Nonprofit aims to breathe new life into vacant East Baltimore warehouse

Artists use new media to honor region's elders

In a region steeped in historical pride — from the former industrial might of Bethlehem Steel to the jazzy energy that once pulsed along Pennsylvania Avenue — a nostalgic stroll into the past is just one person's memory away.

Knock on the door of any rowhouse from Sparrows Point to West Baltimore and chances are good some elderly resident will be ready and willing to rattle off the history of a block, a neighborhood or a decade.

The advent of social media has made collecting and sharing those memories much easier. From the wildly popular Humans of New York, a photo and story blog about the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, to a Baltimore knockoff called Close Up Baltimore, new-media entrepreneurs are using the power of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media tools to elevate the stories of regular folk.

Enter Ashley Minner and Sean Scheidt, two Dundalk artists who this weekend kicked off an Instagram account called Elders of Baltimore.

The pair, who have been friends since their freshman year at Patapsco High School in 1997, have started the project by interviewing several elderly residents, posting their photos and stories and calling for others to start submitting their own.

"Baltimoreans of all ages are encouraged to spend time with their elders, ask to hear their stories, and to listen closely," the pair wrote in a news release.

They ask participants to submit photos and brief quotes related to the interviews to the site through its email address, eldersofbaltimore@gmail.com.

Minner, 33, and Scheidt, 32, conceived of Elders of Baltimore while devising another storytelling photo essay about changes in East Baltimore that is featured in the most recent issue of The Bmore Art Journal.

The Elders of Baltimore idea earned the couple a $1,000 Social Innovators grant this spring from the Warnock Foundation, run by former mayoral candidate David Warnock. The partners plan to publish one story per day for the first week and at least one story per week thereafter. After six months, they will turn over the project to another pair of artists in January.

"We want to showcase as many people as we can," Minner said. "Storytelling is a way to appreciate the humanity of everyone."

One of the several stories that the artists have captured is that of Marion and Thomas McDonough.

The Parkville couple — she's 84, he's 88 — has been married for 64 years and raised three children in the house they still call home. They now have six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Marion McDonough said she was thrilled to be part of the project when Scheidt, her nephew, asked.

"I really think they have a wonderful attitude about elders. They revere them," she said. "We're still chugging along. My husband plays golf and goes to the gym. We're in good health. We're blessed."

Her husband worked for 43 years at the General Motors plant on Broening Highway while she spent much of her time volunteering for WBAL-TV's "11 on Your Side" consumer protection segment.

"It's nice that they're there to make sure our stories live on. You'd like to think that when you go that someone will remember you," she said.

Such sites are popping up throughout the nation, whether they're collecting stories of military veterans from certain wars or of employees of certain companies.

"This is an interesting trend that does recognize the power of telling the stories of ordinary people who are all extraordinary in various ways," said Anne M. Valk, associate director of public humanities at Williams College and president of the Oral History Association. "Like oral history, it honors the perspective of individuals as a way of understanding a larger collective experience."

But unlike oral history, she added, it does not "create a recording that ends up in an archive, and doesn't follow oral history best practices of transparency, shared authority" and numerous other steps the association recommends to prepare, conduct and preserve interviews.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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