Monday, April 27, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Sarah Sims Erwin, "Persistence" and the ability of a neighborhood to shine

On March 7th I conducted a phone interview with Sarah Sims Erwin, while she was in the process of moving. Sarah and her husband are completing a gut renovation of a 160 year old duplex in Deutschtown. The process has been replete with difficulties, obstacles that make their word "persistence" a kind of "mantra" or even "beacon of hope," "perfect" for their emotional and imaginative needs during a difficult endeavor.

Sarah said of the HRC dispute: "I think its a shame because its something that is special and they just want to take that away. I think that for them to want to, to ask us to take them down, is asking us to not shine, and to not be a unique place. There may be people around the world who are interested in seeing this installation." She said of the project: "I feel connected and being a good neighbor is very important to us, so it's an artistic extension of that of being reminded that you are part of a community." You can find the rest of her observations in the transcript below. Thanks, Sarah!

"Persistance." Image courtesy of Sarah Sims Erwin.

CB: OK great, thanks so much for your time. I want to start with some demographic information I would like to get a sense of the diversity of participants. Do you mind sharing your address, age, marital status, then whatever race or ethnicity you identify with.

SE: The address is 406 Foreland Street, um, I think I am 48-- am I forty-eight [to husband] I am around forty-eight.

CB: Great, and what race or ethnicity do you identify as.

SE: Yeah, I'm forty-eight. Caucasian. 

CB: Um, and marital status.

SE: Married.

CB: Great. Do you know if your residence falls within the historic city district?

SE: It does, but not in the Mexican War Streets. Our property is in the historic district south east of the Mexican War Streets in the neighborhood called Deutschetown. 

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

SE: Well, Caitlin, we don't live there yet, we are-- our case is kind of cool. I think, we've been so busy, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, we, my husband Dominic and I bought a house, we bought a duplex and its a gut renovation.

CB: Uh huh. Oh.

SE: We can't live there yet, but we've been property owners for about a year and a half.

CB: Ok, cool. How long have you lived in Pittsburgh?

SE: Actually, five, six seven eight...a year and nine months. Pittsburgh..we have lived in Pittsburgh for fourteen months, but I am a boomerang, I hate that word actually, I am a returning Pittsburgher, and my husband, he is a native New Yorker who now lives here with me.

CB: So I'm going to turn now to the River of Words project. Can you tell me what your word is and how you got involved in the project, and what that experience was like.

SE: OK. Well, our word is "Persistence," [laughs] and I got involved in the project because really through social media, um, but I only had awareness of City of Asylum through friends I made. I made a new friend when I moved back fourteen months ago, and the back of her house faces Sampsonia. She was talking about how great City of Asylum is, so I of course connected to them through Facebook and they are amazing, and they are a treasure, and to a native Pittsburgher it is very special that they are in Pittsburgh, so I wanted to, you know, bask in that glow, so to speak. Be near them. Because they are so cool. And then, they must of posted it on facebook I think. I mean, I don't even really know how it happened, so I just heard about it and wanted to get involved.

CB: OK cool. So, can you tell me, did you have any interactions with the artists, and why did you pick the word persistence, what did it mean to you at the time? Why persistence, why choose that word?

SE: Interaction with the artists didn't exist, because we don't live there. But they were so great. They just followed our wishes, like I said, it was a duplex, and we didn't exactly know where to put the word, but we have one of those old fashioned walkways between the two little houses and if you will indulge me, I am going to look up what it is called, it is pretty neat. Let's see, I met with some people, and I was describing this old house-- our house is 160 years old. 

CB: Yeah, thats pretty old.

SE: So the people we met, they called those little walk-ways between buildings "Horse walks," where back in the day, if you were rich enough to have a horse, you could walk your horse through the building.

CB: Yeah, cool.

SE: Yeah, really awesome. So, a horse-walk has to be covered over because there are drug addicts who are shooting heroin in our back courtyard, and there are prostitutes that do their work behind, and people like to litter and graffiti on our property since we are not living there, we want to make sure that they don't get hurt, and that we don't get sued, so we have the horse-walk, and that term is not confirmed, blocked off with plywood, and it was the perfect spot for the word. It kind of--it bridges the two houses and its just right out there, and the house looks like a total wreck, we've had a lot of obstacles in our way with our renovation, and its our beacon of hope, it really is. And when I went to that event, that party in the tent, I didn't know anybody. Even though I am a returning Pittsburgher I still feel new to town, so I walked in and I didn't know anyone, you know, I felt like an outsider. But I walked in and all the words were posted up on the right side, and I just started looking at the words, and I started from the left and was gonna go to the right, and the first word that I remember seeing was "Persistence." And, that was how I picked it. It was perfect. For what we needed.

CB: That's really cool. My next question might not apply so much since you are not living there yet, but one of the other things I am interested in is whether or not new interactions have happened, that you know of, because of your word, if you've met new people because of the word.
SE: All the time. Yeah. Because we are down there a lot, trying to get the project back on track, and I honestly can't say people's names, but people do stop and there is a fellowship between the people who have the words and its-- actually in AIR studios, Artist Image Resource, on Foreland Street, just down the street from me, they have a word too. So most of the words are probably in the Mexican War Streets but I know two of us in Deutschtown who have words, and I feel, I feel connected and being a good neighbor is very important to us, so it's an artistic extension of that of being reminded that you are part of a community.

CB: Awesome. And has the meaning of the word changed for you at all since you had it installed over six months ago now, I guess?

SE: No, because our obstacles remain. We got burned by a contractor who was a personal friend, and that set us back-- that has had, what do they say, like ripples in a pond, that continues to hurt us financially and emotionally, because it was a friend, and as a result of not being able to live in the house we have had to spend our money on rent, and all the expenses associated, like utilities, and we are paying the mortgage on a house we are not living in and also renting, um, and we've had some challenges with the Historic Review Commission, they are concerned about the appearance of our house, which of course we care about. We do want what they want but lots of money was stolen from us, so we don't have endless pocket...deep pockets. We have pockets, but we don't have deep pockets. So, every obstacle that comes to us, the word continues to be our, I don't know, our mantra, our hope.

CB: So I want to turn now to the Historic Review Commission, I guess dispute about some of the words that fall within their jurisdiction. How much do you know about what's going on with that, and depending on what you know, do you have any thoughts on what the HRC should do?

SE: Wow. Well, I do know a little bit about it. It might not be a lot. I didn't go to the hearing where that lawyer/resident was presenting, I was out of town, I think -- I wish my husband was still in the car, he just got out to go to the store, he has stronger opinions about it-- but I think it is a shame that they-- she, Caitlin asked me about the HRC and their disapproval of the words on the houses-- I think its a shame because its something that is special and they just want to take that away. I think that for them to want to, to ask us to take them down, is asking us to not shine, and to not be a unique place. There may be people around the world who are interested in seeing this installation. Or the remnants of it, the people who still want to keep the words up. What they are saying is that it is not good for Pittsburgh. I get that their mission is to help Pittsburgh be a historic place. But I think a historic place can live in the modern world, too. And, this is a modern thing, and I think that they can go together.

CB: That leads to my last question which is your thoughts on the social purpose of public art in the North Side and in Pittsburgh more generally. So what is the function of public art for the North Side or for Pittsburgh in your opinion?

SE: Well, I see the public art, of which there is a lot, we are so lucky, it just makes it special. It makes it a place of beauty and it makes it a place, I don't know. It's like, when people come to visit they can discover that on their own, or they could set out and go on a walking tour of the different pieces. I think it's worth investing in. I think its important. Obviously, in some ways, we wouldn'tve participated [in River of Words] if we didn't think it was important. 

CB: Sure.

SE: We are sort of a self-selecting group.

CB: This is true. Yeah. Is there anything else that you'd like to say about River of Words or City of 
Asylum that I haven't given you a chance to talk about?

SE: No, but I'm so happy that they are our neighbors and I love their houses on Sampsonia, and something the North Side is lucky to house, if you will. Its great that its on the North Side.

CB: Well, that is all the questions that I have thanks so much for your time.

SE: Sure, because our word is so harmonious with the state of the house, do you want a picture of it or something?

CB: Yeah, that'd be awesome if you are willing to share. 

SE: Sure.

CB: OK, you have my contact info. I think my little blog is visible in my signature panel, but in any case, its just my name at blogspot so I'm going to work through all the interviews and I am hoping to get transcripts up by early to mid April depending on how long it takes. But thanks again for your time, if you have any questions feel free to email. Good luck with the renovations.

SE: Come by and visit it, it is one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood. 

CB: OK I definitely will. OK take care.

SE: Awesome. Bye.

No comments: