If This House Could Talk…: Connecting Neighbors through Their Buildings

  

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The Cambridgeport neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., mounted its second If This House Could Talk… (ITHCT) October 2-10, 2010. The idea is simple: For nine days residents and businesses post handmade signs telling interesting tidbits relating to their buildings’ history. Other residents, in turn, discover the signs, and, in the process, meet neighbors and learn about their community.

The event is by its nature open-ended. People can write what they choose, be it about an interesting person who lived in their building, an event that took place there, their garden, their family, the architecture, or time capsules and archeological finds unearthed during renovations.

Nearly 115 signs were posted in 2010, over 40 more than our first year, and most signs were new. There has been tremendous enthusiasm for the event, so much so that we have already created a committee to oversee our 2011 incarnation.

ITHCT is part of a larger celebration of Cambridgeport history: Cambridgeport History Day. The Cambridgeport History Project, a consortium of neighborhood, history, and arts organizations and interested individuals, supports it. This partnership makes the event possible and the potluck party the night ITHCT debuts helps the community to celebrate and cement newfound connections.

To get the word out about this novel project we have used posts on the Cambridge Historical Society website; on community, school, and city listservs; and on various neighborhood blogs. We have also used low-tech methods: mounting paper kiosks, with sign blanks, at farmers’ markets and street fairs; putting up posters and wooden signs; and sending press releases to local newspapers. Our most effective means of communication, however, have been “teaser” signs that we plant at areas of high foot traffic two or three weeks before the event. The “teaser” signs are early examples of the ITHCT signs that continue to stay up through the actual event. They have a personal voice, are four to five sentences in length, and, ideally, are written by neighborhood residents. Take note: If these signs are too long or authoritative, they discourage participation and the whimsy that adds spark to this event. In the corner of each of these signs is an insert telling about the project and how people can participate or find further information.

The Cambridge Historical Society hosts information about ITHCT on its website, including guidelines for participation, sample photographs and text of signs, resources for researching one’s building, and, finally, the sign location list. The CHS also hosts the permanent record of ITHCT sign text. Knowing that their work will live on through the website creates extra incentive for sign-writers to get their facts straight and make their stories sing.

If This House Could Talk… matured in many ways in 2010. Most of the 2009 participants were owners of single-family homes. To ensure that we would have broader participation this year, I met with tenant councils at two local public housing developments. About 12 signs resulted, some penned by me or others working one-on-one with non-native English speakers. Signs by “old-timers” required the same attention. Neighbors interviewed “old-timers” and helped them write their stories of neighborhood change. To my mind, these were some of the best signs mounted in 2010, telling of WWII bomber practice raids and end-of-war celebrations.

A little healthy neighborhood competition can help sprout signs, too. Last year one neighborhood church participated. (Its sign told that Martin Luther King and J.F.K. had spoken there.) This year three other houses of worship joined in and three more have promised signs in 2011. One of our neighborhood biotech firms also participated this year. Now that we have a foot in the door with the pharmaceutical industry, others want to join in as well. Cultivating new signs can take time, and a personal connection can be critical. For example, one grocer will participate this year thanks to an invitation from one of his regular customers.

Also in 2010, we included more formally “curated” signs written by historians and historic preservationists. The goal of adding these signs was to give the event greater breadth and, we hope, perspective. Curated signs told of a street of Greek Revival and Italianate houses owned by tradesmen; churches whose designs came from a prolific church architect and from a writer of best-selling handbooks for builders; a library, garage, and senior living complex built in 1972 for $6.5 million; and a school that once educated 465 students with 10 teachers.

To make it easier for people to research their buildings, we also compiled a list of historical resources that people could access online and at various public institutions, and we held a workshop on how to research Cambridge buildings. As a result, the Cambridge Historical Commission received many more calls and requests for assistance than in 2009. ITHCT signs have included not only information gathered from historical resources but also reproductions of historic maps, photographs, and newspaper articles. This adds to their graphic appeal.

Our new army of ITHCT organizers is already out unearthing neighborhood stories for 2011. One committee member is focusing on eliciting signs from our many ethnic grocers (from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Korea); another is working to include more African-American voices. Others are collecting information about the community’s industrial past, soliciting signs relating to local activism, and working to engage teachers and students. We would like to pair students with “old-timers.” What better way to encourage intergenerational connections and to collect neighborhood stories?

If This House Could Talk… is a work in progress. More and more community stakeholders have embraced the project and are offering to contribute to it. We are finding that the neighborhood is beginning to cohere as residents are empowered to chronicle its story. With an awakened sense of ownership and community, who knows what will happen next?

We encourage others to give ITHCT a try. Feel free to use the name as well as the distinctive house-shaped graphic by public artist Ross Miller. For further information about ITHCT, including 2009 and 2010 sign texts, go to www.cambridgehistory.org