Much has been written about the incidents that took place at South Philly High that day in December, including an ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice. Last month, StoryCorps traveled to the Philadelphia Folklore Project to record the stories of a group of students who were victims of the targeted attacks. In response, they heroically organized a campaign to demand the school district take responsibility – and action – to ensure a safe school climate. (more…)
This summer, the Sisters of Mercy hosted StoryCorps Door-to-Door at their convent on Carlow University’s campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My co-Facilitator, Mitra Bonshahi, and I recorded stories with nuns from different congregations about their lives committed to service and the Catholic faith.
I met Sisters Rosella Lacovitch and Sally Witt, both Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden, Pennsylvania, who spoke of their work with the Sisters of Mercy. Sister Rosella reflected on her time teaching at a school in the 1970′s in the Hill District, an inner city, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
In August, StoryCorps Door-to-Door travelled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to record more stories of Cities Of Service members. On this trip, we heard the voices of the volunteers, non-profit staff, and community officials who work together on the Love Your Block Initiative, a program that funds garden renewals and community beautification projects. From volunteers to full-time non-profit staff, Pittsburghers work together not only to improve their city but also to inspire future generations to maintain Pittsburgh’s beauty. Stories were shared between co-workers, friends and even family members who work with one another. (more…)
Storycorps Door-to-Door had the pleasure of visiting the Erie Art Museum, one of the 2011 Institute of Museum and Library Service (IMLS) National Medal Award winners. In our three days of recording, participant after participant shared stories of how the museum has become a major community hub, and we quickly came to understand why the museum was honored nationally for its “significant and exceptional contributions to their communities.” The museum has a lot more than an award to be proud of, with programming that allows its patrons to truly “be moved.”
For most job interviews, we prepare ourselves to talk about our career accomplishments, our strengths, and what we could bring to a company. However, if you apply for a position at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, they will ask, “How did you play as a child?”
Last month, StoryCorps visited the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, where the museum’s patrons, staff, and aficionados shared their own stories of playing as children and why they are all committed to helping this institution foster creativity and a love for learning in the next generation. It is no wonder why the Children’s Museum is a recipient of the National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
When they imagine having an impact on future generations and how they will be remembered in the future, people often think of parenting children. But as these interviews from Erie, Pennsylvania show, there are many ways to leave a legacy.
Father Bob: A True Man
Jim Murray and his son Bob Murray came to the MobileBooth to talk about Father Bob, Jim’s older brother and a devoted priest. Jim and Father Bob are the two youngest sons in an Irish-Catholic family of five boys, all with big personalities. The other brothers became engineers, attorneys, and insurance partners, but Father Bob knew from the age of nine that he’d become a priest.
Jim recalled, “He was never a pastor…He was quiet. If we were in a room, and if there were thirty people in that room, I’d go around and meet thirty people and I’d remember who they were and where they were from. But if there were two people in that room that were hurting, and one was thinking about suicide, somehow they would talk to Father Bob. And he would make them feel better about themselves.”
When Esmeraldaliz Torres was seven, she wanted to play the violin. She had signed up for classes at Erie’s Inner-City Neighborhood Art House, but the violin didn’t work out for her. Instead, they gave her a cello.
Esmeraldaliz’s mother Janet remembers the moment she first saw her daughter play. Esmeraldaliz was only seven years old, and Janet “got scared for her first performance because the actual cello was bigger than her.” They both laugh when they talk about that day. “I really didn’t know how you were supposed to play the cello, so I put a miniskirt on her, and that didn’t work because it had to go in between her legs. They ended up making a long skirt for her.”
Now eleven, Esmeraldaliz is one of the best cellists at the Inner-City Art House, and Janet is still front-and-center at her performances.
Not everything has always gone so seamlessly in the Torres family. Janet’s own mother wasn’t around when she was growing up in the Bronx. No one she knew played the cello, and few people in her family finished high school. Esmeraldaliz is an honor student, but she still struggles sometimes with math. Janet remembers working together on long division. “At the time I was still going for my GED because I was a high school dropout. But it was a pretty good process because we learned together… Once I got on that graduating stage, it was like I could to anything. All I could hear was my name being screamed. My kids and my husband.” Leaning into the mic, Esmeraldaliz imitates her family, yelling “Mom mom mom!”
At the end of their conversation, Janet looks at her daughter. She asks: “What’s the first memory you have of me?”
Esmeralda takes a moment before she replies: “The first time that I ever performed. When I saw your face.”
“And what did you think?”
“I thought you were really proud of me.”
“She was actually, like, kind of crying.”
Janet laughs. “Tears of joy, though. I was real proud. It’s like I couldn’t believe that I did such a good job that she was up there.”
Opening day in Erie, Pennsylvania was a big event! Reporters from our public broadcasting host, WQLN, were on hand to cover our arrival as were local ABC affiliate WJET-TV, NBC affiliate WICU Channel 12 and the Erie Times.
Site Supervisor Anna Walters (above) welcomed the assembled press and curious onlookers to the MobileBooth. Meanwhile, new Mobile Facilitator Lilly Sullivan facilitated our first interview in Erie, a remembrance by family members of John Kanzius. He was an inventor, radio and TV engineer, and ham radio operator in Erie. John passed away in February of this year but made headlines after he developed an innovative treatment for cancer using radio waves.
Hang glidin’ Paul Shaffer.
Paul Shaffer came to the MobileBooth to talk about life before his work in programming and computers. He was excited to have his interview archived at the Library of Congress as a way of passing on his legacy to future generations.
At age 17, Paul was the youngest private pilot in the nation and was flying before he could drive. He later became an avid hang glider, and was one of the first people ever to use a powered hang glider. Unfortunately, Paul was never able to realize his dreams of making a career out of the hobby by advertising and doing special promotions for malls and other businesses. However, about once year, he still takes to the sky for an adventure on his hang glider.
Paul kindly invited Mike and Yuki to visit him at the University of Pennsylvania where he is curator of the ENIAC, first unveiled in 1946 and argued by some to be the first computer.
Yuki Aizawa and Paul Shaffer holding a piece of history.
Spencer Wright (L) and "Max The Barber" (R).
Big Brothers Big Sisters is one of StoryCorps’ many outreach partners. Two Big Brothers, Arthur J. "Maxamillion" Wells III and Spencer Wright, came to talk when our booth was in Philadelphia. Max is a barber, Spencer a recruiter for Big Brother Big Sister. Ironically though, Max was the one who originally recruited Spencer.
Maxamillion’s Gentlemen’s Quarter Barber Parlor is a barber shop that is truly for gentlemen– no cellphones and no cursing please. On the walls, there are pictures of clients from celebrities like comedian Steve Harvey to Max’s Little Brother, Aaquil. But it’s not just a barber shop. Max thinks of the shop as a community networking hub, and is something of an unofficial spokesman for Big Brother Big Sister. After many years of hearing about the program from Max, Spencer finally decided to try it out. He ended up liking it so much that he took a job with the organization!
Facilitator Mike Rauch visited Max for a cut. Sorry, no pictures of the results, but suffice it to say that Mike’s beard is looking the best it ever has. Thanks Max!
In the barber shop. Future Big Brother?
South Street pioneers Isaiah and Julia Zagar.
Isaiah and Julia Zagar came to the StoryCorps booth and talked about how they got married and started in their lives’ work. The couple first met as young artists living on the Lower East Side of New York City. Three months later, they were married and living together. "That gave me a year before I would have to be arrested and put in jail," said Isaiah, who was denied status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
In their first year as a married couple, Julia and Isaiah joined the PeaceCorps. They were sent to Peru where they met artists and craftspeople who they helped to set up systems through which to sell their work. By the time the Zagars moved back to the United States, Isaiah’s conscientious objector status had been approved and the pair moved into a building on the then rundown South Street in Philadelphia, PA. "It was the only place that would take us," said Isaiah.
Isaiah and Julia lived in the top half of the building and opened the Eye’s Gallery in the bottom half. The shop was stocked with textiles, ceramics, and woodcarvings that they had collected while living abroad. For his part, Isaiah began creating mosaic murals using discarded materials, especially glass, from abandoned warehouses in the neighborhood. Forty years later, the shop has expanded to three floors and now carries crafts and folk art from all over the world, while Isaiah has truly transformed South Street into an outdoor museum. StoryCorps facilitators Mike and Yuki visited Isaiah at his studio and toured his "Magic Garden", an art environment he began in 1994.
Former location of punk rock shop, Zipperhead.
In the 1960′s, it was proposed that Philadelphia’s South Street be replaced by the "Crosstown Expressway", to create a connection between I-76 and I-95. The expressway would have cut through Philadelphia, separating Center City and South Philly. However, amidst turbulent times in the city, a group of artists and entrepreneurs had begun to transform the rundown street into a culturally vibrant community. They dug their heels in and successfully managed to defeat the proposal. The "South Street Renaissance" had begun.
South Street became known as a bohemian hot-spot, and, among other things, was notable in the punk rock scene. Zipperhead, a store selling punk rock clothing and accessories is still operating today on 4th Street, just around the corner from it’s original South Street location. The reputation of South Street spread and it has since become a popular destination, especially among tourists. Unfortunately, with the popularity of South Street came rising real estate values and consequently a disintegration of the neighborhood as it had been known.
Of the many shops, galleries, and restaurants like The Crooked Mirror Coffee Shop, the Gazoo, Yas Restaurant, The Works Craft Gallery, and The Painted Bride Art Center that once called South Street home, only a few remain. Today, on South Street you’ll find more chain stores than chain-wearing punk rockers, but there are still some special people and places that will give you a taste of 1960′s and 70′s South Street. Julia and Isaiah Zagar are two such people. Since 1969, the couple have been running The Eye’s Gallery at 402 South Street. Meanwhile, Isaiah has been busy turning the streets of Philadelphia into a mosaic museum.
StoryCorps facilitators Mike Rauch and Yuki Aizawa recently visited The Eye’s Gallery, former home of the Zagar’s and one of Isaiah’s ongoing mosaic installations. The shop, offering crafts, folk art, and unique clothing from around the world, is part museum, part gallery, part toy store, and packed with treasures in every corner.
After leaving the shop, Mike and Yuki visited Isaiah’s "Magic Garden", one of about 30 sites around the South Street area that feature Mr. Zagar’s mosaic murals. Unfortunately, it was closing time and they could only peer through the fence for a glimpse of an artwork 13 years in the making. Check back for pictures from a return visit to the Magic Garden and details on the Zagar’s StoryCorps interview!
Fence surrounding Philadelphia’s Magic Garden.
Facilitator Mike Rauch outside the East Booth, now parked on 6th Street, right in front of our partner station, WHYY. The booth’s current home is just across the street from the National Constitution Center and a few blocks from The Liberty Bell and Congress Hall, where U.S. Congress met from 1790-1800.
Below: A marker on 6th street describes what once stood in this spot over 150 years ago.
Facilitator Nadja Middleton waves farewell, having passed the facilitating torch to Lisa Janicki. The MobileBooth East pulls out of Pittsburgh and heads for rivers further north. Next stop: Canton, NY, in St. Lawrence County.
Frances Wise, a 91 year old StoryCorps participant, raised the fashion bar at a DUQ gathering at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.
Jonathan Borofsky’s sculpture is planted right on the campus of his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. At the base of the pole stand 3 fiberglass figures and 2 StoryCorps facilitators. Michael Ramberg and his replacement Sarah Kramer gaze at the 80 foot pole erected before them.
The artist says he sees his piece as a “celebration of the human potential for discovering who we are and where we need to go”. As Michael leaves the mobile booth tour, he appears ready to tap into that potential and walk to the sky!
After moving to Pittsburgh a few years ago, Carolyn Lambert (right) started dreaming of life on the river and conceiving the Ohio River Lifeboat Project. With funding from community organizations and the help of talented friends, Carolyn renovated and furbished an eco-customized pontoon boat which she plans to drive down the Ohio river over the course of the summer. At each stop, those who have stories about the river will be invited on board to share them along with a potluck dinner. We had no stories to tell about the Ohio river but got invited for dinner nonetheless! Carolyn plans to record peoples stories and produce an audio documentary for national distribution. In the meantime we recorded her story at our StoryBooth.
Michael Bisegna (right) gave us an audio tour of the Carrie Furnaces in Swissvale, PA, where he worked for decades. StoryCorps was there to record him and George Brown (left) swapping stories of working in the steel mills. The Pittsburgh area steel industry was for a long time one of the world’s most prolific and attracted many European immigrants like Michael and George’s parents and/ or grandparents. Until the industry’s collapse in the 70s and 80s, steel mills were the area’s major employer and helped build the country’s infrastructure.
The Carrie Furnaces employed were part of Homestead Works, a steel mill site planted just outside of Pittsburgh, PA, extending for 3 miles along the Monangahela river and covering hundreds of acres. At their peak, these blast furnaces processed 1000-1250 tons of iron a day.
Today, organizations such as the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area which invited us to the furnaces, are lobbying to have Homestead Works incorporated into the National Park Service. The Carrie Furnaces are examples of early production techniques. The Pumphouse, another vestige of Homestead Works, was the site of the historic Battle of Homestead. (The 1892 battle ended with the repression of thousands of striking workers and is credited with stifling the US labor movement for decades).
Back at the Rivers of Steel headquarters in Homestead, PA, Nadja Middleton and Michael Ramberg facilitated a conversation between Edward Sninsky and his wife Anna Marie. They talked about loving the immigrant neighborhoods where they grew up, neighborhoods where sounds and smells of Europe intermingled. Ken Kobus (below & center) painted a romantic picture of the steel making process that both he and his father were involved in for most of their working lives.
We have heard many stories about how dirty Pittsburgh used to be when the steel industry dominated the area’s economy and life. It’s vegetation was quite barren we were told. Today universities, biomedical technology, health care, tourism, finance, and services have become the city’s major employers… and vegetation, most notably trees, have grown back! Pittsburghers passing by our booth and the Carnegie Library seem to enjoy the Mulberry tree planted right behind it.