My conversation with Gary pointed to the way in which the River of Words projects relates to self identity, and community identity…and it’s various complexities. His family hosts the word “melody,” a term they find an apt descriptor for their musical practice, and taste. He also underscored how the current uncertainty with the Historic Review Commission points to deeper difficulties within the neighborhood for embracing, or resisting Historic District status, complexities that are often based on class differences.
The transcript is below:
CB: Its February 23, 2015, and I am here with Gary Lefebvre as part of the River of Words Oral History Project. Thanks so much for being here.
GL: My pleasure.
CB: I wanted to start with some demographic questions. One of my research questions is to learn about the diversity of participants, so full name; address; age; marital status; race/ethnicity.
GL: My name is Gary Lefebvre, I live at 530 Jacksonia Street, Pittsburgh PA 15212. I am 58 years old, actually I’m 57, I’ll be 58 in June. Married. Two grown children. I’ve been living on Jacksonia, it’ll be four years in July.
CB: And what ethnicity do you identify as?
GL: Caucasian, I guess, reluctantly.
CB: How long have you been living in Pittsburgh?
GL: For four years.
CB: Where did you move from?
GL: I lived in Washington County for 20 years, and before that Indiana County.
CB: Cool. So, you mentioned to me that your house does not fall within the historic district, is that right?
GL: Its in the national one, not the city one.
CB: So let’s turn to the River of Words project. Can you tell me how you came to be involved with it, and what your experience was like?
GL: I’ve been aware of the City of Asylum and their projects for some time. I’m facebook friends, I get email notifications about their events, and so forth. I learned about it I think through an email invitation through the person who was coordinating the project.
CB: What word do you have, and how did you pick it?
GL: We picked and we have the word “Melody.”
CB: Why “melody”?
GL: We are a very musical family. We always have music playing in the house. We have musicians in the family. We have musicians for friends. It just seemed like a natural. It was among the list, and we picked three, and that was our first choice.
CB: Can you tell me a little about the musician makeup of your family? Who plays what?
GL: Actually, I am a listener, although I did play trumpet in high school. My sons are both very musical, and they both prove that musical talent skips a generation. My younger one plays the mandolin, the guitar, the trombone, bass instruments, and my older son plays the bass guitar, fiddle, guitar. So they play folk style music.
CB: Awesome. So six months later what has the impact displaying your word had on your life?
GL: Um, [laughs], one big impact is that its applied to the outside of my window, and I don’t want to take it down, so I haven’t washed my window in six months! [Laughs] I’m waiting until Spring to find out if washing it is going to make it come off or if I can figure out a way to get it off cleanly and put it back up, because we like it.
CB: Are there any stories that have come out of it, or any interactions that you have had that you might not have had otherwise?
GL: Occasionally we have people, I might be out front and people stop by with a clipboard it looks like they are doing almost a scavenger hunt of the words. On Halloween we had a number of neighbors who weren’t aware of the project , and they were all asking “what’s that word on your house for?” so we had good conversations about that, and a chance to talk about what City of Asylum is about. Its sometimes surprising: people can live and not be aware of some things going on in their community.
CB: Did you meet new people?
GL: Yeah, but not necessarily out of that. The one’s with clipboard were just casual, passing…making sure they weren’t there doing some sort of tax research on our house [laughs]. Our house is historic and a lot of people have lived in it over the years, so we have had a lot of people stop by and say “My grandfather was born here, he wanted me to come to see if I could see the inside.” Its kind of interesting. Its been interesting living there.
CB: Do you know what the clipboard people were doing?
GL: They said they were kind of making a list of the words they could find and, didn’t have anything better to do that day.
CB: I was just thinking some classrooms, for instance, might be teaching this.
GL: They were younger adults. Folks that might attend the Mattress Factory.
CB: Let’s turn to the HRC situation. How much are you aware of that, and if you are, what is your opinion on it?
GL: I’m very aware of the Historic District. It caused a lot of rift in the community last year when it was coming…the possibility of an expansion. It was interesting, paying attention to how the arguments divided out. I had very mixed feelings about it. I felt like the Historic District expansion would be good for us personally, because it would probably increase the value of our house, but we also understood the impact it would have on some of our friends who are longterm residents here, and basically inherited their houses, and lived there very cheaply as a result. But the taxes would kill them. We were also worried that if they had to do historic revisions or any repairs they wouldnt do repairs…they wouldn’t do them according to history, they just wouldn’t do them. We were afraid that might cause deterioration in the neighborhood. So I think, in all, we were kind of against it but we would have lived with it if it had happened.
CB: So as you probably know, Glenn Olcerst went to the HRC to ask for an exemption to extend River of Words. Do you have any thoughts about what you think the HRC should do in this situation?
GL: I can understand the HRC’s concerns about it, but part of the neighborhood has its roots in kind of an artistic use of the houses, and I think they should probably figure out some way to come up with an exception for it. I don’t want to see people putting billboards, and neon lights and so on on their houses but places like Randyland and what the City has done with their properties wouldn’t have been able to happen under those [HRC] circumstances. And a lot of the people that seem to be really strict in the neighborhood about historic reviews, I’ve had neighbors who are very into historic restoration and they are critical of some of those folks [HRC Committee Members], and the fact that they didn’t faithfully restore their houses. One guy in particular, rails on that one. He said “If they were really sticklers for history, they would have divided lights in their windows…they have single pane, they should have a divided light. They wouldn’t be using that kind of mortar!”
C: That’s interesting. Finally, I’d like to close with your thoughts on public art more generally, so, for the North Side: What does public art do, and who does it serve? And maybe, for Pittsburgh?
GL: I think it really adds to the quality of life in any area. Personally, I always take note of places that make display of public art, and make it part of their local landscape, I guess. I think it gets people talking. I think it opens peoples’ minds. I think it is really good for young people to be exposed to it because it is something, usually, is outside of the normal parameters of what they see on TV, or on YouTube, even. There are much wider parameters these days. I think that the fact that it can happen locally really opens peoples’ minds to the possibility that they could do that too. And you hear people say, “Ah! I could’ve done that!” And you just say, “Well, go for it!” [Laughs]
C: Do you have any additional comments or anecdotes that you would like to share?
GL: Um, other than, like I said, we’d like to keep the word on our house as long as we can, some of our friends have remarked when they come to visit: “Oh, why do you have that word there?” And then they say, “You sure picked a good one, because it really fits you guys!” And, we have had neighbors…we went to a party at Christmas time last year, it was right next door, and someone said “Oh, you are the house with the word on the window!” And they were from somewhere else in the city, so we had a chance to talk to them about it and it became a real sort of conversation starter. We like it.
C: Great, thanks so much.
GL: You are welcome.