A number of arts organizations like the one I run as my day job, have started focusing on programming that is locally and regionally sourced since drawing on artists from a greater distance is not practical. Back in April I saw an article on CityLab that seemed like cool idea that could be scaled up, adapted and lead by local arts organizations, even if it was over Zoom. I held off writing about it because best results probably depended on access to local libraries and historical archives and not many of them were open to the public at the time. While this still remains the case in some communities, I thought I would toss the idea out there as something to tool up for as vaccine distribution increases.
The article author Ariel Aberg-Riger, set out to discover the history of her neighborhood in Buffalo, NY and created a little pictorial guide to her journey. She delved into the archives of newspapers, libraries, Library of Congress and local historical groups as well as chatting online with neighborhood groups on Facebook.
Her account is rather engaging and amusing. She talks about how she thought it ridiculous that people were taking out classified ads with pictures of their kids—until she realized that practice was an early precursor of Instagram. She found out that in 1924 a burglar had been caught by a previous owner of her house when the burglar reached under his pillow and woke the owner.
She also learned that her street originally had a different name that didn’t appear on maps because the road wasn’t paved. More interestingly the person for whom the road was originally named opposed having it paved, but the city insisted on it so they could deliver coal to the public school. The compromise left part of the road unpaved for four years and as a result, the brick paving is two different colors right in front of Aberg-Riger’s house.
There is quite a bit more she discovered about how those who originally owned the land under her house were connected to the history of Buffalo at large, but I felt like just the little bit I shared here could provide the basis for creating short stories, plays, visual art works, storytelling sessions, narrative dances, etc, etc.
There are a number of directions an arts organization could go from involving people in researching elements of their community by holding contests for the best stories that are uncovered to getting them to participate in creating works based on information that is uncovered.
Stories from a more distant past might be useful in addressing uncomfortable topics of the present, including making people aware that history is seldom as clear cut as reported and problems faced today aren’t necessarily unprecedented and insurmountable and therefore capable of resolution.