Word on the street

Shawn Hayward dials S for Story.

If you’ve walked down Water Street lately you’ve probably seen some new signs. They’re shaped like speech bubbles with phone numbers written on them. Dial the number on your cell phone and you’ll hear about an experience that might not have made history, but tales Chris Brookes says are important nonetheless.

“We didn’t want to go for the great big important stories, or the historically significant stories,” says Brookes. “We just wanted people’s personal stories, and we could have put up a million of them.”

The project is called [HERE]SAY, and 26 signs went up June 15 after a year of planning and fundraising by Brookes and Dale Jarvis. The stories can also be heard online at www.heresay.ca

[HERE]SAY isn’t a tourism information service, and it’s not a history lesson. It’s a way for people to learn how downtown is experienced by the people who live, work, and spend time there. Brookes said the stories are told by townies for townies, but people from away will want to hear them as well.

“I would think the average tourist would enjoy it,” he says. “Suddenly you can get the inside stories. It’s like peeling a whole layer of skin off downtown and being able to see inside it.”

Brookes and Jarvis got the idea from [MURMUR], a similar project in Toronto that was launched in 2003, and has since spread to eight cities worldwide, including Dublin, Edinburgh, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Funding for the project has come from the NL Arts Council, City of St. John’s, and Downtown Development Commission, with phone lines and software being donated by Bell Aliant and the Parliant Corporation.

Close to 50 stories about various parts of Water Street are available for people to hear. Brookes said they wanted to collect stories from a wide swathe of the population, but resorted to friends and acquaintances after an interview on CBC’s Morning Show only netted them one email.

The stories people told took place as early as a few years ago and as late as the 1940s. One woman told of her friend losing a sandal while sitting on the ledge of the Bowring Building. Another person talked about the Mount Cashel Christmas raffles where people could win live chickens, among other things.

Despite the drunken debauchery that takes place on Water Street, Brookes said they didn’t get any R-rated stories.

“I’m surprised we didn’t,” he says. “Maybe people were too polite to give those stories. We should have some absolutely pornographic stories up, but everybody was very sober.”

“Maybe that’s for the next round of stories we collect.”

The goal of [HERE]SAY is to record the experiences of average people and make them available to everyone, experiences that people would normally only talk about in a casual, one-on-one conversation.

“There’s an invisible landscape surrounding us,” says Jarvis. “When we walk down Water Street we’re walking down a street of buildings, but we’re also walking down a street of stories and a street of memory.”

Donna Bishop, a tourism information counsellor with the Downtown Development Commission, was one of the storytellers. She described a childhood memory of watching cartoons on colour TVs in a department store window every Saturday morning.

“I’m always telling stories anyway for the tourists,” says Bishop, who grew up on Waldegrave Street.

Both Brookes and Jarvis have experience with story telling. Brookes is an award-winning radio documentarian, and Jarvis runs the Haunted Walk, which takes people on a ghost tour of downtown St. John’s.

“I have an interest in stories and how stories relate to place,” said Jarvis. “I’m fascinated by the way in which history and place and story telling all weave together.”

The hardest part to putting the [HERE]SAY together, according to Jarvis, wasn’t collecting the stories, but getting the phone lines and computer program set up. The automated system is run through a Macintosh computer in Brookes’ office.

“We kind of learned as we went along how to deal with the technical side of things,” said Jarvis.

Brookes said they limited [HERE]SAY to Water Street because they had to start somewhere, and Jarvis and Brookes both live downtown. Brookes added that Duckworth Street’s power poles are covered with posters, which meant they’d have to put the signs so high people wouldn’t be able to see them easily.

Brookes says he hopes the project will eventually spread across the whole province, preserving an oral history that is quickly fading away.

“So many things get lost in Newfoundland, especially in rural Newfoundland,” he says. “This is a downtown project, but I’d like to see it in rural Newfoundland. Communities die or they change. Someone forgets what happened on that rock, or at that place, 80 years ago.”

Though the signs go up on June 15, the official launch party is on June 19 at Bianca’s. Jarvis says getting the project started on Water Street will make expanding it to other parts of the city and province a lot easier.

“When you hear a story, it unlocks another story, and another memory,” he says. “I think the more stories people listen to through [HERE]SAY, the more stories they’ll remember.”


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