborhood I wanted to live in, it resonated with me. So we had great memories of that day. So when I saw the word "memories" I decided to choose that word. So what ended up happening is the day I came to pick up my word there was an additional word that was offered to me. At that time I don't know if they thought they weren't going to have enough participants. So, the other word that was available was "serendipity." Which, to me, it just always makes me smile that word, for whatever reason. So I said "Sure! I'll take serendipity." And then the week that the artists came around to attach the words to the house they also approached me about a third word that they had, and it was "Summit." And, I agreed to that. So I ended up, actually, with three words, and "Summit" is kind of apropos because I really live at the very top of Sherman and so 
its like you are coming up to the Summit so it kind of worked out.

cb: Can you tell me about any interactions or conversations that happened because of your words being on your house?

DK: Yes, not only...if I'm in the house I see a lot of people that seem to be walking the neighborhood, and looking at the words, probably trying to wonder what the meaning behind them are, but I was stopped by a couple from Canada in the Fall and they said "Hey can you tell us about what the deal with the words on the houses [is]" and so I ended up taking them for a tour of the neighborhood, and explaining the project, and then we became Facebook friends, so, [laughs] I think there is a lot of that opportunity. Especially if I enter the front part of my house. I do have back yard parking, but when I go through the front there is almost always somebody who stops me and says "What's with the words?"

CB: Over the six-plus month period since you've had the words installed, has the meanings of the words changed for you at all?

DK: Um, I wouldn't say its changed, to me it just seems to almost cement the meaning for me. It just makes it more real, because the memories, I keep making more and more memories, meeting more and more people here. And, I feel like it was serendipitious that I came to the Mattress Factory and found the place where I was meant to live, and again, the summit. So it just kind of all seems to...the meanings seems to have cemented in some way.

CB: So lets turn to the Historic Review Commission controversy. Can you tell me about how much you know about what's going on and if you have any opinions on the matter?

DK: The bit I know about is what I know from being at some of the membership meetings for the group [Allegheny Central?] the topic seems to be that those who live within the city historic district would like to keep their words, and there is a little bit of pushback from the HRC. And the last meeting that I attended I got the impression that, it was under heavy review from HRC and there might be a lot more discussion that happens. Its not a cut and dry situation. opinion on it is that I think that this is a very artistic neighborhood, and we are proud of that. This is part of that, this is an expression of that [River of Words]. So, I would like to see people that want to be able to keep their words, keep them. I don't fall into that, I can have mine, but I support those who are trying to do the right thing within the framework of the historic district. And I think that the pushback that I've heard has been that the Historic District doesn't want to set a precedent because then maybe other things that aren't artistic can then be displayed. So I see both sides, but I support those who want to keep their words. Because the words, for me, have been a really great experience, and I am sure they feel the same about theirs. 

CB: Finally, I wanted to close with your thoughts on the role of public art in the North Side more generally, since you had also kind of mentioned it in your experience of deciding to move here. In your opinion, what is the social function of public art in this neighborhood, and also maybe for Pittsburgh, more broadly?

DK: I would say, especially because I do live right around the corner from City of Asylum, there are so many events, and so many opportunities to interact with performance art, and just, art that is displayed and, concerts and I really think that's a big part of what makes this neighborhood. It also then extrapolates. Its just part of what Pittsburgh is: Its a blue collar city that has an artistic bent to it as well. I guess that I would say that this neighborhood is just one of other artistic neighborhoods, but to me, in my experience, this has the most diverse and kind of...its just very very creative here. We have musicians, we have people from the symphony that live here, so its just always in contact, your neighbors have some form of artistic background, it really makes it unique.

CB: Are you yourself an artist?

DK: No I am not, but I sure do enjoy it in others.

CB: Are there any other comments or anecdotes that you would like to share that I haven't given you a chance to talk about?

DK: I would just have to say that the artists themselves who were part of the River of Words Project were just so warm and just excited and they was a good experience interacting with them, and getting to see the meaning behind their project, it made it even more worthwhile, I think.

CB: What was the meaning behind the project that you sort of saw them articulating?

DK: They, the artists that I spoke with said that it was a combination of their vision with Pittsburgh mixed in with it, so, some of the words that are on homes have a Pittsburgh kind of feel to them, but at the same time there is also a Spanish kind of influence. Its just that nice blend, I don't know, and I think it just made it a very neat project. And there were at least four or five that showed up to put my words up, and then they would stand back and [say] "No, don't put it there, put it here," and then they would talk about some of the other words and you see "baseball" on a house, you see the word "read" in Spanish, so it was just a really cool compilation.

CB: Alright, thank you so much.

DK: Oh yeah, no problem. My pleasure.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Interview with Mona Murphy Word Host of "Library"

On February 28th I had the pleasure of conducting a phone interview with Mona Murphy whose house boasts the word "Library." Less about creating new connections (due to location of the word, she hazarded), it is a way for her to remember and reflect on the importance of books in her life, her late mother's life, and that of her kids. Transcript is below.** Thanks, Mona!

CB: I'm here with Mona Murphy as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. The date is February 28, 2015. So thanks so much for sharing your time with me.

M: Anytime

CB: What I have been doing is starting with some demographic questions. One of my questions is just about kind of the diversity of participants, so if you could provide me with your name, address, your age, your marital status, the race you identify with, that would be great.

M: Ok. I'm Mona Murphy. Live at 2210 Perrysville Avenue. I'm married, to Tom Murphy, and I...lets see. I am 70 years old, just turned 70 two weeks ago, and the word we have on our house is "Library."

CB: So what race or ethnicity do you identify as?

M: I am white and Irish.

CB: Right, Murphy is quite Irish. So the word on your house is "library." Does your house fall within the historic district, do you know?

M: No, it does not.

CB: And how long have you lived in the North Side?

M: We moved into our house in 1973.

CB: And how long have you lived in Pittsburgh? 

M: 1973 actually. Well, we moved back to Pittsburgh, my husband and I were married in 1969 and we lived in Pittsburgh until we went in the Peace Corps. And, so we came back to Pittsburgh, we moved to the North Side.

CB: Cool, great. Where did you go for the Peace Corps?

M: We were in Paraguay.

CB: Cool. OK. So I'm going to turn now to the River of words Project. If you could tell me about, you know, how you found out about it, what your experience was like, any kind of stories that you feel comfortable sharing, that would be great.

M: Well, my son works for Sampsonia [City of Asylum] and he was the one who asked if we would take a world. And we chose the word "library" because our house is like a library, and every room in our house has a book case, and lots of them are two or three deep with books [laughs]. So, we never met a book we didn't like. My mother, who just died at the age of 99, very influential in my love of books because she was a big book lover, and the hardest thing for her was when her eyesight started to go as she got into her nineties, and she could read as much as she wanted to. 

CB: Wow. What was it like working with the artist after you chose your word?

M: Um, we didn't work with any artists after we chose our word, they just came and put the word on our house when we weren't even home, so...We didn't, I didn't realize that was part of the project.

CB: By that I kind of just mean what the interactions with the artists were like.
M: Oh, ok, well we didn't have any interactions! So I guess you don't need my interview, right?

CB: No, no, I do. I still do. So my next question is actually about what its been like having the word on your house; if you've had new conversations, met new people, things like that.

M: You know what, we haven't, and one of the reasons I think is that they put it on our porch and we are on Perrysville Avenue, way up on the terrace, and it's not...people don't see it from the road. So they are not as likely to stop. I wanted them to put it down at the bottom, but, my son was afraid someone would steal it because of our neighborhood! So they put it where it just wasn't visible enough to make people come and see it. 

CB: Has the meaning of the word to you, has it changed over time since you've had it put on the house. So, library does it mean something different since the summer.

M: No, it doesn't. Its always been an important part of our life experience, even when our kids were small, when we went out for the day, we went to the library. Its always been a big part of our lives.

CB: My next question is about the historic review commission discussions happening now. So my question for you is how much do you know about the relationship of the HRC to the project, and if you have any opinion on the conversations taking place?

M: Unfortunately...I really don't know enough about it to comment on that. I feel terrible, I've just ruined your interview. I just don't have enough to say that is worth your while!

CB: No you are totally fine. OK. So the last thing I want to ask about is your thoughts about the importance of public art in the North Side, and in Pittsburgh more generally.

M: I think its absolutely necessary. I just think it improves everything, and so much...even, I don't know, I guess it is art, the new stuff they put in along 28 you know, the highway, it just does something different, and I have been pushing for years to have groups put art underneath the on the pileups on the bridges, because we have all these, now that we view the races, you know the crew races and things like that? I just think it would be so cool to have them go under the bridges and have all this beautiful stuff that they are seeing. 

CB: That's a good idea.

M: ...anything anybody wants to do. So, I love it, I love seeing all the things that people do, even the graffiti. We were instrumental in getting kids to do stuff on walls in the North Side that were done by the kids, and it was amazing to me that nothing ever happened to it, nobody ever defaced it because, they did it. They were not likely to paint over it or do something bad to it. And I do think it makes a difference in a neighborhood. The gardens make a huge difference, I think, and I think as soon as you start beautifying a place people are less likely to mess it up. 

CB: And so the mural project you just described with the youth in the North Side, were you part of that project, is that right?

M: Yes.

CB: What's the name of it?
M: My husband was really active in making it happen.

CB: What's the name of the mural, or what street is it on?

M: You know what, its gone now, it just wore off! Forty years ago, or thirty something years ago. It's long gone now.

CB: OK. Well, that's all the questions I have. Is there anything else that you would like to say?

M: I can't think of anything. I just think that what is happening, what Sampsonia is working on in bringing art and music, and poetry and everything to the neighborhood makes a big difference. It just does. So many people say they are afraid to go to the North Side, but we get people from all over, even the suburbs, who come to the projects that are done there, and they come because Sampsonia is presenting all this art, and they want to see it and be part of it, so it changes peoples' view of our neighborhood.

CB: Well, thank you so much for your time, and if you have any questions for me, I think your son has my contact information so you should feel free to write or email. Thank you! Have fun in Florida!

M: You too, have a nice day.

CB= Caitlin Bruce
M= Mona