Postdoc bringing historic neighbourhood to life

Adela Talbot // Western News

Public History postdoctoral scholar Mark Tovey has embarked on an oral history project, funded by MITACS, interviewing and recording residents of London’s historic St. George-Grosvenor-Piccadilly neighbourhood.

By the time Mark Tovey is finished with his latest project, you will be able to take a stroll in one of London’s foundational neighbourhoods, virtually guided by its residents sharing stories of their community in their own words.

“To bring people together, you don’t have to build new buildings or have wider sidewalks or more park space. All you have to do is give people opportunities to tell their stories, and then share them,” said Tovey, a MITACS-funded postdoctoral fellow in Western’s Public History program.

Tovey was having coffee with Don Lafreniere, a Geography PhD alumnus from Western, when the idea came to him. As a geographer, Lafreniere studies neighbourhood formation by looking at things like setback, massing, sidewalk width and turning radii. But, at the end of the day, Lafreniere told Tovey, communities are actually formed by stories – tales of the neighbourhood told and re-told by residents.

And so, Tovey set out to find and share the story of London’s historic St. George-Grosvenor-Piccadilly neighbourhood – where he has lived most of his life. The study area forms almost a perfect square, with the parameters being Colborne, Talbot, Grosvenor and Hyman streets. It encompasses Gibbons Park, part of Richmond Row and many historical sites.

“This area is a microcosm of institutional uses, military uses, commercial uses, residential uses and industrial uses – that makes it a very interesting microcosm of London history. St. George-Grosvenor is one of the few remaining areas to become a heritage conservation district in London,” Tovey explained.

“In 1992, there was a report that outlined all the prospective heritage conservation districts and most of them have already become one; this neighbourhood has yet to become one. The community has to ask for it, and I thought, I can get together with my fellow community members and make a request to the city.”

Tovey started by digging, looking at the history of the area. He found the neighbourhood was the birthplace of the Western Fair. Many of London’s important institutions grew up in the area, including the first and second campuses of Western University. The neighbourhood had a story to tell, Tovey thought, and what better way than to let its residents tell that story?

He embarked on an oral history project, funded by MITACS, interviewing and recording residents of the community as they share tales of the neighbourhood – past and present.

Special to Western NewsLondon’s historic St. George-Grosvenor-Piccadilly neighbourhood, seen here in 1950, forms almost a perfect square, with the parameters being Colborne, Talbot, Grosvenor and Hyman streets.

“Geographers study an area. But the single most important part of neighborhood cohesion is its stories, particularly stories people tell to each other. One of the things I can provide by gathering the stories of the neighbourhood is to give those stories back. It’s not that the stories weren’t there all along but this project is a way to bring them together, systematize them and get them back into the community where they can thrive,” Tovey said.

“The key thing is that people should be able to hear the stories of the neighbourhood in the voices of the people who actually experienced the events. When I’m done my work, you will be able to walk around this neighbourhood, with a smart phone, click on a map, and hear people tell stories of the neighbourhood in their own voices.”

Tovey has spoken with 12 residents and hopes to interview at least 30. He is inviting residents to talk about their experience of the neighbourhood and share their own stories and those that have been handed down.

“You don’t need to live in a place for 40 years to get a sense of what it’s about, or to have interesting stories to tell. What I’ve found is everybody has interesting stories to tell,” he said.

Among stories of homes and historic Londoners, one resident even offered a ghost story, Tovey added.

“My hope is people will be excited to explore their own neighbourhood and discover all of its fascinating secrets. My second hope is this can provide a model for other neighbourhoods and areas to open up the stories in their part of the world,” he said.

Tovey, who placed second in the university’s 3MR-Three Minute Research communication competition for postdoctoral scholars for his work on this project, is working with History professor Don Spanner, archivist at London Life, on preparing an exhibit of his project to date for Doors Open. His work will be on display 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 17 in the London Life Atrium

Tovey is collaborating on the project with Michelle Hamilton, Director of the Public History Program at Western, and Nancy Tausky, Nancy Z. Tausky Heritage Consultants, Grosvenor Lodge.

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WANTED: YOUR MEMORIES

Public History postdoctoral scholar Mark Tovey has embarked on an oral history project, funded by MITACS, interviewing and recording residents of London’s historic St. George-Grosvenor-Piccadilly neighbourhood. To volunteer as a research participant or for more information on the project, contact Tovey at metamer@gmail.com or 519-661-2111 ext. 84973.