by Michael R. Allen
I just stumbled onto an article on Gaper’s Block about last year’s visit of StoryCorps to Chicago. Following up on the amazing work of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration to document oral history and folklore during the Great Depression, StoryCorps traveled the United States last year over six months to record the tales of today’s Americans:
The aim of StoryCorps is to continue that work; listening to today’s accounts and allowing for a shift in some of the particulars, you quickly realize that’s exactly what it’s doing. And, just as the WPA interviews were archived, with the permission of participants, their present-day counterparts are submitted to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress as well.
The Chicago visit began with an interview of our friend Tim Samuelson, the city’s official cultural historina, and his wife Barbara Koenen. However, StoryCorps selected a wide range of culturally-connected participants and, perhaps most important, interviewed many volunteers of all backgrounds.
Reading this article coincided with an invitation that Claire Nowak-Boyd and I received to appear in a similar film project. The coincidence has got me thinking: Why doesn’t someone set out to document the oral histories alive in St. Louis?
While many people are doing the great work of photographing and researching places, some of the strongest and most compelling accounts of places come through stories, anecdotes and amazing recollections of this city. Many of the most astute observations about the places of this region have come to me from conversations with people who have never published a word.
Obviously, a total historical documentation effort aimed at the built environemnt of St. Louis is impossible. There have been some impressive efforts, like the mostly-forgotten Heritage/St. Louis photographic survey of the 1970s that endeavored to photgraph every historic building in the city. There is the work of Larry Giles to collect and conserve hundreds of thousands of physical artifacts related to the story of this region and its architectural life. There are numerous collections of literature, artifacts and other items in institutions ranging from the St. Louis Public Library to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
However, one thing not being documented much are the statements of those who have shaped and been shaped by the architecture and unique places of St. Louis. At a moment when we still have access to the people who participated in the early rehab boom of the 1970s as well as those involved in the urban renewal era before that, we have the chance to record those stories and idea that won’t make it into print or into the form of a building. We could save the stories that we will regret losing.
StoryCorps and other efforts do great work that inexpensive media makes very possible today. St. Louisans should consider whether or not such an effort would be beneficial here. At a time of great change in the shape and form of the city, when massive rebuilding efforts are underway, an oral history project centered on the built environment seems particularly useful.