Recovery is going to take a long time, and my co-workers and I have been spending our days securing our collections. After Friday we will not be allowed in the building till further notice.
Today I was finishing boxing up our vertical files. These files contain a variety of information, much of it published material that serves as background information. Other items, such as the one I found today, really should join the archival manuscripts.
If you are unsure of this significance of this piece, please re-read the end of Monumental: Part 1.
Had it not been for the flood, I may never have found this bit of family history (but I still would have preferred if it hadn’t happened).
Every week I select a photo or two to share on our Instagram at work for “Throwback Thursday.” Sometimes this is easy, particularly on major holidays. Other times, such as the middle of August, require a bit more effort. I find myself browsing through folder after folder, looking for something that may resonate with our followers. There isn’t a magic formula. Occasionally I’ll post a photo I doubt will garner much interest, and it ends up being very popular. The opposite happens, too. For me, the best part is when I try to learn more about the photo and come across new-to-me bits of information about Hartford. Even if the story isn’t exactly what I wish it were, the journey can be amazing.
While searching recently, I came across a series of 20 photos in the City’s Department of Engineering collection. They were all marked as being buildings to be torn down for the extension of Hudson Street. What struck me was how much life was still present in an area about to be demolished: The bookcase next to the front door has a sign reading, “Books for sale, 5 cents”…
Women were conversing on a porch…
A child stood on the stairs watching the photographer…
And there was plenty of laundry.
Hudson and Elm have ended up being a microcosm of urban renewal in Hartford. Housing was destroyed in favor of automobile pathways. The Park River was forced underground. And after years of neglect (parking lot creation), developers are now trying to reinvigorate the neighborhood.
Using both the Historic Hartford Courant and the Street Commissioners records within the Hartford Town and City Clerk archives, I was able to ascertain that in his 1916 inaugural address, Mayor Frank Hagarty proposed an extension of Hudson Street from Buckingham Street to Elm Street. A bridge would be built over the Park River to connect the new road to Wells and Trumbull Streets to the north. Combined with South Hudson Street and the existing Hudson Street to the south, this would provide a route parallel to Main Street from one end of downtown to the other. The hope was it would reduce backups on Main Street.
The new route would require demolition. On August 14th, 1916, the Commission on the City Plan wrote to the Court of Common Council, recommending the extension. They provided this map, with the path (faintly) outlined in red:
In January 1917 the Hartford Courant wrote that the extension “is to start at Buckingham street and traverse back yards and marooned spaces until it gains egress just north of the old armory, there to plunge across the river opposite the bend in Wells street.” By June 1917 the plan had been approved, including the award of the following damages to those owning back yards and marooned spaces:
While many of these property owners lost their house/land, Bessie M. Beers and her mother, Martha P. Skinner, went for a different angle: a 90º angle. The 12-family house they owned originally ran east and west. To make room for the new street, the building was jacked up and turned to run north and south. The brick, three story structure was thought to be the largest house moving ever in the city.
There certainly were some innovative approaches. This row of houses was split in half, with one portion being moved to the other side of the new road. The eastern portion still stands, the western portion is now a marooned space we call a parking lot.
Less than two years later, the bridge was operational. In early January 1919 there were 1000 cars crossing it daily. The Courant believed “Mayor Frank A. Hagarty was justified in his recommendation.”
At this point in the story we begin to learn some of the City’s insurance history. In 1924, Connecticut General Life Insurance began preparations for their new headquarters on the block bordered by Elm Street, West Street, Capitol Avenue, and Hudson Street. During a rain storm in February 1925, the foundation of the 12-family Skinner-Beers house threatened to collapse. An estimated 125 people were living in the structure at the time. All were able to find a place to stay, and Connecticut General pledged to cover expenses. Workers were able to remove the tenants’ belongings, and soon the structure was razed.
Excess rain is a recurring theme in the Hudson-Elm area. An article in the Courant in April 1936 stated that $90,000,000 worth of stocks and bonds had to be dried out after the Connecticut General building was flooded the previous month.
The bridge itself had a short lifespan. In October 1942, three months shy of its 24th anniversary, removal began in order to make way for the Park River conduit. The flooding was used as an excuse to snuff out something natural in favor of concrete.
In 1957 Connecticut General Life Insurance (known today, following a merger, as CIGNA) moved to a new headquarters in Bloomfield. The next April, Aetna Insurance moved into the Elm Street building. Aetna – not to be confused with Aetna Life Insurance – was a property and casualty subsidiary of Connecticut General. Known as “Little Aetna,” they remained on the site until 1982. CIGNA sold the building a few years later. Most recently it was leased by the State of Connecticut for the Comptroller, Treasurer and Attorney General offices.
Today 55 Elm Street is under construction, being transformed into residential apartments (and a few other uses). Neither housing nor business ever fully left the Hudson-Elm area. But between the new road, the encapsulated river, and the continued creation of parking lots, it has become more of a shrine to the automobile than a place where books are sold, people converse on porches, and wet clothes are hung to dry. Maybe that will change.
For many people, 2016 was, to quote from social media, “a dumpster fire.” Between what feels like an incredibly large number of celebrity deaths, and the events of November 8, it certainly had its moments. For me, though, it has been one of the best years in quite a while.
The atmosphere at work changed from the very first day of the year. We started a new chapter (excuse the pun), which led to my getting a promotion. The job I have now is not anything I ever imagined I would do. However, I enjoy it. I’m good at it. And most importantly, my work is respected.
I dated. For many of you, this is no big deal. It was huge for me. Maybe I’m too particular (this did not involve any commercial web sites), maybe it’s social anxiety, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that. Whatever. For a few hours this summer, I was able to put that all aside and hang out with a guy.
My best friend from high school and I started our birthday celebrations a couple months early this year. We spent a weekend in New York, having splurged on tickets to Hamilton. The show was (as you’ve probably heard once or twice) amazing. Getting to spend hours walking around the city, on beautiful, sunny days, talking about everything and anything, was equally wonderful.
Later in the summer I was asked to be the Vice Chair of the Hartford Jewish Film Fest (March 16-26, 2017…see you there!). I’ve been on the committee for a few years now, but this is my first leadership role with the Hartford Jewish community. The film fest falls into the category of ‘lots of fun and lots of hard work,’ and I’m looking forward to being more involved than I have been.
The next step in my birthday celebration was a week in Wisconsin with my family. We
stayed at a lake where my grandparents used to have a house. I was able to visit with friends I hadn’t seen in a few years, introduce my niece and nephew to some very dangerous (but incredibly beloved) playground equipment, and spend copious amounts of time outdoors. Swimming in the lake is one of my favorite activities, and I don’t get to do it nearly as often as I used to. Even the morning it was 48°, I was in for a dip before breakfast!
When my actual birthday arrived, I celebrated with a bike ride from West Hartford to Old Saybrook. It was another warm, sunny day, and perfect for the 54 mile trip. By mid-September, the water in Long Island Sound has reached a perfect temperature. It was incredibly refreshing after spending four hours on the bike. My mother met me at the beach, we had lunch, did some shopping, and then she drove me home. Later that day a friend and I went to Mozzicato’s, where I had just the right amount of cake.
Though I have branded myself as Cycling Archivist, over the past few years I have done increasingly more of the former and less of the latter. This fall I had the opportunity to process a collection for the Watkinson Library at Trinity College. It’s a small collection (less than three linear feet), but I welcomed the opportunity to get back in the game. Working full time at one job, and trying to fit in another four or five hours a week at a second job, is tough. There are some interesting pieces, though, and I’m glad I got to work with them (I wrote five blog entries between October 28 and December 14 about the collection. Search for ‘Wells’).
Cycling. It has continued to be a huge part of my life. On the last day of July I realized I was a mere 35 miles away from hitting 500 for the month on my road bike (I don’t keep track of distance on my hybrid). I couldn’t let that milestone slip by. My pace for the ride ended up being my fastest ever. Most Saturdays I have a friend to ride with, which is wonderful. One Sunday I went out with some racers. It was fast, and I couldn’t really keep up, but I gave myself points for going on a group ride (I’m a slow rider and generally avoid group rides because of the frustration they bring). My biggest cycling accomplishment of the year, though, is my new personal best record for biking to work. As of this writing, I haven’t missed a day commuting since February 23. That includes the day in April when it snowed, which I admit was a
mistake. Excluding weekends, holidays, and vacations, I have ridden to work 191 days in a row. For the year, I have 218 commutes. Yes, there have been days I’ve switched vehicles at lunch. But I still got in the bike ride. Who knows what Mother Nature has in store, but I am trying to get as close to February 23, 2017 as I can!
One of the best holiday gifts I got was the weather in Atlanta during my recent trip there. I was able to ride my sister’s bike each day, including Christmas Day, when it was 75°!
Don’t worry, the year wasn’t perfect. Amid all these high points, were certainly were some low ones. But the first time in a while, the highs were more numerous. A lot of this was luck, and things I won’t necessarily be able to replicate next year. Friends have had marriages end in 2016, and have lost family members and close friends. Certainly for them, this was not the best year. I hope everyone else, though, can look beyond the top headlines, and see that there were many good things that happened in 2016.
Back in June I started a series on my professional blog about archival materials available for research in Hartford. I have reached the halfway point (yay!) and decided I would share the posts over here.
Introduction – An explanation of why I am doing this, and some of the thoughts I had as to how I would be going about it.
When my alma mater, Colgate University, announced that former Israeli President Shimon Peres would be speaking on campus, I decided I wanted to be there. My rationale was really nothing more than, “Hey, I visited that guy’s country last year. I wonder what he has to say.”
The biggest challenge was that he was speaking during Family Weekend. This meant there was no room at the inn – any inn – within about 60 miles. But I have a very good network of archivists, and soon found a place to stay.
As I approached the highway entrance ramp in Hartford, I looked down to see that my odometer read 10,013 miles. My car knew it was going to Colgate.
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Hamilton was to walk up to Chapel House. I was intent on finding the sculpture by Elbert Weinberg that I knew was there but, to the best of my knowledge, had never seen before. Weinberg was, among other things, a Hartford native, and a Jew. Here in Hartford his work can be seen in front of the State Armory building on the corner of Capitol and Broad (center of photo), at the Mandell Jewish Community Center on Bloomfield Ave in West Hartford, and at Hartford Public Library. Earlier this year I was processing his papers, which are held by the Library. I had previously seen old photographs of the sculpture at Colgate, but it was great to have the opportunity to see it in person.
Shimon Peres is still jet setting across continents at age 91. In conversation with Colgate alum and ABC News’ Bob Woodward, Peres delivered a message of peace. He promoted science and technology, and was encouraging to students (I certainly hope) and non-students (I can vouch for that).
Whether or not anyone else is impressed, it was fascinating to me to be able to combine my love of Colgate, archives work, and involvement with the Jewish community in one weekend trip.
I tend to be a harsh critic of the New England Archivist (NEA) meetings. This is primarily because I have never lived, worked, or studied in Boston or at Simmons College. To me, the meetings always have the air of a Simmons reunion, and that is not what I need from my regional conference. I usually attend because I feel that I should, not because I am actually excited about it. So to attend yesterday (schedule), and to be glad I did, was a welcome surprise.
The Conference and Twitter
At conferences I use Twitter to connect with other attendees, to take notes, and to share information with other archivists. The NEA sessions do not (at least this time) have individual session numbers. With three concurrent sessions, the result on Twitter can be confusing. This meeting’s theme was proactive archivists, and my contribution was to give each of the sessions an identifier. I saw that at least one other tweeter used the list, which is enough success for me. An incredibly generous and trusting friend let me borrow her iPad, significantly aiding my ability to live tweet. Reviewing my tweets this morning, I can see room for improvement. One of the best parts, however, was noticing the tweets that were re-tweeted or marked as favorites by non-archivists who follow me. A MIT alum, for example, re-tweeted one of my notes from the session on the Edgerton project.
My favorite aspect of the conference was the way in which the presenters approached their subjects with humor. It is difficult to convey this, but it was most notable in the session on “Things They Didn’t Teach me in Library School.” Janaya Kizzie, Archivist at RBS Citizens Financial Group (Citizens Bank), couldn’t show us any images, as that might have been in violation of federal law. Instead, she brought her literal archivist’s toolkit. A large messenger bag, it contained all the tools she routinely brought with her on site visits. Many of these tools, such as a headlamp, double as hurricane supplies, so she was all set for last week’s storm. Also among the items Janaya had with her was a copy of the movie National Treasure. She said she uses it to explain her job to people! Overall, the most important thing corporate life has taught Janaya is to have her elevator speech at the ready.
Following Janaya was Sam Smallidge, from the Converse archives. Yes, Converse as in Chucks. He provided a history of the archives, including an incident that sent shoes flying through a window and out into the flooded street below. Employees also seem to have stored items from the archives in their own desks, for safe keeping. Slowly, items such as those are being returned. Sam is also filling in holes in the collection by buying from eBay.
Also in this session, Marta Crilly, City of Boston Archives, described social media outreach. Having been involved with Twitter and Facebook at my previous job, I appreciated many of her comments, particularly that you never know what your audience is going to enjoy. For that reason, post a variety of items, even if you think they are boring. It turns out people in Boston enjoy images from the 1970s…because they remember whatever it was!
An unusual component to the program, yet highly worthwhile, was the informational session about NEA Roundtables. I would guess that the majority of the attendees were in the room, as nothing else was scheduled for that time. Paige Roberts, Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, Elizabeth Slomba, and Kari Smith each spoke about aspects of Roundtables and their benefit to NEA and SAA members. The NEA roundtables are being structured in the same way as SAA’s. Gregor gave an overview of how they work, and how they benefit both members and SAA leadership. In essence, roundtables will focus on issues that can not be discussed in depth at the biannual meetings. Elizabeth gave the example of informational sessions about rare books. Once established, the hope is that some of these smaller groups will be able to advise NEA leadership as necessary. Kari Smith has already taken the initiative to start a digital archivists roundtable. Though the guidelines say 30 signatures are required to form a group, don’t let that stop you. Be proactive! If there is interest, a roundtable can be formed.
Archives Conferences in General
What I have learned over the past few years is that you have to make a conference – regional or national – work for you. It will surprise few readers that two things which have made conferences work for me over the past several years are bicycles and Twitter. As I prepared to travel to Chicago for the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Annual Meeting in 2011, I commented on Twitter that the cost of renting a bike in the city was going to be higher than I would have preferred. One tweet led to another, and the next thing I knew I was able to get up before sessions and pedal a bike, borrowed from a fellow archivist, along the Lake Michigan trail. Bicycling and meeting someone new, in one fell swoop. My helmet also became a conversation starter as I carried it around the NEA Spring 2012 meeting at Wesleyan University. With the conference less than 20 miles away, I had no excuse not to attend. Unwilling to give up a Saturday ride, I decided to combine the two. Yes, it meant I arrived late and missed a highly regarded plenary, but it was what I needed. Not only was the helmet a conversation starter then, but when I encountered an archivist yesterday who had ridden to Simmons, it was common ground for a chat between sessions. Of course, I neglected to introduce myself and have no idea what her name is, but it’s still progress.
I recognize that Twitter is not for everyone, but it has been an invaluable resource for me. One of the major reasons I decided to attend NEA yesterday was that two friends, who I originally met through Twitter, were members of the program committee. I wanted to support their efforts by attending. Once I arrived at Simmons, I took a cue from other groups and conferences (particularly the SNAP Roundtable at SAA) and used Twitter to find a lunch buddy. I introduced myself to my lunch buddy at the end of the first session. At the same time, I met the person she had been sitting with. One lunch buddy tweet and I met two new people. Now I will have even more people to look for at the next conference.
No one conference can be everything for everyone. But as I have found, if you find a ways to personalize them for yourself, they will be much more enjoyable in the long run.
At work today we had a group of fourth graders visiting from one of Hartford’s elementary schools. We had half an hour in which to introduce them to primary source materials. My supervisor, Brenda, and I created an exercise that included using city directories from the early 1900s.
If you are not familiar with city directories, you should be. They are awesome and we really need to bring them back. Similar to a phone book, they list residents of the city during a given year, along with their job, work location, and home address. The format of the directories would change from time to time, but the ones we were using today also have a street index, listing the head of household at each house number on the street.
The kids were supposed to look up a street, find the names of three residents, and then look up the residents in the main portion of the directory to learn more about them. One of the groups I was assisting looked up a man who was an “elev. op.” Uncertain what this stood for, they asked me for help. Although there are some definitions explained in the directory, this one was not. When I told them the man was an elevator operator, I received a bunch of puzzled looks. I continued to tell them that there used to be people who would press the elevator buttons for you. A boy in the group turned to me and said, “That sounds like a minimum wage job.” I had never thought about it that way.
Another fun moment was when Brenda introduced me as an archivist and asked if anyone knew what an archivist does. One very enthusiastic girl raised her hand, and when called upon, said that an archivist is someone who researches arcs. Have to give her points for trying!
The first time I climbed the Traveler’s Tower I was in second grade. My memory of the field trip does not actually include the observation deck, however. I remember scratching my wristwatch on a street-level wall. And I believe one of the other classes got ice cream later on at Elizabeth Park (they had the cool teacher). The funny thing is that now, over 29 years later, I’m realizing that the way I remember the watch scratching incident, it couldn’t have happened. I wear my watch on my left wrist, and as I remember the wall, it was on the right.
Yesterday I inadvertently left my current watch at home, and it was more of a hot beverage day than cold ice cream. However, I found out the tower was going to be open for tours, and was intent on being in line when they started.
The tower was open as part of downtown Hartford’s EnvisionFest. I had some fun getting there. As I biked along Capitol Ave., a well intentioned pedestrian I encountered at the intersection with Laurel St. informed me I wanted to turn right, not continue straight. As the light turned green, I tried to quickly explain that I was not riding the Discover Hartford route. I’m not sure he understood.
I locked up my bike and walked toward Travelers. After circling the block and not finding anything indicating where the tours would begin, I decided to ask at an information booth. One girl tried to tell me the Travelers building was in the direction of Bushnell Park. She did not believe me when I pointed directly at it and basically told her she was wrong. My cycling attire (helmet and fluorescent jacket) caused some confusion as well. A guy at the same booth suggested I wanted to be in Bushnell Park because that’s where the bicycling was taking place. I had a very hard time convincing him the tower tour had nothing to do with bicycles.
Eventually I found the entrance (which had not been open when I first passed by and was not the one they had originally intended to use) and was in the first group to ascend 24 flights in the elevator and 70 additional steps (someone asked, I didn’t count). Despite the clouds, it was still a great view.
When the leaves are off the trees in the winter, I can see the light at the top of the tower (an additional 147 steps up) from my back window. My house is somewhere in this direction:
If you have ever wondered just how much of Hartford is covered with highway and pavement, this view to the South should answer that question.
To the East is the Connecticut Science Center and more highway.
While I was admiring the view, I kept thinking about a blog entry I wrote for work a little over a year ago, about the Hartford Public Library’s Caroline Hewins taking students to see the view from the Travelers building. Coincidentally, I left Travelers and immediately headed over to Hartford Public Library to work the multi-touch table, on display as part of EnvisionFest. The table is essentially an oversized iPad connected to a big screen tv. It is programmed with highlights of Hartford history, including the story of the Charter Oak, radio personality Bob Steele, actress Katharine Hepburn, scans of postcards and glass negatives.
During the morning my concentration had been on seeing Hartford from above. The most enjoyable moments of the afternoon, however, focused on what is below ground in Hartford. When selecting to view the glass negatives on the table, an 1898 map of the city displays along with thumbnails for three of the negatives in the collection. My favorite of the three is the stepping stone bridge in Bushnell Park:
Many of the people with whom I spoke knew that the river now runs underground. But for those who were not aware, it was a great story to tell (you can read more about it in a New York Times article, a piece in the Hog River Journal, and listen to Catie Talarski’s recent trip through the conduit). Not only were these people surprised to learn about the river, they were equally astonished when I told them the library building now stands directly above a portion. The Whitehead Highway runs over the covered river. Creating a tunnel over the highway, is the Hartford Public Library.
I got to see the city from above in the morning, and teach with archives in the afternoon. How much better can a day get?
September 2, 2008 was the beginning of my tenure as Project Archivist at the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS). I interviewed early in August of that year. From the moment I walked into the late 1920s mansion in Hartford’s West End, with its dark wood interior and grand staircase, I wanted to work there. As I learned about the collections held in the archives, which mirrored my local history lessons in the Glastonbury Public Schools, I was convinced it would be a fabulous place for me to continue my archives career.
The project, funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC), was initially two years and renewed for another two. As with all jobs, it was not completely perfect all of the time, but it was a great experience. Our goal (myself and CHS Archivist Barbara Austen) during the first two years was to create online catalog records for 900 manuscripts and account books. We surpassed 2000 records. During the second two years, we succeeded in adding over 3000 more.
Some of the records, particularly the seemingly unending supply of anonymous farmers account books, were nothing short of boring to complete. I tried to be as creative as I could in each of my entries. However, there are only so many ways of saying that a farmer, whose name and location are unknown, sold beef and corn.
Other records were an adventure. The CHS staff and I were, till the very end, laughing over the Stonington Selectmen’s records. Each and every piece of paper in the collection had been folded and bundled together with string. I assume some of the debris I encountered was mouse droppings. Creatures had snacked on the records during storage in a barn or garage. All of it was covered in a layer of black dust. With help, I eventually managed to unfold all of it, give it some semblance of organization, and create the record.
At my farewell gathering on Thursday evening, someone asked what my favorite find was. With so many records created, it is really hard to say. Many of the collections that I found exciting, I was able to write about on the manuscripts blog.
Per the details of the grant, I was only supposed to catalog. But as a still-new-archivist, I knew it would be detrimental to my career if I merely sat and stared at OCLC Connexion for two years at a time. So between farmers account books, I sat at the reference desk. I served on the Web Task Force (for which we avoided using an acronym), the Digital Asset Management committee (for which we enjoyed using the acronym) and the Toilet Renovation committee (no acronym). I brought CHS into the social media era by creating and maintaining Facebook and Twitter accounts. As part of the final project for my Masters degree at Trinity College, I updated the finding aid files, and encoded finding aids previously only in Word documents, to be added to the new CHS website. When we implemented a new library catalog, Barbara and I discussed the structure of the new database and I customized the front end view.
I made friends, too.
From the beginning I knew there was a slim chance they would be able to create a permanent position for me after the grant ended. Nonetheless, I held out hope until mid-June. At that point a schedule was distributed. I was on it for July and August, but not September. I knew then that my half-hearted job search over the previous six months needed to become full-hearted. The economy isn’t great right now, and for archivists it really isn’t great. There are opportunities, though, and I am doing my best to find one that will match my needs.
And so, on August 31, 2012, I handed in my keys and bicycled away from the CHS for the last time as Project Archivist. I am proud of the work I accomplished and the information I have made available to the public. I am grateful for four years of indoor bicycle parking (and some ski parking). But leaving is hard. Very, very, hard. As others who have gone through this know, it is difficult to have done so much, and to just walk away from it.
While some people tell me this is the beginning of my next great adventure, I find myself still reflecting on the end of four, professionally full, years. If I can do so with humor, I will try to write about my unemployment trials and tribulations. First, though, I need to re-orient myself. The first step will be turning off the alarm clock.