Hey PoCo Musers! It feels good to be blogging again for the Museum. The last year and a half has been a whirlwind adventure. It’s hard to believe that the initiative that brought me to the museum in the first place will be coming to a close at the end of next month! If you’ve just begun following the museum you can read about the early days of the Central Stories Project here.
The Central Stories Project is a neighborhood study- the first of its kind at the Porter County Museum. With support from the Indiana Humanities and the United Way of Porter County, Jake and I began to collect stories and information about the Central Neighborhood. Our exhibit opened in June of and will run through the end of January 2014. The Indiana Historical Society recently awarded the project with Outstanding History Project for 2013. Overall the Central Stories Project has been so successful that the Porter County Museum decided to extend it into a series continuing this year in Ogden Dunes.
Though it will be nice to put the project to rest in terms of official programs, Jake and I are beginning to realize that the effects of this project will continue past the run of the exhibit. Not only has the Central Stories Project dramatically changed the way this museum thinks about exhibits and programs, but the project is inevitably linked to conversations going on in the community right now about neighborhoods and the value of buildings. We really could not have chosen a more exciting time to begin the Stories Project series.
Neither of us is trained as historians, but we are interested in history. We know very little about architecture, but we love buildings. We approached the project with questions that revolved around stories and place and meaning. Our humanities backgrounds influenced our mission statement: The Central Stories Project reinvests the places where life is lived with meaning.
We were two recent graduates settling into a new home, guided by questions like ‘what makes a neighborhood important’ and ‘why are people connected to particular places’ or ‘what does the word place even mean’.
To make the task of studying the entirety of the Central neighborhood more approachable, four buildings were almost arbitrarily chosen. Heritage Lutheran, Pioneer Apartments, The Valparaiso Woman’s Club, and Central Elementary. Coincidentally, these buildings represent important pieces of residential life –Religious, Domestic, Social, and Educational. We quickly learned how apt the presence of these four institutions was in the geographic center of this area. They are the heart of the neighborhood – both literally and figuratively.
We met with individuals connected to the buildings, those who lived on the surrounding streets. We even distributed flyers to every house in the neighborhood (upsetting the post office on one more than one occasion). We spoke with these people as researchers and as new residents and as we did, realized our own experience reflected in their stories.
You can’t come out and ask a question like “what makes this neighborhood important” unless you’re prepared to be met with an awkward silence. Believe us, we’ve tried. Instead, the answer to this question comes from the themes that arise in each conversation. We heard about the intangible things like the sound of the place (every resident describes it as train whistles, church bells at nine, noon, and six, and children playing at Central School), the practical things like its walkability or its proximity to downtown, and perhaps most importantly we heard that the fact that people had lived there before meant something to those who lived there now.
The walkability of the Central neighborhood is a luxury in most towns, and virtually impossible in others where groceries, schools, and churches have moved outside of neighborhood areas to bigger, more spacious buildings. Downtown is only a few blocks away. More than three parks can be reached easily on foot (we ourselves play basketball at the Methodist church or at Central –affectionately referred to ‘home’ and ‘away’ courts). If you have children you can walk with them to a 4 star school just down the street. Valparaiso is undeniably fortunate to still be able to call itself a city of neighborhoods, where many of these institutions still find themselves in residential areas.
A previous century has left its mark on the Central neighborhood, and its residents would have it no other way. One interviewee put it more simply than we could ever hope to “I like to live where I know there’s been living”. The walkable streets, the houses with large front porches, and the tokens so many home owners find in nooks and crannies remind them that they are one part of this neighborhood’s story – connected to those before, but also those who come after.
The neighborhood and the way we think about it seems to be a flexible thing, changing slightly with the needs of each of those who live there. However the longer we live and research here, the more we ask the questions our mission statement raises: where are the places that are important to us? And how can we continue to reinvest them with meaning?
Be sure to stop by the museum before the end of January to see the Central Stories Project before it closes. Join us on January 19, from 1-4p to hear about the museum’s plans for 2014 and celebrate CSP’s award from the Indiana Historical Society, Outstanding History Project.