Hear Here team turns ear to SoHo memories

When Hear Here launches in April, visitors stopping at various orange signposts in SoHo will be invited to call a phone number where a recorded storyteller will outline why that place was special. But in order to make that happen, students first need to glean more first-hand memories. Above is a mock-up of what those sign posts will look like, once erected.

Chroniclers of one of London’s most storied neighbourhoods could use a few more true tales for an oral-history project to honour the area’s landmarks.

The SoHo district – its moniker a shorthand marking its location South of Horton Street in London – is an area where 10 Masters in Public History students are collecting memories from people with connections to some of the area’s best-known or vanishing waypoints.

The stories are part of a sidewalk-side audio history called Hear Here.

When the program launches in April, visitors stopping at various orange signposts in SoHo will be invited to call a phone number where a recorded storyteller will outline why that place was special. But in order to make that happen, students first need to glean more first-hand memories. For example, from bands who played at the famous (and infamous) Victoria Tavern or from nurses who lived in residence while working at Victoria Hospital on South Street.

“We are looking for more stories (from) anyone who lives in SoHo or lived there; anyone who works or worked in SoHo; anyone who trained at the nursing school,” said History professor Michelle Hamilton, Director of the Public History program.

Organizers hope for as many as 20 story clips located at 20 specific SoHo sites.

Last October, the project received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant which, combined with support from Western and the City of London, will help launch the program.

So far, historians are researching written narratives from escaped slaves in the mid-19th century (the area was a terminus of the Underground Railroad and their words will be voiced by actors); stories of a Jewish language school (which is now an apartment building) and a synagogue (now housing the N’Amerind Centre); the Canada Bread company; London Soap Factory; South Street Victoria Hospital and the nearby nursing school; and the former Victoria Tavern.

Some of the buildings have been repurposed or torn down over the years and the area is set to undergo more dramatic change as much of the former hospital lands are being developed or redeveloped.

Hamilton emphasized people don’t need a grasp of a site’s big-picture history to contribute.

“We want people to tell their own stories,” she said. “It’s stories of everyday life, really. The hardest part is persuading people that their ordinary life is something other people want to hear.”

The SoHo project is the second phase of Hear Here in London; the first features an oral history of the St. George-Grosvenor-Piccadilly neighbourhood by Public History postdoctoral scholar Mark Tovey.

UW-La Crosse professor Ariel Beaujot, Hear Here co-collaborator, is also scheduled to speak March 1 in the University Community Centre about the project, and its inspiration in the inaugural Hear Here in LaCrosse, Wisc.

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TELL YOUR STORY

Hear Here program coordinators are collecting memories from people with connections to some of the SoHo District’s best-known or vanishing waypoints.

If you have a story, contact History professor Michelle Hamilton, Director of the Public History program, at mhamilt3@uwo.ca or 519-661-2111, ext. 84973.

During the project launch on April 27, the group’s website, hearherelondon.org, will also go live.