A new exhibit at the American Jewish Museum shares an uncomfortably familiar story. “I Lived, We Live: What Did We Miss?” narrates a tale of those lost to gun violence and the family and friends left sheltering the emotional burdens. The exhibit, through images, video and mementos, highlights residents of the Hazelwood neighborhood.
“There’s no adequate way of memorializing these losses,” said Melissa Hiller, director of the museum, which is located in the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. But because the exhibit is “powerful and aesthetically high-quality, it was a no-brainer that we wanted it here.”
Prior to its display in the JCC’s Robinson Building, the exhibit appeared for almost two years at Center of Life, a “community-empowerment organization” located in Hazelwood. Rev. Tim Smith, Center of Life’s founder, was inspired to create the exhibit after discovering the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs Holocaust Sculpture at Community Day School, he explained.
After discussions with CDS and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, he was inspired to memorialize Hazelwood’s victims of gun violence. In 2017, with the assistance of Carnegie Mellon University School of Design professors Kristin Hughes and Dylan Vitone, Smith and 33 CMU students partnered with 28 Hazelwood residents to develop a narrative of human loss and communal evolution.
“We learned a lot about our differences and our similarities, our values for family,” said Smith. “We learned a lot about how different people were educated, our value system, why we believe what we believe.”
Once the collective was broken into smaller groups, they developed “even more significant relationships,” as the parties visited each other’s homes, dined together and even shared cooking techniques, he added.
Cultural heterogeneity in Hazelwood isn’t new, as the exhibit demonstrates through decades-old photographs, including one depicting a racially diverse scene of school-age children walking past neighbors.
Understanding Hazelwood’s history is an important aspect of experiencing the exhibit, explained Hiller.
Following its incorporation into the City of Pittsburgh in 1869, Hazelwood — a woodland lined with hazelnut trees along the Monongahela River — transformed into a center for steel, iron and related economic opportunities. In 2009, a CMU report characterized the neighborhood “during the height of industrial production” as “a bustling, diverse, ‘city within a city’ where two-thirds of residents lived within a 2-mile radius of their workplace.” After 1960, though, Hazelwood experienced an economic decline. Today, conditions reflect the “cumulative years of disinvestment.”
“I Lived, We Live: What Did We Miss?” reveals this transformation through signage and materials from area businesses. But the exhibit’s primary emphasis is on the simultaneity of life and loss as chronicled through vignettes and empty frames.
A 13-minute video provides snapshots of Hazelwood residents as they hold jewelry, shoes and other keepsakes that once belonged to loved ones felled by gun violence. The filmmakers move rapidly between interviewees, but each voice, imbued with such vulnerability, has tremendous impact. This is intentional. Emotion is at the heart of the collection, explained Hiller.
A panel at the center of the exhibit reads: “There is no good reason to bury a child. There is no justification for why this unnatural act has become normal in Hazelwood. Here, we recognize the countless individuals who have felt the pain of saying goodbye to loved ones whose lives were cut short by street violence. Their stories of loss encourage us to share our own, and through this exchange, we take part in something bigger than ourselves. We become a community empowered by our vulnerability, something bigger than ourselves. We become a community empowered by our vulnerability, strengthened from our compassion, and engaged with the issues that matter to us.”
To the left of the panel is a collection of empty picture frames. Each one represents a memory that will never get made.
On the whole, the exhibit serves as a call to action. “Neighbor is not a geographical term, but a moral concept,” said Hiller, who is available for guided tours of the free exhibit, which is up through May 28.
Smith feels the same way. “It’s important to get to know people and community so that they can understand the truth,” he said. “I think that as we do that, even in our cross-community relationships, we will begin to break down all kinds of walls that have been built up because of fear and misinformation.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.