If This House Could Talk

If someone struck up a conversation with your house, what would it say?

Last autumn, 2009, the Cambridgeport History Project asked its neighborhood this question. With the goal of “bring[ing] the community together by sharing common stories,” over 70 homes, businesses, and churches in the Cambridgeport neighborhood displayed signs in their yards, sharing stories about their buildings and the residents who have inhabited them.

The signs are still up! If you walk down Pearl Street, Magazine, or Chestnut — some of the neighborhood’s busiest streets — you can’t miss them. If you’re anything like me, you stop your bicycle or pause your walk home to read them. And if you’re anything like me, you’re perpetually disappointed by the stories shared.

This housed was built in 1894 for Mr. G. H. Greenleaf for $5,000, and appears on a map of Cambridge for the first time in 1903. By 1904 H. Baxter Severance was the owner. He is listed in the Cambridge City Directory of that year as a book finisher. Most likely, he was involved in some way with Riverside Press. — 59 Chestnut Street

In 1885 a carriage house was added in the back yard, large enough for two carriages and four horses. It has a slate roof from the long-closed Monson quarries in Maine, said to be among the best black slate in the world. It has been completely renovated as a single-family rental property and won Cambridge’s Renovation of the Year award in 1998. — 127 Magazine Street

While arguably interesting to architecture geeks like me, these stories are far from “common stories” that might “bring the [Cambridgeport] community together.” They certainly don’t achieve the project’s goal of helping “make residents aware that they, and their immediate past, are valid parts of the continuum of history.” Where’s the immediate past?

A few of the signs do share some great stories, some signs of life that might actually promote the social cohesion this project seeks. Check out this story about 118-120 Pearl Street:

118-120 Pearl Street has great stories about ‘Angelina,’ an African-American man who … moved here from somewhere down South and sold flavored ice cones to children. Everyone over the age of 50 in Cambridgeport knows my house as ‘Angelina’s’ House, because this man left such an impression on the then-kids in the neighborhood.

Angelina would sing and shout and was known for his rhyming calls and high stepping as he went down the street to announce his arrival with a cart full of a block of ice, which he shaved on the spot and added flavored syrup. Many older people have told me spontaneous stories about him; one common one was that he was known to give flavored cones to children for free who didn’t have the money.

Unfortunately, stories like Angelina’s are hard to find. Most of the houses featured in Cambridgeport’s “If This House Could Talk” project tell nothing more compelling than what year the porch was renovated, or the profession of the original owner 150 years ago. How are those dry, distant histories expected to bring the community together?

Cambridgeport must have something more interesting to say. Even the oversupply of Greek Revival houses and apartment complexes designed by Newhall and Blevins must have unique stories behind their walls.

This short video documents a few examples of the stories featured in the “If This House Could Talk” project, then presents one small fraction of the more compelling stories Cambridgeport has to tell. I asked my housemates (we live in a duplex in Cambridgeport) for interesting neighborhood stories. I asked, “When you walk through Cambridgeport, what memories do you see?”

I can imagine asking everyone in my neighborhood the same question — not just my alternative, twenty-something housemates, but the family sharing the other half of our duplex (their son is in the Army, and when he visits home, he causes lots of trouble), or the couple next door (who plant tomatoes and are trying to have a baby), or the kids across the street (who sit on their porch and play guitar). What are their Cambridgeport stories? If everyone shared one personal tale, I imagine it really would help bring the community together.

video on Stellar … to be embedded soon

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