Sunday, May 3, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Bette McDevitt, "Friendship" and Slippery Stones in the River

I met with Bette McDevitt on February 22, 2015. She had some interesting thoughts about future challenges to HRC, notably, the possibility that more and more neighborhoods will want to have solar panels, a clash that might make the HRC "a dinosaur." She also identified the different ways in which the non-english words in the River could be read, for her, that they were "slippery stones" that were hard to identify with. 

Thanks, Bette!

Transcript below:

CB: I’m here with Bette McDevitt and she is with me as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thank you for being here. I’d like to start with some demographic data, I’m trying to get a sense of the diversity of the participants. So can you please give me your full name, your address, your age, your marital status, and your race or ethnicity.

BM: OK. Bette McDevitt, 428 Lockhart Street, Pittsburgh 15212. What was next?

CB: Age?

BM: 81.

CB: Marital status.

BM: Widow.

CB: Sorry to hear that. Race or ethnicity?

BM: Caucasian, I guess.

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

BM: Since 1999, so I’d say that’s close to 15 years.

CB: And how long have you lived in Pittsburgh?

BM: I’ve lived in Pittsburgh three different times and this time I’ve lived here 15 years.

CB: OK. Were you born in Pittsburgh?

BM: No, I was born in Newcastle. But I have a very strong attachment to the North Side. My great grandfather was a constable in the park, when he came from Germany, and that was a Civil War job, and my parents met in the park, and I came always to spend my summer vacations here in the North Side. Its where I belong.

CB: Do you know if your house falls within the historic district or not?

BM: It does.

CB: Ok. Lets now turn to the River of Words project. Can you tell me about how you became involved, how you decided to host  a word?

BM: yes. I was here when there were Eastern European people here with the puppets, I’m sure other people you’ve interviewed have told—

CB: I haven’t actually heard about the puppets.

BM: Well that was something going on in the tent at the time. And so there were people over on the side who, at a side table, who had these words, and I also knew that there was a Venezuelan writer here in residence and I thought it had some connection with him, but I found out later that it didn’t. but I had found out that these were Venezuelan artists, and I found out at an event at the summer tent.

CB: What is your word?

BM: My word is “friendship” which I hope to keep.

CB: how did you decide on that word?

BM: I decided on it because of the meaning in it.

CB: What does it mean to you?

BM: Well, my neighborhood, and the whole North Side has been for me a very friendly place, and friendship is what ties us all together. I would not have taken a word that I didn’t- sometimes I see the words that I guess are Venezuelan, I don’t know, I don’t know the derivation of them.

CB: So you wanted something more familiar. So six months later, what has it been like, displaying this word? How have people reacted? What are some stories that have happened because of it?

BM: Actually almost none. It fits in very well, it’s the same color as some siding on my house so it looks like it was meant to be there and its on the top of my window and maybe people are not seeing it because I’d say I’ve only had two or three comments on it, but I like it very much.

CB: What have the comments been?

BM: “Oh nice,” “where did you get that?” “why do you have it?” I have never talked to anybody about the theme of the River of Words.

CB: And has the meaning of the word changed at all for you since you’ve first installed it?

BM: No.

CB: What do you think the significance of this project is? The whole River of Words project?

BM: Uh huh. Because I live outside of this area where there are more of them, there’s only 3 or 4 people over there on my street who have the words, and I feel a connection to them and I think “Well, of course they would have a word.” But I like my neighborhood very much, I like everybody, and I think everybody would have a word if they could. But I don’t feel very connected with it to anything else in particular.

CB: So now I want to turn to the Historic Review Commission issue that has been happening—

BM: Oh!

CB: What do you think about it?

BM: I haven’t heard very much about it. Although I think ours is certainly state [historic district] because nobody can change outside the front of their house, maybe the folks here are in a national—are they having trouble about that?

CB: Yeah, so basically my understanding is that those houses within the historic district maybe weren’t supposed to put them up at all, because it is an alteration to the appearance of the building, but what Glenn Olcerst is trying to do on behalf of some neighbors is to get an exception to that rule to allow the words to stay indefinitely.  So that’s my understanding.

BM: Well, there are so few of us, I am in Allegheny East, Deutschtown, and we haven’t heard much about that. But that’s interesting because were I younger I would be putting solar panels on the front of my house because it faces south and it would be a perfect candidate and there are neighborhoods—this is going to come up—because the Heinz foundation is giving money to neighborhoods so people can install solar panels without that big outlay of money, and they are going to run into Historic Review. I thought about that, and I thought about how that makes it a dinosaur then. It makes it a dinosaur. But I also appreciate the viewpoint, a little bit. But my word fits in. its on the transom, its blue, it looks like it belongs there.

CB: What do you think the HRC should do, do you think they should grant an exemption?

BM: Oh I would think so, yeah. Are you talking federal historic review, state or local?

CB: The Pittsburgh one. I went to the hearing though and one of the fears voiced by the HRC was that if there is a local exemption made it might still have statewide or city wide impact, so that’s part of their fear. But yeah, I am not educated enough on the different patchwork quilt of historic districts. That’s another thing I am learning about. But I’d like to close with your thoughts on the role of public art in the neighborhood. So, what do you think the purpose of public art is for the North Side?

BM: Well, it gives artists a job, and that’s good. It gives them some money, which is good, because we are not very good about funding our artists. Along with gardens, it enhances the neighborhood. Are you not going to ask me about my encounter with these particular artists, is that not going to be part of it?

CB: No, please, I’d love to hear about that.

BM: Well, I didn’t feel very identified with the project, I didn’t know exactly what River of Words was, but I wanted to be a part of it if it was going on in the neighborhood. And I like that word. And so, they kept saying, they said they would come at some point within this timeframe and they came at about 9 o’clock on a Sunday evening, and it was still daylight, but I was in my nightgown and I came downstairs, it’s a townhouse, and all three of them were there who were responsible for the project and they were so nice and friendly, and we got a stepladder and they said “Oh its perfect it matches your house it looks so great!” and they were very enthusiastic so that was a very pleasant experience, but beyond that I didn’t ever have any—and sometimes I’m puzzled by the words that don’t make any sense to me that are in another language. I don’t think that’s a good river.

CB: Why don’t  you think so?

BM: They are slippery stones. You can’t connect to them. But there must have been a reason.

CB: Hm. Yeah. I talked to a gentleman who has a Spanish word that is the word for pillow, and I guess he liked the sound of it, I’ve heard other words but people kind of grow on them. So, is there anything else that you’d like to say about the River of Words or public art?

BM: You know, I put yard signs out, frequently, and no one has ever bothered me about that. Political yard signs and stuff like that.

CB: Yeah, its interesting, what gets attention and what doesn’t. Okay. Anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t given you a chance to talk about?

BM: No.  I hope I don’t have to talk mine down.

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