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A school project delivers an oral history and walking tour of West Medford's African-American community



Plugging your ears with iPod headphones can mean you're trying to tune out the world around you.

West Medford activists are using the hand-held audio devices to do the opposite. They envision folks walking their streets, iPods in hand, to learn more about the traditionally African-American neighborhood.

The idea started with a Brandeis University anthropology course two years ago. Professor Mark Auslander wanted his students to study how museums represented public memories. But he didn't want to relegate those memories to a stuffy building or glass exhibit case.

At the same time, one of Auslander's fellow anthropology professors at Tufts University, Rosalind Shaw, was teaching a course in which her students were recording oral histories in West Medford.

The two academics realized they could combine their students' work to create an audio walking tour of West Medford. By putting the tour on a computer file that could be downloaded from the Internet, anyone would have access to it, creating a kind of open-air museum.

"Everyone was wrapping their heads around the technology," Auslander said. "It excited people."

Residents warmed to the idea, because, as many were growing older, they were concerned that young people in West Medford were losing touch with their neighborhood's unique history. They felt an iPod file would appeal to children and teenagers.

"I had to learn the word iPod," said Dorothy Tucker, 84, a resident who participated in the project. "That's not to say my grandchild doesn't know."

African-Americans settled in West Medford during the so-called Great Migration of the early 20th century, when millions left the South in search of better lives. Red-lining, a now illegal mortgage-lending practice that banks once used to steer African-Americans to certain neighborhoods, hemmed the new arrivals into a three-block by six-block area between Route 60, Boston Avenue, and the Mystic River. The neighborhood was always mixed racially, but over the past few decades it has been steadily losing its identity as a primarily African-American enclave.

"A 10-year-old would have a different experience [today] because the neighborhood has changed," said Tucker. "The tour is a way of saying this is part of your inheritance."

The 40-minute tour, completed in spring 2006, can be downloaded from the Brandeis University website and heard on iPods and other audio players. It takes one on a journey through Sharon, Jerome, and Arlington streets, the heart of West Medford's African-American community.

Taking the walk feels like being in a documentary film. The tour begins at the James A. Hervey School on Sharon Street -- now a condo complex -- as residents recount memories of segregation and busing.

The tour then proceeds to a gray house on Jerome Street that was once "the Little Store," a shop where residents speaking on the audio file remember buying candy and ice cream. Next comes Dugger Park, where residents discuss local personalities like Julie Oliver, who organized tennis competitions for the neighborhood. A stone monument near the park's tennis courts honors Oliver.

The former location of a horse stable, the Vietnam veterans memorial in Nelson Circle, and other sites are included on the tour.

Parts of the walk are bittersweet. Recalling "the Flats," an area of the neighborhood that doesn't exist anymore, resident Wallace Kountze describes on the recording how neighbors used to get together, sip beer, share a bottle of wine, and relax. Kountze's digitally preserved memories hark back to a time when people didn't commute hours a day to work and most friends lived around the corner.

In an interview, Kountze said he hopes people who have moved away from West Medford would find the tour on the Internet and reconnect with their roots.

"When people came here from the South, they were pioneers; they were leaders, artists," he said. "Young people now tend to move away. This is a walking tour of West Medford no matter where you are."

Shaw said the project was an important lesson for her students, too. Many of those students would otherwise have had no reason to meet residents in West Medford, a few miles away from Tufts. The iPod tour was a classic case of a town-and-gown partnership, she said.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity for my students to learn about a community at their back door and to learn some important oral history methodology," she said.

Auslander said he thinks of the tour as a virtual museum exhibit, an example of how the Internet could be used to keep local memories alive.

While the Internet allows people to connect with people around the globe, it can also bring together neighbors who never meet in their day-to-day lives, he said.

"When museums are most useful, they increase the fabric of democratic participation," Auslander said.

A 16-year-old who lives on Jerome Street, Akey Head, said he was aware that his neighborhood occupies a special place in the history of African-Americans in Massachusetts. He has heard his elders talk about the good old days and he's seen the stone monument to Oliver and others that tell him the community has a rich past, he said.

But would he go through the trouble of downloading the iPod file and taking the tour?

"I would," he said. "Just to hear more about it."

The tour can be reached at http://www.brandeis.edu/projects/westmedford/

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