I’ve termed the expansion of the historic district “Redlining by Other Means” and it would be kind of ironic for people who, yes, the River of Words are a wonderful thing, but it would be ironic that say somebody within the historic district that doesn’t have the economic wherewithal at the time to make a much needed renovation to their home that would fit the very strict standards, if they weren’t able to do that, that a certain class of people was able to get the rules changed to do this, to keep the words on, and to me, that seems very unfair and – but like I say I’m conflicted because it’s a wonderful project, but I hope the people within the district who want the words to remain on their houses will think more about what expanding a historic district would mean to certain people who aren’t as fortunate."
CB: Okay. I am here with Bill Steen as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks for being here.
BS: I am glad to be here.
CB: I’m going to start with some demographic stuff, one of the things I’m interested in is getting a sense of the diversity of the participants. If you can provide your age, address, race or ethnicity and marital status.
BS: I am 56 years of age. I live at 1322 Arch Street in Pittsburgh, so I live two blocks from here. Marital status, I’m married to Susan. What was the other?
CB: Race or ethnicity that you identify as.
BS: Call me Caucasian, I guess.
CB: How long have you lived in the Northside?
BS: We moved to our present address in July of 2008. So over 6 years.
CB: Are you a Pittsburgh native or do you come from somewhere else?
BS: I was born in New York City.
CB: Cool, what part?
CB: Cool, I’m from Inwood in Upper Manhattan. And so does your house fall within the historic district?
BS: IT doesn’t. It falls just outside. It was in the area that people were trying to incorporate into, which I am happy they didn’t.
CB: And we’ll talk a little more about that later. Lets turn to the River of Words project. Can you tell me, first of all, what is your word? And how did you get involved, and all that?
BS: Okay. We actually have two words. One is “vortex” and the other is “alhombra”—
CB: How do you spell that?
BS: And it’s a Spanish word from Arabic roots meaning “Pillow.”
CB: How did you choose your words?
BS: Well actually we chose “vortex”, Susan and I, at the meeting where they had the words in the tent over here. But “Alhombra” was basically, we got to know the artists, they were by one day, doing a neighbor’s word, and they said “Hey we have this extra word its getting near the end of the project, we’d like to give it to you.” At first we said “Maybe give it to someone who doesn’t have a word” but they insisted and so we said “Sure, the more the better.” Vortex is just like an applique on the window, whereas Alhombra was three dimensional they had to screw in into the brick word. And unfortunately somebody came by and pulled off the “a” so it’s been, what is it, frenchified, now “l’hombra,” unfortunately the “a” is missing now.”
CB: So almost “l’hombre” or shoulder. How did you find out about the project, initially?
BS: Well, we’ve, ever since moving into the neighborhood we’ve been big fans and supporters of City of Asylum and so naturally we get word of all their stuff, and we liked the idea, because we get all the emails, so, yeah.
CB: Over the last six months can you tell me if the meaning of the words has changed for you and what kind of impact they have had on your lives?
BS: Well, we love our words. We specifically picked “Vortex” due to the wintry weather last year and we are getting a bit of it now. We liked the idea of a polar vortex and right now we have it decorated with snowflakes behind it, but, I don’t know. Susan and I both love books, love to read, love literature, and so the idea of having a word, the whole idea behind the project was cool and just fun, in today’s society where it seems to me, though maybe I’m just being an old fogey, it seems that people read less and less and they are doing more just looking at images and stuff. It just seemed important to do.
CB: Have people asked you about your word? Have you had any memorable interactions around your word?
BS: We happened to be, there was one woman walking by the house, we happened to be out and she asked about the word so we told her about the project, but we haven’t had people like ringing the doorbell—or a lot of the. I think a lot of it is happenstance, so if you happen to be outside your house and somebody comes by and asks about it. So there was this one woman.
CB: What do you think the broader significance of this project is?
BS: Well, I think, which is a great part of City of Asylum’s mission, to keep people in touch with reading and books and literature and it feels like its just a good thing to do. It helps make the community more interesting. Its fun to go by areas that aren’t part of like this centralized Mexican War Streets, the historic district, [but also] out on Western Avenue in front of a restaurant that we go to there is a couple of words so its neat to run into houses that have these words. Its just, I just think it’s a positive thing.
CB: So I want to turn now to the Historic Review Commission controversy. I know you don’t have a historic district house [but] are you aware of what’s happening with that?
BS: I am. I got the email from Henry that talked about Glenn Olcerst, who I know, so I am aware of all that. My wife and I signed a petition to not have the expansion of the district. I think all districts are historic and while I—because its city of asylum and river of words and its Guiselda and Carolina and Hector and Rafael—I hope they’re successful because it’s a positive thing, but there’s also a sort of irony, and maybe the less generous side of me says, “if they don’t get the commission or whatever to approve keeping the words maybe they’ve been hoisted on their own petard” and I don’t know, again, I think there was a lot of people within the historic district that were pushing for the expansion of it, which I think makes it difficult. I feel the historic district makes it difficult for people of certain socioeconomic levels to remain in place.
CB: Can you say more about that?
BS: Yeah, well, I’ve termed the expansion of the historic district “Redlining by Other Means” and it would be kind of ironic for people who, yes, the River of Words are a wonderful thing, but it would be ironic that say somebody within the historic district that doesn’t have the economic wherewithal at the time to make a much needed renovation to their home that would fit the very strict standards, if they weren’t able to do that, that a certain class of people was able to get the rules changed to do this, to keep the words on, and to me, that seems very unfair and – but like I say I’m conflicted because it’s a wonderful project, but I hope the people within the district who want the words to remain on their houses will think more about what expanding a historic district would mean to certain people who aren’t as fortunate.
CB: That’s really interesting. I noticed, I went to my first historic district hearing, where Henry gave a speech, it was really interesting because the debates were about, basically, appropriateness. There were arguments made by people who wanted to make [architectural] changes for reasons of security and cost, but those kind of values were denigrated in favor of the notion of “history” or “historic appropriateness” so it is interesting to think about those issues of class. And how it relates to a historic district.
BS: My daughter is an architect and she doesn’t like the idea of historic districts. She says, I stole the phrase from her: “All districts are historic” and there is history to all things and I think it just puts a great burden on certain people. Some people it doesn’t matter and its great, it keeps the home values up, it keeps certain people from moving in, and frankly that’s not what everybody’s in it for but there are certainly some people.
CB: that’s really interesting. OK. Can you speak a little about what you think to be the role of public art in the North Side in general?
BS: Well, I think its had a large effect on the community. I just see a number of people, you see the number of people walking around the area and they are obviously, they have made an effort to come to the area to see certain things like Randyland or the House Poems and the beautiful artwork on the houses, so I think its had a really positive effect. My wife and I often say that we cant imagine this neighborhood, the North Side, without City of Asylum and the things that City of Asylum brought to it. Specifically, public art, which we love.
CB: What is it that you do, if you don’t mind me asking?
BS: I am a special agent with the secret service.
CB: Oh wow.
BS: No jokes, please.
CB: No, no jokes. Fascinating. There was I think one more little question I wanted to ask I thought of while you were talking. No that’s it. Is there anything you’d like to share in terms of comments about the projects or anecdotes that I haven’t given you a chance to talk about?
BS: No. But other than, I just, I’d like to see them maybe do a River of Words part two. I think there would definitely be interest. I’m sure there are people who would love [to see it] expanded, doing a second [one]. I thought it was a great idea, and the artists, it was so nice meeting them.
CB: What was that like? I read a press release about synapses etc. but I wasn’t here yet.
BS: Well, we went to dinner with them, Henry and Diane invited us to a dinner with them at Café du Jour so we got to meet them and see them at events here and on the street and it was just really really nice, so yeah, I’d like to see a second, 2.0.
CB: Great. Thank you so much.
BS: You are welcome.