Reviving a Neighborhood
"The area is not there for me to remember . . . It's almost like losing one of your peers."
June Simmons-McRae spoke in reverent tones of her childhood neighborhood of West Elmwood during a recent oral history interview. Once a vibrant neighborhood, West Elmwood was demolished in the early 1960s as part of Providence’s urban renewal movement. The Huntington Industrial Park was built in its place. Today, the neighborhood only lives on in the memories of former residents and the bonds that many friends still share.
The residents of West Elmwood have been sharing their memories of their neighborhood with students in Anne Valk and Holly Ewald's Oral History and Community Memory class over the past three years. Through their words, they've reconstructed West Elmwood in the students’ minds: fruit trees everywhere, small homes with sinking bulkheads, children spending their days on and in Mashapaug Pond, the sense of community and camaraderie.
This week, the class is endeavoring to return the favor. Working with former residents and members of the Urban Pond Procession, we wanted to return West Elmwood to the industrial park, if only for a moment.
Obviously, we could not replicate the houses, the trees and gardens, or the sense of community: too much has changed, too much time has passed, and after all, we are only fifteen people in a classroom. How then could we remember the forgotten neighborhood? Working with community artists, a radio documentarian, and our own eager imaginations, we hatched a plan. Actually, we hatched about twenty of them. However, one plan won out in the end.
On May 9th, visitors are invited to the Huntington Industrial Park, across from J.T. Owens ball field, to see a shadow of the neighborhood. PVC pipe will create the frame of a house of West Elmwood from days gone by. Inside the house, an audio installation presents memories of former West Elmwood residents, reconstructing in words what we could not revive in bricks and mortar. Standing in the shadow house to hear what once was. Outside the house, there will be opportunities to play and learn, as the children of this neighborhood once did.
Together, students, former West Elmwood residents, and other visitors will revive West Elmwood for a moment. We will celebrate West Elmwood's memory, and reflect on how the actions and decisions we make today impact the legacy of West Elmwood, Mashapaug Pond, and our own neighborhoods and communities.
Shadows and Sounds: Memories from a Forgotten Neighborhood
Friday, May 9, 2014
5:00pm - 7:00pm
The Center for Public Humanities at Brown University and Urban Pond Procession are pleased to announce “Shadows and Sounds: Memories from a Forgotten Neighborhood” – an on-site sound installation and opening event, to take place on May 9, 2014, 5:00-7:00 p.m. at the intersection of Park Lane and Access Road, across from the J.T. Owens Ball Park off Niantic Avenue.
Visitors are invited to delve into the history of the former West Elmwood neighborhood and current Huntington Industrial Park through an immersive sound installation. Organized activities will take place every half-hour, including a hands-on science demonstration, storytelling and a scavenger hunt.
This event also marks the launch of a mobile app tour focused on sites around Mashapaug Pond. Planning for the Huntington Industrial Park began in the 1950s by the Providence Redevelopment Agency, which sought ways to attract new businesses to Providence. The West Elmwood neighborhood, once filled with fruit trees and families, was deemed “blighted” by the Agency and slotted for redevelopment. Ultimately, over five hundred homes were demolished.
While the neighborhood is gone, memories still remain. These memories have been captured as part of a collaboration between the Center for Public Humanities at Brown University and Urban Pond Procession – a community organization that advocates for the health of urban ponds. For three years, Brown students have conducted oral history interviews with former West Elmwood residents and other people who have a relationship to Mashapaug Pond. The interviews will be featured in the event and mobile app. The sound installation and accompanying programs are free and open to the public.
A rain date is scheduled for the following day, May 10, 2014 from 1:00-3:00 p.m.