The concept of place is dynamic – almost hard to comprehend. A place’s identity and meaning changes. The evolution of a place can be charted by studying the development of a physical landscape or by chronicling the history of different groups that once called it home. The study of place-making, however, is something quite different. It is an intricate process that requires studying how, through their lived experiences, an area’s inhabitants, ascribed associative meanings to a building or space. Through time those meanings become significant and irrevocably tied to a particular location.
In the early 2000s, Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood started to show visible signs of revival. One community resident remarked that Detroit Shoreway had become the “Greenwich Village of Cleveland.” The redevelopment of the community would assuredly attract visitors and new neighbors. The community would be given an economic stimulus. This resident could not be more pleased. Another resident, however, referring to the same location and time remembered the revival differently. She recalled the commercial development as the beginning to a budding chasm between the community’s low-income, longtime residents, and the neighborhood’s new high-end image. This resident commented that it bothered her that she “can’t support [her] neighborhood businesses only because they’re out of [her] price range.” The latter perception of Detroit Shoreway is not critical of the community’s revitalization but suggests that renewal does not necessarily benefit all neighbors. Both residents’ perceptions of the same place and time are completely valid. The story of a place is never one-sided.
Regardless, most people probably assume that relating the history of a place is nothing more than presenting a linear account of how it progressed from one point in time to another. The Center for Public History + Digital Humanities (CPHDH) advocates for using the stories of Clevelanders to piece together a more inclusive history of a place, as illuminated above. Each contributors’ perceptions and remembrances, however, are unique and necessary to paint a comprehensive history because place is defined through the perceptions of people. One is hard-pressed to find two persons that lived the same experience or perceived an event the same, which is great for this type of work.
The Cleveland Voices podcast creators encourage and invite all community members – past and present – to participate in place-making by adding their perspectives to the historical record. Through oral histories, the interviewer and interviewee unlock the recesses of the latter’s memory. Together they journey to the past and record participants’ perceptions of places, people, events, and times. The interviewee may tell more than how a place looked. By being encouraged to explore their other sensory dimensions, such as how an event smelled or sounded, the history of our region is enlivened. By relying on oral histories to tell the story of Cleveland neighborhoods, the listener can hear the elevated pitches of excitement when a community member recalls fond memories of place. The listener is also drawn into the intense and contemplative expressions of fear remembered. These curated snippets, from pertinent recordings, induce feeling and prompt reaction. They are combined with a scripted narration that explains and contextualizes an event or time to highlight the wide-ranging perspectives intrinsic to all places.
Finding oral history candidates, shaping the interviews while fostering an environment of shared authority, reading, researching, writing, recording, editing, and sometimes doing it all over again, takes unimaginable time. In the end, however, the finished product is well worth it. The hope for the future of Cleveland Voices is to keep connecting and engaging with the community. The podcast initiative of CPHDH shows that history should be and can be accessible for all. Cleveland Voices symbolizes the convergence of academia and community on equal footing – to understand our past and become more conscious of our present.
Thank you to all past, present, and future oral history candidates and participants. Your voices matter.
Presently, CPHDH is working on the next Cleveland Voices series, which will explore the Coventry Village neighborhood in Cleveland Heights. Stay tuned.