Thursday, April 30, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Gwendolyn Moorer, "Baseball," "Amore," and Public Art's Relationship to Quality of Life

I had the opportunity to speak with Gwen Moorer on February 22nd. Gwen, who is on the City of Asylum board, as well as the Y board on the North Side, had some powerful insights about the relationship between public art and cultivating quality of life, that sense that a neighborhood is fulfilling. Of her words she said: "As a result of having "baseball" on my house, now, when people ask me where I live I tell them my neighborhood, and with people in the neighborhood I say "I'm the baseball house." But in addition to that, of course you know, as a result of our, I guess, the interaction and the sociology within the neighborhood, a lot of people sit on their stoops. I don't sit on my stoop a lot but I have a small garden in front of my house where there was a tree, but I made it a nice little flower garden and people walk by a lot, and when they walk by that are like "Oh! I like the 'baseball' why did you pick 'baseball'" People may just walk by and say "Hello, how are you?" now they strike up conversations. And its all different kinds of people. Its just like, I can't even begin to tell you the diversity of people who have spoken about it."
Transcript follows.

Thanks, Gwen!
"Baseball." Image courtesy of AceRo/City of Asylum.

CB: OK so the dates is February 22nd and I am here with Gwen Moorer as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks so much for being here with me today.

GM: Thank you.

CB: I wanted to start with some demographic data. One of the things that I am interested in is learning about the diversity of the folks who have served as hosts for the words. So can we start with your address, your age, your marital status, your race or ethnicity, and I can prompt you about these little details.

GM: My name is Gwendolyn Moorer I live at 1215 Arch Street Pittsburgh PA 15212. I am 62 years old. I am divorced, and I am African-American.

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

GM: I bought my house in 1978.

CB: How long have you lived in Pittsburgh?

GM: Since 1971.

CB: OK. Great. Does your house fall within the Mexican War Street Historic District?

GM: No.

CB: OK. I want to turn now to the River of Words project. Can you tell me about how you became involved with it and what your experience was like?

GM: I am on the board of City of Asylum and I try to participate in as many of the community activities as possible. When I heard about the River of Words project I was really enthusiastic about participating. I also, in a previous position, I work for the City of Pittsburgh, I worked with the manager of art for city art, who works for the city. I really like the idea of public art, and I also like the dimension it adds to the quality of life. I think it is really beautification of the neighborhood: I like trees, I like gardens, and I think art just kind of rounds out that whole-- it adds to the beauty, it adds to the conversation. I am one of the community gardeners and have been a community gardener since about '82, and I notice how the conversation, how different folks come through the garden and have conversations: rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, female or male, it really fosters communication amongst the neighbors and I assume that that same thing would occur with the River of Words project. And it did.

CB: Ok. Can you tell me about some of those conversations that you saw started from the River of Words.

GM: Well, a lot of people asked questions. I have two houses. My house that I live in has the word "Baseball" and my house is pumpkin brick trimmed in royal blue, and the baseball word matches my royal blue perfectly, so I thought that was kind of serendipitous. And I have another house that has the word "Amore" on it, which is love. And baseball is my favorite sport, which is why I picked the word baseball, and "Amore" I like because love, to me, is all there is really in the world. Its the beginning, its the end, its everything. As a result of having "baseball" on my house, now, when people ask me where I live I tell them my neighborhood, and with people in the neighborhood I say "I'm the baseball house." But in addition to that, of course you know, as a result of our, I guess, the interaction and the sociology within the neighborhood, a lot of people sit on their stoops. I don't sit on my stoop a lot but I have a small garden in front of my house where there was a tree, but I made it a nice little flower garden and people walk by a lot, and when they walk by that are like "Oh! I like the 'baseball' why did you pick 'baseball'" People may just walk by and say "Hello, how are you?" now they strike up conversations. And its all different kinds of people. Its just like, I can't even begin to tell you the diversity of people who have spoken about it. I've elected to keep my word because I really like it, I think it adds just a little bit of pizzaz to my house, and I want to keep it on my other house, the "Amore," because I think it adds to the ambience of the house, and it adds ambiance to the neighborhood. On Arch Street there are, oh my gosh, probably twenty people who have words, so we are very supportive of the project and I don't think any of us have had any negative feedback about it. I'm one of those who really don't care a whole lot about the historic, what do you call it, the restrictions on the historic construction and what-have-you. I like building my house the way I want to build my house. I like having the colors I want to have, and what-have-you, so I am not really one of those purists, so to speak, and I'm not really for extending the historic district over to my street, just for that reason, because I want the flexibility to do what I want to do with my houses. I have nothing but positive to say about it [River of Words], I really enjoyed the whole project and I am happy with it.

CB: Have the meanings of the words changed for you at all over the last six or so months since they have been installed on your houses?

GM: Like I said, Baseball is my favorite sport and I love the word "love" so I picked those words specificially because they meant something to me. I don't think I could like baseball any more than I like it. I am not a real religious person, I believe that love is what makes the world go 'round. I believe is the beginning and the end. It represents my attitude because I don't believe in religious indoctrination or following any particular-- I believe in God, so love is what everything means to me. I'm a very positive thinker. I try to respond with a positive attitude in most things and try to be open-minded, so no, the words have not changed in my mind because I have picked those words because they represented what I thought. And I was one of the first ones who went, so when I went, I think the first day, there were like maybe 50 words up, so as soon as I saw "Baseball" I knew I wanted "Baseball" and as soon as I saw "Amore"-- love had already been taken, I think-- so when I saw "Amore" I said "That's love," so, I picked those two words.

CB: Right. So I am going to turn now to the Historic Review Commission controversy, so, to what extent are you aware of it, and can you say a little bit more about your opinion and what should be done? I know you've already kind of gestured to it.

GM: ...I can't say. I have two empty lots on my street, and when I want to build my house I want to build my house the way I want it, because I think I want to build a retirement property there.

CB: Oh cool.

GM: And I don't anybody telling me how I can build. And I really think the diversity of the housing stock makes it more interesting, as opposed to having everything the same, certain colors, what have you. Obviously you know what side I'm on. And I don't see how the words take away from historic [value], I mean, come on now. It's just a word. So, yeah. Whatever. God bless them.

CB: Is there anything more that you'd like to say about the role of public art in the North Side, and in Pittsburgh in general. 

GM: I just think its wonderful. One of the things I'm trying to do now-- I think I told you-- I am one of the members of the community garden that goes from Arch Street to Sherman and one of the things we wanted to do is release an RFP (Request for Proposals) and have a competition for art display in our garden. I don't know how successful we'll be with that, but I think it is very important for the quality of life and for-- just the character of the neighborhood to have public art. I don't think-- I think that it should be different types of things, you know, I mean, it could be a craft type of art, it could be lighting, it could be stone, it could be wood, sculpture, you know, whatever. I think the more diverse it is, the more types of mediums we use for art the better it is. A lot of people don't like Randyland. If Randyland were in a historic district it wouldn't be able to look like it does. But Randyland has put  this neighborhood on the map. People know about the Mexican War Streets but they know about Randyland more than they know about the Mexican War Streets. So, I'm very supportive of Randy with his Randyland development. I think its weird, but hey, I like it. I mean, I see -- yesterday, in that snow storm, there were people out there taking pictures in front of his house. They arent' going there on Resaca taking pictures. You know what I mean? The people who are taking pictures over there are more or less architecture purists. But Randyland adds a flavor to the neighborhood. His houses are art. His garden is art. His fences are art. And I can't tell you how many thousands of people come through and ask, "Where's Randyland?" So when I think about that, I would love to see more people come into the neighborhood and say, "Where's that sculpture of that cow?" or "Where's that interesting iron bike rack?" I mean, it draws people in and it show the positivity of the neighborhood and its shows that we are welcoming diversity. If they want every house selected, maybe, you know, when I moved here in '78 people didn't want me on my street. They wanted the street- so I'm thinking that it just shows the open mindedness of us, the forward thinking that we have, and I am fully in support of it and I really do love public art. I think, the more the better.

CB: Can you tell me a little be more about how you've seen the neighborhood change since 78 and how it relates to your claims about "quality of life"? Because it seems that those things are probably connected?

GM: Um, because I made it that way. I'm from North New Jersey originally, and I was used to having flat land and a park, accessibility, 15 minutes from every mall--I'm not a mall shopper, yet it was there-- when I moved here we did have Allegheny Center Mall and you could buy anything you wanted in the mall. There was butchers, cleaners, appliance stores, jewelery stores, candy stores, five and tens. So, I had three sons, and I didn't want to be a soccer mom, I didn't want to drive, I don't like driving. So, I moved here specifically because of the convenience. And, there was diversity at the the time, but there were more poor people, and there were middle class people as well, not a lot of upper middle class people like there are now. The library was there, the community was really a convenient, cohesive, community. The Garden Theater was there, I didn't like what they were showing, but, there was a cleaners there, bars, stores, in the past thirty-five years the businesses have gone and now they are coming back. So I saw that height of just about every house was occupied, now many of those houses-- through the course of those years many of those houses were occupied by young families, mostly Black people and lower middle class White people, but then, because of the perception of America, many of the black middle class people moved to the suburbs to what they thought would be a better quality of life-- now their houses are worth less than mine and its no more safe in their neighborhoods than it is here, so I think that my quality of life, I'm not saying its improved. I would like to see more Black middle class people in the neighborhood, but they choose to live in the suburbs and thats their issue. I'm not driving my kids everywhere, I have grandchildren now, they have bus passes, they can ride the buses, they can walk to the park, I can walk to the Y. I can bike if I want, walk if I want, walk to work if I want to-- so I chose this quality of life and I've maintained the quality of life that I like, and I like it. Nothing's changed except, like I said, I bought my house for 23k, I put some money into it, but now my house is probably worth 230,000. The house next door to me just solde for 295,000 so I think the housing stock has priced out of the market regular middle class people, so we have more upper-middle class people, people who have more disposable income, but I do see some young families coming back, or younger families coming in, and it is more diverse, we have, as far as sexual orientation we have more gay people, more mature people, the baby-boomers, and now I say Barbie and Ken are moving here. Two professional household where they might have young children, but we didn't have Barbie and Ken here before. And I would say the average person coming in here now is Barbie and Ken, or Barbie and Ken's parents who don't want to commute from the suburbs any more, they want to walk to the opera, or what have you. Barbie and Ken were not here in '78. Almost every person buying a house now is either Barbie and Ken, a baby boomer who wants to move closer into the city, or a gay couple. I don't see any Black middle class people moving back.

CB: And what do you do with the city?

GM: I'm a project manager, I'm a financial systems manager, and I'm in what we call Innovation and Performance which in the past was called the Information Technology department. And then I manage folks who support all the financial systems, who support all the communications, telephone, land-line and wireless, and I also manage the city's software inventory.

CB: Wow, that's a lot. 

GM: I used to work for Verizon. I like technology, because you know, being my age its nice that I have kept in tune with the times, I understand technology and it makes me feel more invigorated. I'm probably the next to the oldest person in the department yet young people respect me because I understand technology, so I go from gardening to working with programmers, and everything in between. And I love it. I love reading, I like poetry, that's why I'm on the City of Asylum board, I'm on the Y board, I like working out, I like yoga, so my life is full and I'm happy with it and don't think I could have that quality of life somewhere else. I put 2,000 miles a year on my car. 

CB: That's awesome.

GM: When I go to get my car inspected its like "No!" but I show them my inspection from the previous year and they believe me. I can walk, bike, or ride the bus anywhere. If I lived someplace else...I buy a car and I keep it for ten years, when I Take it in its like 40,000 miles on it, and I don't even think it'll be 40,000 this time. I'll be lucky if I have 20,000 miles on it this time. But this is the quality of life I want. I have my little garden. I have my vegetable garden up the street, I have my flower and herb garden in the back yard. Across the street I have a perennial garden, so that satisfies my gardening. I don't have to drive. My house is plenty big, we have three generations living in my house. We had four generations in the past. So, I have enough space for my family, if I want to be with friends I can, I'm walking distance to entertainment, I can walk to the baseball game, I'm in heaven, you know. This neighborhood offers me everything I want. I am just disappointed that more middle class Black people don't recognize the value of the neighborhood. That's the way it goes.

CB: OK. Is there anything else you'd like to say about River of Words or public art in Pittsburgh? That I haven't given you a chance to talk about.

GM: I'm just thankful its here. I think River of Words brought so much dialogue to the neighborhood, between the neighbors, and people who come in the neighborhood who say "I see all the words on those houses what are they, what do they mean?" and when we talk about it, and tell them it was a public art project commissioned by City of Asylum and say "I was on the committee that did the selection. We had some local Pittsburgh people, people from New York, from Atlanta, and the people who won of course were from Venezuela," but it truly shows that we had an international, a diversity of submissions, we went through a planning process and a review process and picked that particular group, so that whole process was exciting. So I was happy to be involved from beginning to end and happy to benefit from having the words, and the more public art the merrier for me!

CB: Alright, thanks so much.

GM: Sure.