IMAGINING WATERWAYS IN A POST-INDUSTRIAL CITY at “Deindustrialization and Its Aftermath: Industry, Class, and Resistance,” Concordia University
“Oral History and Community Memory,” co-taught by Anne Valk and Holly Ewald, teaches both theory and practice. Students research the history of an area, interviewing people who spent time there. And then they use the archive of interviews to teach others, creating interactive exhibits and tours that reveal Providence’s history and spaces through the stories of those who lived here.
For the past three years, the class has focused on the history of Mashapaug
Pond, the largest urban pond in Providence. Today, pollution left by the famous Gorham Manufacturing Company complicates and hampers local use and knowledge of the pond. As a region with a complicated relationship with Providence’s industrial and postindustrial history, the Mashapaug Pond project was an excellent example of a way that one area works with these histories.
I took the class in the spring of 2013, and used Mashapaug’s archive of
interviews and research in other classes, including an independent study where I worked with Annie and Holly in learning about and participating in the work that teachers and local activists were doing. Among the groups we worked with were students and teachers at Alvarez High School, located at the former Gorham factory site, who use Mashapaug’s industrial history to discuss the pollution of the present as well as the remediation efforts being done for the future.
As the result of my experience in these classes, Annie and Holly invited me to
participate in a panel at Concordia University’s “Deindustrialization and Its Aftermath: Industry, Class, and Resistance” conference.
Anne, Holly, and I had an hour and a half to introduce Mashapaug Pond, its
history, and our work. Our panel title was “Imagining Waterways in a Post-Industrial City,” pointing to the fact that Mashapaug Pond is but one part of the greater watershed, carrying pollutants into and out of the pond itself.
First, Annie discussed the history of Mashapaug, locating it within the industrial boom of Providence that led to the city’s one-time nickname, “the Beehive of Industry.” She then discussed the “bust” of Providence’s industries, and the effect this all had upon the city, its environment, and its people. She also discussed the work underway to document and archive these histories.
Holly spoke next, describing her work with the Urban Pond Procession, a
yearly parade that she and others organize to raised awareness about history and environmental problems. She also discussed other projects about and around the pond on which she has worked, from her first, a sign improvement project that increased residents’ understanding of how to interact with the polluted water safely, to her most recent, working with Alvarez students in Pond-focused art projects, from sign painting to puppet making.
Then it was my turn. I focused on the student perspective of the work within
various classrooms. I discussed the inspiration that I felt doing oral history work, the way it allows us to understand the large-scale changes in Providence’s landscape and history on a human level, as well as the influence that the Brown class had on my future research and techniques in museum-style exhibits. Working in the Alvarez classroom was a role reversal; just one year prior, I myself learned the history of the pond through oral histories and now I was teaching it to students who had a stronger connection to the pond than I did.
The Alvarez students, going to school so close to the pond—in the only remediated space of the old Gorham factory site—had a unique perspective of the factory itself and its environmental legacy. (For example, they lack outdoor sports facilities because of Gorham’s pollutants.) They felt real ownership and connection to the pond and continually repeated their desire to maintain that connection even after graduation. They valued the opportunity to learn about the history of “their” places, not just the larger history of the nation.
The Brown students working on the project found value in it, too. Most of us did not grow up in Providence, and so our work at Mashapaug was a valuable way to create and maintain a connection of the history and reality of Providence today. We learned to understand and value the interconnected reality of the city of Providence, from the watershed to the experiences of social change throughout the past century. Holly’s artistic activism, Annie’s oral history work, and my student research reflect different facets of a project that focuses on the central issue of Providence’s narrative as a city: the boom, the bust, and the big question of where do we go from here? The work of Brown students, UPP, Alvarez students and staff, and other activists in Providence can help re-integrating Mashapaug into the daily life of Providence residents as a creative and historic community center rather than industrial waste site.
Guest Blogger, Abigail Ettleman graduated from the Public Humanities Master's Program in May 2014.