May 26, 2017 | Sandy Carrol, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator
Trying to write about May 26 on July 3. Some things are hazy now, and I'm trying to decipher my notes.
Sandy and I spend part of the morning chatting about her trip to Germany. Her first time out of the country. I learn about her sons, her ex-husband, and her Italian Catholic heritage. Sandy is the volunteer coordinator at Old Economy Village. A thankless position she tells me. It’s nonstop and difficult to find folks that are interested and committed. I understand. I have worked as a volunteer coordinator for nonprofits. Sandy volunteered at OEV beginning when she was twelve. A central setting of her childhood summers. Now most available volunteers are over 60. An aging neighborhood and regional economic changes since the 1980s?
Sandy was planning on giving two site tours for potential wedding rentals, but they rescheduled. Historical research, maintenance, and preservation funded by the wedding industry. A third of Sandy’s time is spent with rentals. I help her update a wedding brochure. She wants it to look more professional and is working on securing partnerships with local vendors. I wonder how much the wedding parties and guests know or care about the history of the venue. A picturesque garden wedding atop a site of communal, celibate, German Protestant separatists diligently working and waiting for the second coming. They all died, and the community disintegrated waiting. Charmed, beguiled, and rallied by a charismatic leader. Commitments dissolved and broken down by perpetual anticipation and unfulfilled promises and prophecies. Recurring historical plot points. I think about wedding celebrations at a site of settlement and complicated politics whose history has been melded and molded into the American mythos. Freedom of religion, Protestant work ethic, evidence of the eventual and rightful success of capitalism over experiments in collectivity. Of course the site’s history and community defy simple classifications. It is probably easier for wedding guests not to think about it. Easier for most not to think about the history of the spaces we inhabit.
I attend a volunteer “cafe”. A social gathering Sandy organized to build community and thank the volunteers. Some business is discussed. A representative from a local nonprofit visits to discuss mileage reimbursement for retired and senior volunteers. The conversation jumps quickly and sporadically from volunteer related business, to upcoming events, to personal conversation, to the history of the site. One woman brings up a television program about Albert Einstein. “Wasn’t he a son of a gun?” she asks. “I feel sorry for his first wife,” another chimes in. “She was brilliant and stuck as a housewife.” Others nod in agreement. I wonder if that is true or common knowledge or if it has been fact checked. "Son of a gun" spurs the conversation to transition to the meanings and supposed origins of popular English sayings. Cost you and arm and a leg. “Language is living, there’s no doubt about it,” one woman concludes. What about “Wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole?” another asks. The visitor from the nonprofit and I are noticeably confused and enamored by the dizzying pace and tangential content of the conversation. Sandy shifts the discussion to upcoming volunteer field trip logistics.
Volunteers will be assisting at the forthcoming event titled “An American Celebration”. Many are thankful that the event will only one day. A fire truck is coming. And antique bicycles. Hamburgers and hot dogs will be available for volunteers to eat. Someone mentions that Dippin’ Dots will be a vendor, but they need to confirm. “Ice Cream of the Future” as promoted by the company’s slogan. Speculative, space-age, novelty ice cream at shopping malls, carnivals, baseball stadiums, and water parks. Fitting for an event titled “An American Celebration”. I search online for Dippin Dots. “White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer waged a five-year Twitter feud against Dippin’ Dots” reads a top link.
“Is Syd bringing pizza? We had too many pretzels last year.”
The volunteer that gave me my first tour of Old Economy begins listing the lineage of non-Harmonist individuals and families living in a particular house on site. Katherine (or Catherine? Or Kathryn?) Nicholas, a poet, lived there in 1832. I do a quick Google search for Katherine or Catherine or Kathryn the poet. It leads me to a website called billiongraves.com. “Discover and Honor YOUR ANCESTORS” proclaims the splash page. Little information is available without paying for a subscription.
“The house was moved in 1965. It was still standing before the restoration...1916, isn’t that when the state acquired the property? The mechanics building and the store were turned into apartments.”
There is a semi-heated conversation about the availability and cost of sugar at OEV when it was in operation. Once again, I’m wondering how historically accurate this is; or where people are getting their information. The conversation shifts to accessibility and access to particular buildings on site. Some volunteers do not know the best routes for visitors that use wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
Accessibility transitions into a conversation about the PBS program called “Victorian Slum House”. The program focuses on London tenements after the Industrial Revolution. Before many health and safety regulations and inspections. Systemic poverty, terrible conditions and a disregard for marginalized communities. In the television program “modern-day families, couples and individuals recreate life in London’s East End as their forebears once lived between 1860-1900”. Modern families do not need to recreate this era to experience and understand economic and political systems of oppression. It has contemporized. Recurring historical plot points. I am reviewing my notes and writing this shortly after a horrific, preventable fire at a public housing tower in London. The management company ignored complaints and evidence of serious hazards in favor of cutting costs. Business, industry, and profit first. Not any different than “Slum House”. Investigators believe that the metal facade of the building helped fuel the fire. Using this material for exteriors of buildings is forbidden in the United States and many European countries. This did not prevent companies from supplying the British market. “Survivors have charged that the facade was installed to beautify their housing project for the benefit of wealthy neighbors,” explains a New York Times article. Low cost “upgrades” to increase property values. The material was provided by the American manufacturer Arconic. “Innovation, Engineered” as promoted by the company’s slogan. Arconic split off from Alcoa, a giant aluminum manufacturing corporation founded in Pittsburgh in 1888. “Alcoa: The Element of Possibility™”. The library at my university was donated and named after the founder’s son, Roy A. Hunt. Philanthropy to ease an industrialist’s conscience. Roy’s portrait hangs in the library’s entry way. Bespectacled. Looming. Calmly, securely, and knowingly looking at visitors. There is a window with a rendering of the Pittsburgh landscape in the background. A happy marriage between nature and human construction. The river tamed by an iconic Pittsburgh bridge. Promises of innovation, progress, and technology. No different from the rhetoric of my university. I am reminded of the legacy of the Harmonists: an idealistic, unwavering commitment to progress. A coming utopia. Embracing the Industrial Revolution while trying to balance a dedication to collectivity. Capitalism won out. They died waiting.
One volunteer adds that she learned the origin of the phrase “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” by watching “Victorian Slum House”. Lived experiences transformed and reduced into figures of speech. I realize that multiple circles have come full circle. Spheres and webs. A simultaneous flattening and expanding. The past revealing itself. Reminding us of its presence though we thought it was gone or irrelevant. Just less visible. A reminder that both a lot and little has changed. Recurring historical plot points.
Above: Jonathan Borofsky, "Walking to the Sky", sculpture on Carnegie Mellon's campus (left) and a MetroNaps EnergyPod created by CMU alumni Arshad Chowdhury. Formerly in the Roy A. Hunt Library, pods range from $8,995 to $12,985 plus shipping and installation (right).