Why You Should Eavesdrop on Your Neighbors
A collage of tidy older homes, hip coffee shops, ramshackle clapboard houses, and parks line the busy streets of the Boise neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Boise is home to wise elders who have been rooted in this colorful historic neighborhood for decades. It is stomping ground for an assortment of gangs who posture for power and keep police on regular patrol. It is also prime real estate for gentrification. Established as a Scandinavian and Polish neighborhood in the late 19th century, Boise has over the years become one of the more ethnically diverse neighborhoods in inner city Portland.
Apricot Anderson Irving is the daughter of missionaries to Haiti. Her third-culture upbringing compelled her to ensure her two young boys would feel at home in a diverse community. Boise met her criteria. In 2008, when Apricot and her husband, David, moved the family from London to the neighborhood, Boise's urban renewal was already in full swing.
"I had been a stay-at-home mom for several years and was ready for a creative outlet," explains Apricot, a freelance writer and audio producer, whose stories have appeared on This American Life and in her forthcoming book, The Missionary's Daughter. "I loved the neighborhood but was sensitive about displacing the existing community. I started attending neighborhood meetings. I also spent a lot of time in my garden, where I would have the most amazing conversations with strangers who stopped on the sidewalk to tell me their stories. I wanted to find a way to share those stories with others."
Inspired by an elder storytelling event hosted by a local community center Apricot got in touch with Erin Yanke from KBOO radio station. Although Apricot's first inclination was to conduct interviews herself, she realized that as a newbie in the neighborhood, she needed to incorporate as many other perspectives as possible. That spirit marked the birth of the Boise Voices Oral History Project.
Conversations at two schools within walking distance of Apricot's home led to enthusiastic support for the project. Boise-Eliot Elementary School became the training ground for a lively cadre of third-grader interviewers. Apricot and Erin also taught interviewing techniques to at-risk high school students from the Albina Youth Opportunity School. Apricot used her experience as a writer as well as questions from the Smithsonian Folklore Institute to help the students develop their own interview questions.