Friday, May 24, 2013

Office of the City Erk, Sterling Opera House

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  Perhaps no function says "civilization," so much as "clerk." The clerk is the active memory of the community. In some places before there was writing, the person who filled this office was called a "remembrancer."  Is it the first function of society from the times when everything was tribal and familial, the first, hard-won step out of oblivion?  We can imagine the gathering of elders by the fire and silence, maybe far off thunder, at the summoning of the remembrancer and his strange magic pictures or beads or knots or stones, fetishes that helped him wind back time and recall all they had previously settled and what disputes remained outstanding.

The sacred duty entrusted here is first, to record accurately from those seeking to deceive, and impartially from those seeking sway, all the business of the community; and second, to manage the paradoxical responsibility of protecting the privacy of all that should be private while providing quick and easy access to all that should be public and to do so while always maintaining, what we now call, "transparency," in all things.  When partisans rise to disputation, it is the clerk who must refer them to processes for resolving differences and must remain firm that due process is followed. When the dispute is not settled, sometimes the powerless bureaucrat who suffers blame from both sides is the clerk.

Soon after landing at Plymouth Rock, one of the first acts of the new colony was to appoint the recorder to thenceforth record all of the transactions of the pilgrims: births, deaths, marriages, production, consumption, transactions and treaties, and today we can know what they did and didn't eat and how they lived from the time they arrived.  What is it worth today to walk into a town hall and take in your arms the heavy bound volumes? Sometimes they flake and you can feel time's grime. You turn the thick pages and find the name penned in ancient handwriting where a clerk long ago recorded the birth, marriage or death of your grandparent there, in that place on that date.  And who were the other people listed there: neighbors, friends, colleagues, strangers? Or is the record of your grandparent lost, and you move on ignorant of any connection to that place, a stranger in time. 

The Office of the City Clerk is at the front of the Sterling Opera House. As in most cities, it was the first point of contact for everyone with business to transact in town. This was the office of the City Clerk until 1969, and all the business of Derby passed through here.  Then they packed all the memories in boxes and carried them off to the new City Hall where, we presume, they can still be found.  It's no wonder the experts say the building is haunted.

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