Public Record: Exploring 19th-century Pittsburgh through poetry, technology, and crime.

Cities are labs for the senses. They creak, crack, twist, turn, and are built upon layers and layers of history. Many urban explorers - such as Dan Hill of City of Sound, the folks behind 99% Invisible, and (ahem, excuse the plug) projects like the Contraphonic Sound Series- have been putting their ears to the City to hear what pops up. Justin Hopper, a Pittsburgh-based writer and artist, has been working on one of the more intriguing ways in which a city's past can be aurally contextualized within its present form. Hopper combs through microfiche to find records of 19th-century crimes committed on the streets of Pittsburgh and then synthesizes them into the creation of poems and recordings that are broadcast via iPhone app, cell phone, or mp3 as one enters the spot on the map where the crime occurred. Hopper's project serves as a Public Record, a new way to hear a city. The following is a guest post from Hopper on how the built form of Pittsburgh, and its choatically ordered design, allow one to walk through history on its streets.

Walking 19th-Century Pittsburgh, Today

On February, 27, 1880, William Kelly stood at the intersection of Fifth and Tunnel streets—today, Fifth Ave. and Sixth Ave. in Pittsburgh—having come from a drinking spree at George Shattock’s place down the road. (As Kelly himself admitted, “I’ve drank enough whiskey to float a canal boat.”) This was three years before Henry Hobson Richardson’s architectural landmark, the Allegheny County Courthouse, would tower over this corner; nearly a century before Robert Morris University and a host of financial offices would go in. I picture it as a plain meeting of two streets, as dark and cold as that winter’s night. And it was on that corner, on that night, that William Kelly drew one of the butcher’s knives he sold for a living and gutted his fellow alcoholic and rival, William Penn Herriott.

It’s one of the places and one of the stories illuminated in Public Record, a multimedia art and poetry project that explores the ghosts of Pittsburgh’s past and how they continue to haunt the city today. Public Record is a series of poems written using texts from 19th-century Pittsburgh crime reports. Audio performances of these poems are available to experience via cell phone in the locations in which the crimes actually occurred. There is no physical presence at these sites—just the psychogeographic impressions of people who came before us. But while rooted in the city’s invisible history, Public Record is very much about the city as it is today.

In the late 1990s, when political and business forces hoped to force Downtown transformation with a wrecking ball, many of us began looking at our home in a different way. What cultural capital exists, unseen, in these buildings and streets? How can I tap into that capital in these streets without so much as a trowel? This attitude—that Pittsburgh is more than the sum of its visible cultural parts—is one of the most important aspects of the city’s most recent Renaissance. Public Record plays on the city’s confused-yet-walkable design, its almost indecent relationship with its own history, and its self-portrait as the home of both robber-baron industrialism and trade unionism:Where other passers-by see an empty lot, Public Record sees the last resting place of Speilmeyer, the German anarchist, or Mary Kavenaugh, a councilman’s secret lover.

Public Record helps us to walk the city and remap it in our minds through a new mythology of the ordinary folk—people who never made the history books, but certainly made the police blotter. And while that may seem grim, its goal is lofty: To recapture Pittsburgh as a place in which ordinary people live extraordinary lives; to remind us that each square-foot of this city is haunted by realities far more romantic, if sometimes sordid, than most primetime dramas.

The intersection of Fifth Ave. and Sixth Ave. is twisted and confused today in some small forgotten part because of what William Kelly did there 130 years past. Through Public Record, I want to make just a sliver of those stories—the long-forgotten myths that comprise our geography—available on the city’s streets once again.

- Justin Hopper.

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