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Public history students showcase historic neighborhoods

Friday, September 25, 2015

Dan Serafin of Serafin's Grocery

The latest exhibit at the Erie Art Museum -- “Connect: Grassroots Efforts to Reshape Our Community” – showcases eight community projects designed to address problems like poverty and violence now plaguing the Erie community.

Many of the displays propose capital projects, from turning the closed McBride Viaduct into a pedestrian bridge to building a tunnel to connect Erie’s eastside with the peninsula.

A group of Mercyhurst students, under the direction of history professors Dr. Chris Magoc and Dr. Benjamin Scharff, took a different approach.

They created an exhibit called “You are Here, We are Here” that’s designed to help re-establish a positive self-image and identity for the neighborhoods of Erie’s historic East Side. Inspired by the community development work of the Sisters of St. Joseph East Side Neighborhood Network, it explores and honors the history, culture and architecture of an area extending from E. 16th Street to E. 26th Street and from French Street to East Avenue.

The title of the project was chosen to reflect the reality that a once-vibrant, ethnically mixed neighborhood community is still just that, filled with both long-time residents and newcomers committed to maintaining that spirit of a welcoming, culturally diverse community.

“We hope that our project – which we intend as just a beginning for more work by the Mercyhurst Public History program on the East Side – helps to foster an appreciation for the continuing vitality of the people and places of this fascinating and overlooked section of our city," Magoc said.

The project has been an inspiring educational experience for both students and faculty, he said. “We have seen up close the cultural vibrancy that continues to infuse the ethnically diverse neighborhoods and places of social significance on Erie’s East Side – places like Serafin’s, the oldest family-owned grocery store in Erie, and Urbaniak’s, an iconic family-owned meat market, and many more.” There is rich history and architectural uniqueness in the built landscape that has for too long gone unappreciated, he added. 

“You Are Here, We Are Here” is an ongoing, collaborative project that already includes oral history interviews, a walking/driving tour of important sites, an archaeological investigation of an abandoned industrial site, and a photographic portrait. 

Students involved in the project included graduate student Victoria Kreysar, who worked on “You are Here, We are Here” last year for her senior project, and seniors Ian Housner and Taylor Rollins. Rollins’s photographs are the main visual focus of the display. She said she aimed to capture both urban decay and the city’s hopes for renewal. “This photographic documentary was meant to show the East Side through a hopeful lens,” she said.

The “Connections” exhibit opened Sept. 25 at the Erie Art Museum, 411 State St., and will be open to the public through Jan. 10.