On February 22nd I interviewed Jeff Frazier and Rebecca White, a couple who lives in Deutschtown. Their words are “ditirambos” (“dithyrambics”) and “fly.” Rebecca observed of the project: “Its so cool. And you meet people and then you kind of– like I met this woman Sharon at the opening event and I couldn’t remember her name– she said her word was “Baseball” so I saw her out in public one time and I just looked at her and I said “Baseball! I don’t remember your name, I’m sorry, but I know you are the baseball house.” So I think it brings community together. It is interesting when you meet someone that has the word and what it means to them, its a conversation starter, I think it would be a shame to lose.” In this conversation they also spoke about their attraction to the neighborhood that is still in the process of development, a historical moment where they feel that residents can and are “working towards a common goal,” with the City of Asylum as a prominent feature of that struggle.
Thanks, Jeff and Rebecca! Transcript follows:
CB: Alright so I am here with Jeff Frazier and Rebecca White as part of the River of Words Oral History Project and thanks for being with me and bearing with my lack of orientation.
CB: So I want to begin with some demographic data, I want to get a sense of the diversity of folks who have negaged with the River of Words project. So can we start with your address, age, marital status, and what race or identity you identify with.
JF: I think we are white.
RW: Caucasian. We live on 1330 James Street, and that’s over on the hospital side, so we are not in the Historic District, we are married, and, what was the other question?
JF: I’m 56 she’s 45. I’m 59 she’s 45. [Laughter]
RW: [This is] going well.
JF: That’s the year I was born, ’56.
CB: Alright. Excellent. And how long have you lived on the North Side?
JF: Four years last month.
CB: And how long have you lived in Pittsburgh?
JF: 25, 30 years. Yeah.
CB: What historic district are you in because I know there are different ones.
JF: We are in Deutschtown, which is also called East Allegheny.
RW: But we are North of North Avenue so we are not actually a historic district.
JF: We’re technically not in the historic district. Actually our house is brand new, we built it four years ago, but it looks like an old Victorian.
CB: So you aren’t in a historic district.
JF: Technically we are not.
CB: It is really interesting, the quilt pattern of overlapping historic districts.
JF: The neighborhood of Deutschtown is a historic district, but we are a block above the boundary for where that technically ends. All of the War Streets, it ends at, I can’t remember.
CB: OK. Great. So now I want to turn to the River of Words Project. Can you all tell me about how you found out about it, what your experience of being involved was like.
RW: Well I–
JF: She sent me an email.
RW: Well I actually, I’m on the mailing list for City of Asylum so I know whats going on and I read about it and it sounded really cool so we signed up, sent an email, and just asked if we could be part of the project, and then we didn’t hear anything for a while and I wrote back and they did say that they had words left.
JF: We were towards the end, we didn’t have that many choices.
RW: We only had the choice of five or ten words at the time or something, so yeah, so…
JF: And we originally chose “ditirambos” which we looked up on the internet sort of meant “poetry” in Spanish, and they showed up and put the word on the glass on our front door and then, I don’t know if you’ve met Israel or any of the people
CB: I met him this morning.
JF: I told him about you he had no idea, I ran into him last week. Anyhow, the five of them came over, we were eating dinner, it was like a communication thing because of the language, they were supposed to call us and they just showed up and they kind of stormed into our house and all five of them were talking at like 95-miles-a-minute and just taking pictures of my house and flashes were going off everywhere and they put the word on, took photos of us in front of the door, and then they left. I don’t know if it was the next day or later that night they sent us an email and asked, they said, “We really love your house would you like another word?” so we said “OK. Call us.” That was a Saturday night, “Call us Sunday, we’ll make sure we’re home and we’ll meet you there and choose a word.” So we are over at Whole Foods or something and we get an email and its like “We’re in front of your house” and then they sent us a picture holding up the word that they chose, and we are like “That’s fine.” And they put that in the mortar.
CB: What word?
RW: Actually, they told us some of the words previously they gave us the three words and “Fly” was one of the words which we ended up getting, but I was like, “I don’t want ‘Fly”” I thought of the insect at first, and I was just like, “That’s the last word I want.” So they sent us a text message holding up the word “Fly” and its in this beautiful script, and my son was actually leaving for his graduate program in Arizona, like, several days later so I was like “that’s the perfect word.” So I ended up loving it.
JF: Her only child is flying off.
RW: Yeah. So it made a little more sense to me. I didn’t think so much of the bug.
CB: You can read it on many different levels.
RW: Yeah exactly, you can read into the words in so many different ways, with different meanings.
JF: Yeah, and we had no idea what “ditirambos” meant when we chose it, we just thought “Ah, that’s a cool sounding word.”
CB: Great. So now, six months later, has your relationship to your words changed at all?
JF: I don’t know. We chose to keep them on as long as they will stand up, and they don’t seem to be showing any wear and tear. We plan on keeping them there.
CB: Has the meaning changed at all?
RW: I don’t think so, no. I think its nice when people come over and they don’t know what its all about and to hear reactions.
JF: We enjoy the weird reactions. This guy who works at the hospital, he parks up the street, and he walks by our house all the time and we chat with him, and he came up to us and said “Did you guys start a home business?” and we were like “No, why?” and he was like “Well you have that sign on your house.” [Laughter]
RW: ANd the UPS person too. He said, “What is this all about? I drive around and deliver in different areas,” so, yeah.
JF: I’m sure you are aware it has also become a point of contention here on the War Streets there are lawsuits and…some of the word that we walked by, we are walking through the neighborhood way after the deadline to remove them from the homes and we are like “I guess that means F-you!”
CB: Huh. Maybe. So not knowing the translation meaning you can project whatever [meaning].
JF: I think that’s the message they are sending.
CB: Yeah, so I was going to turn to that next. Can you tell me what you know about the HRC controversy and then if you have any opinions on it?
JF: I think its a very good thing that people are interested in historic preservation but I think they go too far. I wouldn’t want to see people replace windows on these historic homes over here with white vinyl windows, you know, put shingles over the brick or something, but I think they [the HRC] go too far sometimes.
RW: Yeah, I think, I knew that this was only a limited time project and I think I remember discussing, saying “That’s a shame.” Because its so cool. And you meet people and then you kind of– like I met this woman Sharon at the opening event and I couldn’t remember her name– she said her word was “Baseball” so I saw her out in public one time and I just looked at her and I said “Baseball! I don’t remember your name, I’m sorry, but I know you are the baseball house.” So I think it brings community together. It is interesting when you meet someone that has the word and what it means to them, its a conversation starter, I think it would be a shame to lose.
JF: Yeah, and we went to the opening event that they had where they sort of had some readings and we met all these people and they had a slide show of all the home and the photos they took of us standing in front of our house.
RW: So I hope that the community gets to win this. I think it is lovely, I don’t think it is offensive at all.
JF: And the whole organization, City of Asylum, is a unique thing in the city and it is a treasure for this neighborhood.
CB: That leads really nicely into my last question which is, can you all tell me what you think about public art’s broader role for the North Side, and maybe for the city of Pittsburgh?
RW: Well, I would definitely like to see more public art and I think in this neighborhood it has been emerging for decades but I think we are finally maybe at a tipping point. I think that it [public art] can play a great role in it [the neighborhood], especially in the Children’s Museum when they put the cloud forest there and when something comes up its exciting. Even on Route 28 the murals that they did, coming into Deutschtown, I think its a great opportunity to showcase your neighborhood and just capture some of the cool art that’s available.
JF: You know, we were in Barcelona a couple years ago, and that’s probably the most prominent public art city I have ever been in in my life. And that really, for me, aesthetically, defines Barcelona. Its everything from very old public art to very contemporary public art, juxtaposed, side-by-side that, I mean, you could hardly walk a block in Barcelona and not see a major outdoor installation.
RW: And the North Side is such a walkable area of Pittsburgh. We don’t have the hills, you know, and the struggles. Its just so easy to go and if we are going home, we can just walk on the River and say “Oh, lets just walk by the Children’s Museum to see the clouds in the summer” or whatever, you know? Like, lets just go check this out.
JF: And we walk the streets over here all the time.
CB: That’s great. Rebecca, you said the neighborhood has been emerging for a long time. Can you say more about what that means?
RW: Yeah, sure. I know that at one point in the neighborhood everyone who was wealthy enough moved north, and that’s from what I understand, Route 65 and Route 279 cut through neighborhoods and kind of destroyed pieces of the neighborhoods because it just became the highways and everyone started to move out and then urban sprawl and what not…and I think a lot of these neighborhoods were actually slated to be knocked down and destroyed and the public got together and they saved them.
JF: That really began after the city annexed them. I mean, this used to be Allegheny City, it used to be a separate–
RW: Yeah, I mean, but in more recent years I think that a lot of people gravitated to the war streets, and not so much in the Manchester side, or the Deutschtown area. People took these homes and restored them. Out neighborhood even in the last four years that we havel ived there, houses are being restored, you see a lot of action on Western Avenue on the Allegheny West side there is all these restaurants that have popped up and you see this momentum and the Garden Theater district– that Garden Theater. Its been a long time in the making, it still hasn’t really come about but there is hope with the City of Asylum, and hopefully the theater itself will end up getting the restaurant and that sort of keeps joining everybody more together so its really cool just to see how much is coming along.
JF: That’s why we chose this neighborhood to build our house, to live. I mean, we were trying to buy a house here at first and we ended up building, but we wanted to be part of that rejuvenating, emerging, we wanted to watch it build and watch it grow. We weren’t interested in going to, we never considered going to Shadyside or Squirrel Hill, we wanted to be part of that. And I think that because everybody is working towards this common goal there is a lot of cameraderie. I mean, we have more friends in this neighborhood than probably everywhere I’ve lived put together in my entire life, in a very short time.
CB: Do you have any additional comments or anecdotes that you would like to share that I haven’t given you a chance to talk about?
JF: You gave us a pretty good chance to talk.
RW: Thank you.