Neighborhood Matters: An Outreach and Advocacy Project by Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections

by Angela Lee

“Neighborhood Matters” is an outreach and advocacy project hosted by Northeastern University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections (ASC). This lunch time series aims at promoting diversity and inclusion by organizing a free public event; its goal  includes bridging campus and community. “Neighborhood Matters” first began in 2014 and is held at Snell Library on the Northeastern University (NEU) campus two to three times a semester. The project was proposed and led by the head of NEU’s Archives and Special Collections, Giordana Mecagni. “Neighborhood Matters” started out as the simple format of a Boston-specific documentary screening event; it has  grown into a more interaction-driven forum that encourages thought-provoking communication over the past six years.

The scope of this community-based initiative is confined to the city of Boston.  Within this geographical boundary, “Neighborhood Matters” sheds light on local history that is largely underrepresented through unique stories narrated by our neighbors. The project is an embodiment of NEU’s ASC, aligned with their collection policy to curate diverse historical records to preserve the history of Boston’s social movements. The individual voices captured by “Neighborhood Matters” bring insight and new perspectives to seemingly mundane places in Boston.

The project’s target audience includes local communities, as well as NEU members, but events are open to anyone who is interested in how actual neighbors have shaped and been shaped by Boston’s distinct neighborhoods. Not only does “Neighborhood Matters” encourage community members to appreciate their neighborhood more, but it also offers an opportunity to network. As a result, NEU’s ASC becomes a nexus of rekindled community spirit and identity.

According to NEU’s archivist, Molly Brown, the topic of each event is curated in response to current and socially significant issues that are worthy of public attention. Due to this adaptability, an event is planned a few months ahead of time, rather than on a yearly basis. Sometimes socially active figures reach out to NEU’s ASC and propose an idea for an event. For instance, Alison Barnet, who is a local author and a long time committed attendee of the “Neighborhood Matters,” suggested the recent event entitled “Once Upon a Neighborhood: A History of the South End from Alison Barnet.”

This author talk was held on February 11, 2020, and featured Alison Barnet as a special guest. Originally from New York, but now a resident of the South End since the 1960s when she was a transfer student at Boston University, Barnet has witnessed the ceaselessly changing landscape of Boston over the past half century.

This South End history writer shared her version of the Bostonian chronicle, which traces Boston’s legacy all the way back to the 1600s, based on her newest book Once Upon a Neighborhood: A Timeline and Anecdotal History of the South End of Boston. The event had a great turn out and a large number of elderly attendees, due to Barnet’s many personal allies who showed up to support her. While she recounted snippets of South End history, the audience reacted with fervent nodding or occasional sighs as a sign of empathy.

Following Barnet’s jovial reminiscing through her long-term residency in the South End, she presented video footage of her 1980s appearance on network TV. Barnet’s satirical performance in the skit addressed a looming threat of gentrification and displacement in Boston. Since the gentrified neighborhoods are still an ongoing battle faced by the city of Boston, her story is not limited to the past but resonates with all of us in the here and now. As the series’ self-explicit title suggests, neighborhood does matter. However, “Neighborhood Matters” asks us to consider why it matters, how a sense of neighborhood can be cultivated, and why it is important to stay connected with the people who live around us. The belief behind this outreach and advocacy project is that posing these questions makes a difference in our everyday life, while also demonstrating the tangible value of NEU’s ASC.

This grassroots empowerment is what has driven the “Neighborhood Matters” forward, resulting in enhanced social recognition of NEU’s ASC. Brown, NEU’s archivist, attributed the continuous positive feedback and growing number of loyal attendees as an indicator of the efficacy of “Neighborhood Matters” since its initiation. This gradual but steady effort contributes to increased community awareness, and its impact reverberates beyond NEU’s neighborhood.

Elizabeth Nagarajah, an attendee who is a Class of 1990 NEU alumna, described “Neighborhood Matters” as an invitation to all to reflect upon their society’s interconnectedness. As a Roxbury resident for nearly 40 years, Nagarajah is frustrated by the frequent marginalization of the Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park neighborhoods in the media. In her eyes, Roxbury is “a neighborhood full of families and people who care and love the area,” even though the neighborhood is “depicted as a crime infested area full of brokenness.” Nagarajah stressed the importance of people seeing more of these marginalized neighborhoods than what the local news displays, with the help of projects like “Neighborhood Matters.”

At the heart of NEU’s ASC’s achievement lies their proactive redefinition of their role as a social activist, as opposed to a simple institutional library and archives. NEU’s ASC has embraced their socio-geographical context as a means of garnering public support and earning advocacy. The more people realize the influence of their neighborhood through “Neighborhood Matters,” the more people commit to building a more inclusive community, supported by NEU’s ASC.

The Mount: Edith Wharton’s Autobiographical Home

Postcard of The Mount, Courtesy of the Edith Wharton Restoration Organization.

by Christine Jacobson

In her 1893 short story, “The Fullness of Life,” Edith Wharton described a woman’s nature as a “great house full of rooms”:

 “...there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawing-room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”

This passage stayed with me long after I forgot the outlines of the story. The metaphor is as deft as it is haunting, but it also reveals Wharton’s passion for architecture and design. Before House of Mirth brought Wharton critical acclaim as a novelist, Wharton was an authority on decorating and gardening. Her first book, The Decoration of Houses, was a treatise on the new post-Victorian style of American interiors which eschewed clutter and ornamentation in favor of symmetry, utility, and clean lines. Together with her co-author, Ogden Codman, Wharton ushered in the new reigning style of fine-de-siecle America. In 1901, Codman and Wharton embarked on a new project that would put their principles into practice: The Mount, Wharton’s summer home in the Berkshire Mountains.

The Mount is an autobiographical house. It was designed by Wharton exactly to her tastes with elements borrowed from Italian, French, and English traditions—but the execution is wholly her own. Though it contains 42 rooms, The Mount is considerably smaller than the neighboring “cottages” built by wealthy families, such as the Vanderbilts, who preferred to summer in New England. Also in contrast with her neighbors, Wharton opted for a facade of white stucco and black wooden accents rather than brick or stone. Compared with the dark Richardsonian mansions nearby, The Mount cuts a bright, cheerful figure among the verdant Berkshire hills.

I visited The Mount last April to see writer Lauren Groff in conversation with editor Heidi Pitlor as part of the museum’s True Conversations series. The chat was held in Wharton’s airy drawing room and was filled to capacity. Groff spoke movingly about what it meant to her to be inside Wharton’s home and to have browsed Wharton’s library earlier that day. She put her hand over her heart as she described opening Wharton’s copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. For me, her story represented three generations of incomparable women writers coming together across space and time through a single book—a book preserved with immense care and kept in a library conserved through great effort and fortitude. For me, this is what great cultural heritage institutes are all about.

The library is one of two crown jewels at The Mount. The other is Wharton’s breathtaking Italianate garden (—Wharton also published a book on Italian Villas and their Gardens in 1904). Each cost the Edith Wharton Restoration organization, which owns the house, roughly two and a half million dollars to restore. Stephanie Copeland, former president of the Restoration Organization, had hoped the gardens and library would galvanize visitors and fundraising opportunities for the house. By 2008, neither had materialized and the organization defaulted on its loans. Copeland resigned and Susan Wissler stepped in to replace her. The Restoration Organization quickly lurched into advocacy and outreach mode. It launched a Save the Mount campaign which led to an outpouring of donations from the public. Additionally, The Mount targeted a cadre of wealthy donors to join the newly formed National Committee, an annual giving society that would support the operation of the estate. The bar for becoming a member is an annual gift of one thousand dollars, but many members are rumored to have pledged far more. (Francis Ford Coppola and George and Laura Bush are among its members.) By 2015, The Mount was back in the green.

In addition to its fundraising efforts, The Mount also recognized, crucially, its responsibility to the local community and as a result, revitalized its public events program. The True Conversations series I attended last spring is one exciting facet of this in which beloved local figure and nationally acclaimed short story editor Heidi Pitlor interviews American female authors. The museum’s new stewards have also embraced its reputation as a haunted house and host ghost tours in the evenings. And in 2020 the Mount will celebrate the centennial of Wharton’s novel, Age of Innocence with film screenings, discussions, book clubs, and an exhibition. I’m planning to drive out to The Mount to see Elif Batuman in conversation with Jennifer Haytock about the novel, which happens to be one of my favorites, later this year. (If you’re persuading low-income librarians from Boston to rent a zip car to drive four hours for your events, you’re doing something right.)

Wharton only occupied the house for a decade. Though it was one of the most prolific periods of her life as an author, it was also a period of profound suffering and deprivation. Wharton’s husband, Teddy, suffered from a depression that grew worse during their stay in the Berkshires and their life together became intolerable. Wharton sold The Mount after their divorce in 1912. For a house with such a cheerful facade, The Mount has had an unusual share of woe. However, its current stewards appear to be on the right path. Cultural heritage professionals know that advocacy starts with giving people a reason to believe in your work. (See Larry Hackman’s Many Happy Returns for more advocacy wisdom.) With its shrewd grooming of sustainable donors and effective outreach to its local community, The Mount has shown it has plenty of reasons to have our support.