Bringing Memories to Life

June 19, 2013


Vera Carothers ’14 is an Impact Providence intern this summer working for the Olneyville Housing Corporation.

This is Olneyville Square in 1937. “TODAY,” the caption reads. Newly waxed automobiles line the curb outside the shops. An electric trolley snakes up Manton Ave, where the Atlantic Mills stand. On weekends, the square bustles with middle class families shopping and going to the grand Olympia Theatre. Over the last century and a half, the development of the textile industry has completely filled the streets between Atwells and Manton Avenues with two family houses. A big new railroad junction has brought immigrants from as far as Poland to work in the mills. But in fewer than ten years, the end of World War II will devastate the textile industry and they will move manufacturing South, then overseas. The mills will be abandoned, houses boarded up. Until the 90s: abandon, foreclosure, Pro Jo articles about murder and arson. Then, incipiently, artist collectives set up in old warehouses (i.e. the legendary Fort Thunder). And eventually, a new wave of immigrants, from Central America, effects a redemographization of Olneyville. Today, 57.4% of the population is Hispanic. Taquerias, a Salvadorian bakery, and shops offering to change oro (gold) into dinero line Olneyville Square. Car radios sitting in traffic in the Square pump cheerful latino music, the sound a pulsing vitality.

This is the narrative we know by heart. The Rise and Fall of the New England Mill Town. It is made up of facts that I can find and photocopy—clippings, newsletters, city archives. But does this public record reflect the inner workings of a past community? Missing is complexity. Missing is intimacy. What were the stories mothers put their children to bed with? The familiarities men mumbled at the door of the mill?

Here, my project begins. For its 25th anniversary, the Olneyville Housing Corporation has commissioned a co-intern and I to put together a community oral history to be exhibited in a local gallery in the fall. The OHC is one of the oldest community development corporations in the neighborhood and has proved an essential force in its revitalization.

My co-intern and I have spent most of our first week leaving voicemails for Hispanic neighborhood activists, trying in vain to find contact info for artists who are ‘underground’ anyway, and calling that one old guy who works at the pharmacy (and has for forty years) five separate times because he keeps leaving his ‘datebook’ at home. So far, we’ve scheduled 15 interviews and hope to get 15 more in the next two weeks.

Yesterday, I had my first interview. I will leave you with one question that came up as I was nodding empathetically (good posture, big eye contact, make the interviewee comfortable with your body language): What results when we collect memories instead of facts? Ultimately, what do we value more: the gained nuance, or the initial seduction of a coherent narrative?