Arts & Literature

Real Local History

We Are Pittsfield aims to chronicle the city through the tales of its citizens.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

I recently plunged into one of those books that's perfect for late-night reading in bed. It's called Weird History 101. It's not particularly weird history, for the most part, but apparently a marketer thought more copies would move if it was so dubbed.

The premise of the tome is that its historical take differs from that of normal history classes and books, in which sober, distanced analysis wraps up history from a broad perspective, discussing how events impact nations and societies. It's important stuff, of course, but tends to ride along on waves of dates and numbers and non-gripping narratives.

The attempt to subvert that kind of view, to look at history through up-close and personal narratives instead, is certainly not new. It's long been championed by French scholars and by the likes of Americans Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel. Weird History 101 aims mostly to provide a sense of what some of history's less-explored corners were like from the viewpoints of those who witnessed them, not official historians. That can certainly be entertaining—a first-person account of dinner with Attila the Hun is not without its unusual charms. The Red Baron's account of spinning blindly out of control after catching a bullet to the skull is plenty gripping.

The power of such things, of course, is that they tap into how history is experienced: the broader context and implications of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are certainly of interest, but most people remember their own experiences that day, the accrual of those small details and images that anchor memory. Those richer, more personal takes always end up being the most interesting views of history.

Pittsfield, a town whose story in recent years has been one of an admirable reliance on the arts as a primary economic driver, has decided to tap into the stories of its residents to offer the same kind of personal take on its history. The project is called We Are Pittsfield, and the aim is creation of an online archive of written and filmed stories illuminating Pittsfield past and present. The undertaking is part of Pittsfield's art- and culture-centered celebration of its 250th year. We Are Pittsfield seeks everything "from personal accounts of historical events to familial tales passed from one generation to the next; from stories of struggles and victories to fun recollections of memorable days and nights in Pittsfield."

If you think of such projects in terms of pure art, it's a sure winner: gather stories from any place and time, and you're bound to turn up a few good narratives. There's just something about how humans remember that files things away according to story. One of the finest documentaries ever filmed, Vernon, Florida, worked in just this fashion, with filmmaker Erroll Morris merely finding a group of local men (and one woman) to share their trove of wisdom and eccentricity through talking about nothing in particular.

In Pittsfield's case, all comers are welcome, anonymously or otherwise. Storytellers need not be from Pittsfield, but are only invited to share stories about that city. Visit wearepittsfield.com, and you can submit a written version of your own Pittsfield tale or nominate yourself or someone you know to be filmed. Already the site is getting populated with entries. In one, "Monica Bliss" says, "I remember one day BMX Magazine took a picture for their cover at the park. We got about 15 kids on one bike for the photo shoot. I was at the top! I spent a lot of time hanging out in the park program. I specifically remember 'cross-gender day' at Common Park. I dressed up as Bruce Springsteen. Haha!"

It's just such stuff that history books often overlook: conversational and entertaining moments. Already, patterns are forming with the site's raw material as contributors emulate others—patterns of cataloguing a few randomly selected memories, of praise for Pittsfield. But what, over the long haul, will hopefully crop up as a result of the collecting and editing process is an event-based tale or three of gripping contours, especially as things progress to filming with the aid of project manager and AmeriCorps VISTA member Jennibeth Gomez. Seeing what emerges—an aggregate view of the real people Pittsfield—could offer an interesting counterpoint to the more academic history of the town's struggles and successes."

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