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.

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