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Students take history to the streets

Thursday, October 31, 2013

If these walls could talk … oh, the stories that Erie’s historic buildings would tell. And, talk they will as Mercyhurst University students embark on a public history project aptly dubbed “Erie Places, Erie Stories.”

Led by history professor Chris Magoc, Ph.D., the semester-long project has Mercyhurst history students photographing Erie’s historic structures, collecting oral histories from people familiar with the buildings and assembling their work in a striking photographic tableau, which will be mounted at Stairways Center City Arts, 138 E. 26th St., in December. The students’ photos will be available for sale with proceeds going toward neighborhood nonprofit groups situated within the historic areas that students worked.  A number of the images remaining at the project's end will be mounted in the former Erie Sports Store building at 7th and State, now owned by HANDS (Housing and Neighborhood Development Service).

The efforts of these Mercyhurst students will also contribute to the first countywide survey of historic buildings in more than three decades being undertaken by Preservation Erie, of which Magoc is a co-founder, its long-time former president and current board member.

“The built landscape of any city is a tangible expression of its identity, and public historians appreciate the fact that a region’s future is deeply rooted in its past,” Magoc said. “This project allows our studentsto become public historians: photographing historic neighborhoods and buildings, interviewing citizens with a connection to and understanding of a building’s features and local significance, and putting an exhibition together that will feature both the images and captions containing excerpts of those interviews. The result will broaden public awareness of and appreciation for Erie’s distinctive, historic built landscape.”

Students in Magoc’s “Introduction to Public History and Museum Studies” class are collaborating with the Erie Nonprofit Partnership, Stairways Center City Arts, HANDS, the Mercyhurst Service Learning Office, Preservation Erie and other community partners on the exhibit. 

“It was Bob Wooler at the Nonprofit Partnership who had the original idea,” Magoc said.  “Appreciative of our historic built environment, Bob envisioned a project that might shine a spotlight on great structures throughout the city, one that would take students into neighborhoods where their eyes would be trained on the architectural richness of buildings, and their ears tuned to the memory of community storytellers with connections to those buildings," Magoc explained.  "I immediately fell in love the idea.  And I knew this would be perfect for the course, which always includes a significant hands-on experiential component."  

Magoc noted that the project is particularly timely because of the county-wide survey of historic buildings that Preservation Erie is conducting, which will be documenting several thousand structures over the next year.  "Both projects," Magoc concluded, "advance the same goal: to cultivate greater appreciation for historic structures and promote their adaptive reuse." 

Among the historic areas students will photograph and conduct oral histories are Little Italy, Upper & Lower Parade Street, Lawrence Park, State Street, the Polish neighborhoods on Erie’s east side and the West 12th Street industrial district.