Writer Taylor Polites Aims to Build Community Storytelling Archive through Swearer Center Residency

by Tolu Sogade
March 13, 2018

Taylor Polites is currently a Swearer Center Practitioner in Residence. He is a graduate of the Wilkes University Creative Writing M.A./M.F.A. program where he was presented with the Norris Church Mailer Fellowship. Currently, in addition to his position as a Swearer Center Practitioner in Residence, he teaches in the Wilkes University Creative Writing M.F.A program and at the Rhode Island School of Design. As part of his residency with the Swearer Center, Polites is working on a  project that involves a site investigation into the history of a neighborhood in Providence that was subject to urban renewal programs of the mid-twentieth century.

Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got interested in writing and in history?

I was born in Huntsville, AL. I grew up in the South, surrounded by the stories of the South and of the Civil War. And for whatever reason, I have always loved history. History has always been this place that I go. Wherever I live, I’m interested in understanding the story of that place and that really goes back to growing up in Huntsville. I was fascinated by this world and the stories people told about it. And obviously, the South has a really dark history in terms of race and all sorts of things. So as I got older and went to college–I studied American history in college – and so as it is supposed to, college introduces you to all these different viewpoints, and scholarly approaches to understanding point of view, motivation and the purpose that people have for telling their stories. I saw very clearly this conflict between many of the stories that I grew up hearing and the approach that an academic would take in understanding or analyzing them.

That was an interesting and enlightening moment for me, which led me to look for ways to retell stories about the South by using this point of view, perspective approach. … I ended up working in finance in New York City for a long time–yet another career! And I was in a graduate program in history then as well. At a certain point, I needed to make a choice for myself. I really [wanted] to write books, and I had been working on these book ideas for years. I ended up quitting my job and focusing on writing and that chance led me to get my Master of Fine Arts in writing and to complete this novel that was then published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster. [Which was] a total dream-come-true experience that brought together all these different interests and opened up a whole new way of understanding the world and how I could create the path I wanted to create for myself rather than following a path that someone said I should go down.

In 2012, Polites published his first novel titled Rebel Wife, which recounts the story of a young widow trying to survive in the violent world of Reconstruction Era Alabama.  

Do you think your childhood of growing up in the south influenced your writing of “Rebel Wife”?

That story frames this white female heroine in this world in which she is blindered. Through this experience, she becomes aware and questions this world she’s in. And as I was writing it, I began to understand that that was me too. This process of unlearning was the journey I was tracking for her and that felt like a very personal journey for me as well.

What brought you to Providence and what got you interested in discovering it’s history?

Coming to Providence was a personal discovery for me. After my book came out, I was thinking to myself, how do I structure my life now? I ended up moving here to Providence over seven years ago, and I didn’t know anyone here. I spent some time here in the city with friends and really enjoyed it. I knew it had a beautiful concentration of historic buildings and neighborhoods, and I knew there was an incredible amount of culture for a city its size, and all the colleges and universities, which were places where I could potentially teach. So work-wise, cost of living-wise and culture-wise it all came together. And like I said, whenever I’m in a place, I just become interested in the story of that place. So I lived here on the West Side, and as I began to wonder about the buildings around me, I began to write things. So I got involved in printmaking in AS220 as well.

I [also made] a little art book about the Cranston Street Armory. And that got some people’s attention. So the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities asked me if I would be interested in doing a walking tour for the West Side for this phone application that they have called RhodeTour. You pick sites, collect media and [you can create] little narratives about it. And I had lived on the West Side for a number of years at that point, and I had a bit of a handle on the areas of interest, and how you might build a tour. What was really important for me in that project was thinking about how you can tell the story of a building and the way you tell the story of the building can reflect all sorts of things. But for this [Pond Street] project I thought, what is the story of this place, of Providence as a city, and what is the story this neighborhood tells? What is [a] story that has meaning to us today and the world we live in today? And so for me it became very clear that the story of Providence and of this neighborhood on the West Side was a story of immigration, and that the story of immigration was as present and immediate and important to talk about today as it was for people 150 or 100 years ago.  

How does the idea of gentrification shape your research?

[An influence for me was] I think living on the West Side [and] seeing a neighborhood that is struggling with the word gentrification. Very often in these conversations, gentrification gets used as an easy way out to blanket or accuse. It becomes an accusation and a blanket statement that has all these different assumptions based on the person using it. And so, I’ve had a lot of conversations too, with people in the community, who are concerned about the impact of gentrification. They are concerned about the impact that money has in real estate and housing and the impact of the choices then that people are able to make. And that’s what I like to ask too, what does gentrification mean? Rather then, let’s talk about gentrification and what its doing, let’s talk about the specifics. Community displacement becomes a much easier issue to grapple with and to build consensus around because then you’re identifying an issue that then you can address with concrete mitigating programs, whether its affordable housing, or the way that certain property tax payments are structured.

The Pond Street Project is looking at urban renewal programs but also looking at history – [this means] looking at urban renewal programs and events that have obscured or erased historic experience. This then leads to the question: How does excavating and rediscovering the history where that physical landscape has been so altered, change the reality of that community? How does the sense of the place, their relationship to it and the power of the place change?

Polites at a Swearer Center Lunch and Learn, explaining the Pond Street project to the attendees.

Why did you specifically choose Pond Street for this project that you’re working on?

So it was this urban space that was rebuilt and wiped clean for all sorts of reasons. And so that really fascinated me at first–that this space could appear so open. A lot of the redevelopment for this area was to create zones of open space. [The redevelopment process] dug this massive trench between downtown and the West Side, what was a real psychological and physical barrier, and obscured the original, natural landscape. The density of the built environment and the histories that I kept coming across really fascinated me and made me think that this was a space that can [be better understood]. So I dug into it a little more. And to the people that I would talk to about it, I could see that reaction of wonderment.

One [such place] was Westminster Street. There’s a building there, that’s now from around 1900, but before that was a church that was built around the early 1830s, the High Street Congregational Church, which held the first statewide anti-slavery convention in 1836. So the [building held] the social organizing towards the abolition of slavery and yet you would never know it. The histories that I had read, the narratives around the anti-slavery crusades around that period never mentioned this specific location, as if it too had been lost.

I was working with the Providence Public Library, and I was doing some Instagram posts of before and after, showing a picture of the church telling its story and showing [the place] now. Among a number of people in the community it created this sense of surprise and this wonder that this spot that they pass by everyday had this history that they were completely unaware of. So that to me too was an interesting proof of concept, that if that story is that compelling and activates the imagination of so many people and their sense of connection to this area, what might collecting as many of these stories as possible and sharing them with people look like? Especially since high school campuses are [in the Pond Street area], how might kids from Central and Classical High Schools understand the space differently if they begin to learn these stories or if they begin to discover these stories for themselves? So there was an incremental thinking about it over the period of about a year and a half now to get to the point where I [felt] like there was real project. I am in the process of working with the Public Library to truly build this program, and I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity to be supported by the Swearer Center and to connect with Brown and its resources to support this bigger community wide goal.

Do you have any next steps and goals to reach?

[There is the] idea of how do you engage all sorts of people and all sorts of community groups in the history of this space and how do you allow them to be empowered in some way to discover and to determine the stories that are being told to them? I think those are really crucial elements of making this meaningful.

And so my first goal is to work with the Providence Public Library and people here at Brown to build a conceptual framework, an archive, that gathers all sorts of artifacts and builds a web interface from that archive that allows people to navigate and browse through. One of the great advantages of working with the Swearer Center is the ability to engage with students. So hopefully I will be working with a student, and the plan now is to start with the 1880 census and to take the census data for this focus area to catalogue and to condense all the people that lived in the neighborhood. Then, to cross reference that with the city’s directories from the same year that show address, names, occupations and business addresses. [The goal] is to build a comprehensive inventory of all the different people in this neighborhood in a particular moment, and then to be able to move forward and backwards in time. It is to capture all the people [in the area], and I think that’s what’s compelling. Probably many neighborhoods of this city that changed rapidly in the 19th century, have old Yankee families that are part of this community, [but also] have African American communities, particularly the churches that broke off from the African Union Meeting House and formed their own congregations over to the West Side, and the Irish [immigrant communities]. And so you can capture the wide range and the diverse range of stories by capturing that comprehensive map of the human beings that [were] in [a] space at a particular moment.

My hope is to go through my time here at the Swearer Center continuing to build that grid of people in the neighborhood and then attach the people, the places, images, newspaper clippings and artifacts. And we’ll build, for the fall and next spring, outreach to some of the churches that were displaced during redevelopment, and bring together people and whatever artifacts they have.

Continuing in his Pond Street Project, Polites hope to build a “comprehensive archive” that will allow research institutions, universities, and individuals alike to discover and “find stories that are meaningful to them.” Polites hopes that these organizations can partake in historification projects, based on the histories and stories that they respond to. From this community level participation, he hopes to allow the stories of the neighborhood to take a more grassroots approach in which, individuals and and organizations can reshape the ways in which the history is presented and is told.