Lynn Kosegi, who I interviewed March 7th, has a cool story of growing up, moving away from, and then returning to the North Side, a homecoming that was facilitated by the River of Words project, one which, in her view, allows the “non artistic” of the neighborhood to fully participate in its cultural life. Moreover, public art, she argued, is vital to “creating identity and communicating that identity” both internally and externally. In this interview about the effect of the River of Words, there is a call to imagine “historic districts” as still culturally vital and involved in the work of the present.
CB: I”m not sure how much Henry told you about what I am doing and my project but I am a professor at Pitt and I study public art, and that’s what draw’s me to the River of Words project, and so what I am trying to do is create like an accessible archive of reactions from the words. So, that’s what I’m up to.
CB: Do I have your permission to audio record this?
CB: I wanted to thank you for being here with me. I am here with Lynn Kosegi as part of the River of Words Oral History Project (march 7). My first question is demographic, I am trying to get a sense of the diversity of the participants, so, could you tell me your full name, your address, your age, your marital, and your race or ethnicity, please.
LK: Sure. My name is Lynn Kosegi. K-O-S-E-G-I. My address is 1223 Arch Street, Pittsburgh 15212, in the Mexican War Streets. I am married. I am 53 years old. What else?
CB: Whatever race or ethnicity I identify as.
LK: I am white.
CB: Ok. so your house falls within the city historic district, is that right?
LK: No, actually its not in the City Preservation District, we are one street away.
CB: OK, cool. I wanted to turn now to the River of Words project. Can you tell me what word you have, how you got involved, and kind of what that experience was like?
LK: Sure. I have two words: “Use” and “Equation.” I got into the project, my husband and I just moved to the War Streets over the summer so we actually bought the house in May but we didn’t actually move in until July. So we moved in right before they were beginning to put the words up. I learned about the project on Facebook. I just fell in love with the War Streets and learning all about it and following the Facebook page, and checking out the website, and things like that, didn’t even know that the City of Asylum existed. I didn’t even know it was there until we moved down here and I started reading up on it and I thought the project was really interesting. I like to read, do a little bit of writing myself, so I just thought it was really interesting so I signed up for the project. I happened to be home and not at work when they came by to put the words up, and I chose the words because I work very closely at my job, I work for a technology company in Pittsburgh, its a Pittsburgh-based company, and we do software for healthcare providers. And, so I work, at work, I work with a lot of interns out of Pitt mostly, and we have a program at work where I work real closely with the people who are interns, and the ones who are good, and they are a good fit for the organization, we hire them. And we’ve had a very successful program there, and I just love working with the students, and love working with them after they get hire, so that’s basically why I chose the word “use.” “Equation” I think I chose for a couple of reasons. Just because, I’m pretty involved in healthcare, very interested in healthcare delivery, work for a software company, so, you know, mathematics and tech is very big in our minds, and using it to improve healthcare and to improve life for patients and then coming to the War Streets, sort of seeing how the different pieces of this particular neighborhood fit together, and how diverse it is, and how there are such interesting things right down the street like City of Asylum and the Mattress Factory and Randyland. I just kind of thought “Equation” was something that brought everything all together.
CB: Great. And so can you tell me what it’s been like having the words on your house? Have any
stories come about because of the words? Have you met anyone new.
LK: Oh! I happened to have been home the day that they [the artists] came by to put them [the words] up and a lot of people in the neighborhood, they hadn’t read about it, and particularly my next door neighbor, she came out and was kind of just wondering what was going on and so I told her, and so the artists came over and were talking to her and here she’s been– they were from Venezuela, and she had been there several times, so she asked “Oh, can I have a word too?” so she picked a word too, and then it turned out that some people across the street saw it, and everybody was just asking about, “Well, what are these words,” and here, when they put the word “Equation” up it was actually spelled wrong, so instead of having a “q” it had a “c” and I kind of kept my mouth shut and was thinking, “Oh, maybe that’s how its spelled in Spanish?” I don’t know, but then one of the artists pointed it out, and were like “Oh no!” it was kind of half the Spanish spelling and half the English spelling so they brought back another piece of metal later on to turn the “c” into a “q.” So, it was kind of funny. So that was funny, just the reactions to that, and then the reactions from the neighbors, it was just fun. We were all just standing outside on the sidewalk on a summer’s day and it was just fun. I don’t intend to take them down. I like them.
CB: Have the meanings of the words changed to you at all since you’ve had them installed?
LK: No, I think they have stayed about the same. I think the one that might’ve changed a little bit for me was “equation” just as I got to know the neighborhood a little bit better and just became really– I know parts of the war streets that are in the historic preservation section, there is kind of this debate about “Well, you can only do things to your houses if its approved,” and I like that, one part of me really likes the idea of historic preservation, but the other part of me really likes the idea of being able to do whatever you want with your house, and also has a lot of sympathy with people who, if you have to have a window fixed you might not be able to afford to have it done the way that it originally needs to be done. I can really see both sides of the equation, I guess you could say, but I think that it is terrific that this is a neighborhood where all of those things can be welcome. You can have a place like Randyland, or a place like mine where the door frame is kind of pink, but then you can have the places that are very very historically correct, and you know, all living in the same neighborhood.
CB: Great. Well that leads very nicely into my next questions, which is, how much do you know about the HRC’s relationship to the River of Words project and do you have any opinions about what should be done with the River of Words project for the historic houses in the neighborhood?
LK: I haven’t been really involved in it. It doesn’t really effect me because my street, I can leave them up, there is no argument on my street, so I haven’t had to fight for it or anything. You know, its art, its the neighborhood, its the culture of this neighborhood. The culture of this neighborhood is its diversity and is its uniqueness, and I think it would be a shame to turn it into a neighborhood that, while beautiful, was kind of a cookie-cutter neighborhood. I like the diversity and the unexpectedness and not knowing what you might see going around every corner. So, you know, when it comes to being able to leave the words up on the houses, I definitely think people should be allowed to do that.
CB: So the last questions I have is about public art more generally. Can you tell me what you think the role or the social function of public art is both in the North Side and then in Pittsburgh more broadly?
LK: Oh gosh. I think helping to both create an identity for a community. I think it actually helps to create the community. Especially for a city like Pittsburgh that, I mean, I was a teenager in the 70s and I can remember when the mills started leaving and when Pittsburgh was really suffering, and I really think the arts and that kind of culture is part of what helped turn this city around and to turn it into the kind of city that ends up on every “Best Something or Other” list that is out there right now, and I think art plays a huge part in that, both in creating the community that we are and in communicating who we are to the rest of the world.
CB: That’s great. So have you lived in Pittsburgh your entire life?
LK: Yeah, yeah. My family is all from Pittsburgh, we started out on the North Side, we lived right off Perrysville highway and kind of late in the 60s the neighborhood got a little bit dangerous and, you know, like a lot of families did, we moved further north into the northern suburbs, but then as my children got older and they grow up I just really wanted to move back to the city, so my husband and I started looking around at different areas of the city, and just really liked the idea of coming back to the North Side.
CB: Yeah. What a cool story. Is there anything else that you’d like to say that I haven’t given you a chance to talk about?
LK: Um, no, I don’t think so. I hope that there are other projects like the River of Words in the future. I think that the City of Asylum does great work, and its fun to have something where the non-creative and artistic among us, like me, can actually be a part of something like that. So I hope they do more projects like that.
CB: Excellent, well thank you so much Lynn.
LK: You are very welcome.