Monuments of Repentance

We set out on a gray Wednesday, ten students bundled up against the wind. Out task was to explore the mnemonic landscape of the area right around Penn’s Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum.

One of the Philadelphia firsts commemorated at Penn’s Landing.

What we found was a celebratory landscape, marking everything from Philadelphia’s firsts (among them first mustard, first computer), to its immigrants from Ireland and Scotland,  the achievements of Christopher Columbus and the veterans of the Philadelphia area. Because we did this exploration just a few days after Veterans Day, these sites were adorned with flags, flowers, and signs advertising Continue reading “Monuments of Repentance”

Time, Space, and the Landscape of my Commute

“Make it stop my love, we were wrong to try

Never saw what we could unravel by traveling light,

Or how the trip debrides like a stack of slides

All we saw was that time is taller than space is wide.”

– Joanna Newsom “The Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”

As I read a bit of John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s A Sense of Space, Sense of Time for class last week, I kept thinking of the lyric above.* Jackson argues, in part, that when we think about what makes a location special to us, we are usually remembering events that have occurred there rather than any feature of the place. In a way, Jackson echoes Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, suggesting that it is repeated practices that constitute public space.

Before Jackson gets into the roles of communal memory, he writes a bit about grids. I grew up in an area without any hint of a grid, but I could still recognize the truth of Jackson’s observation that a straight stretch of highway, devoid of distinguishing features, performs a specific role in American popular culture as a sort of zen state.

I don’t drive much, but I do sometimes approach the same introspective limit while walking, particularly on my way to work. Retreading the same mile and a half about eight times a week, I often find myself with my head down, the sidewalk becoming an undifferentiated highway. If I am particularly enraptured in a particular train of thought, this ribbon of concrete acts almost as one of Bruno Latour’s black boxes; I step outside my door and am conveyed to my employment. When I am particularly drowsy, in the morning or late at night, there is an almost alarming quality to the amnesia of the walk.

The police station at 19th Street and Oxford seen in 1961. The station became the Opportunities Industrialization Center a few years later and currently is undergoing redevelopment. Photo from the City of Philadelphia Department of Records via

Continue reading “Time, Space, and the Landscape of my Commute”

Walking Tour of West Fairmount Park

Memorial Hall and surrounding area (HABS PA,51-PHILA,265B–34, Jack E. Boucher, Photographer, April 24, 2003)

Almost two months ago now I posted my proposal for my Digital History final project and I’ve finally wrapped it up. First of all, here it is!

I was steered toward StoryMap.js as an alternative to my original Omeka concept (for several reasons) and it was a really good decision. The StoryMap format is designed for a linear tour like this and works pretty smoothly on mobile devices. While I wasn’t able to incorporate the original map artwork as I had planned, I was still able to include an image for each stop and some text. One unexpected perk of using StoryMap was that it uses Open Street Map and several enterprising individuals have mapped lots of hidden Fairmount Park stuff (old trolley paths, hiking routes, etc) onto the map. So if you are the urban explorer type, use Open Street Map the next time you’re venturing around Fairmount Park!

I think the power of walking tours is that the act of walking triggers different types of sensory learning and spacial reasoning. For instance, I learned during an Irish Literature course at Goshen College that James Joyce’s Ulysses makes more sense if you’re walking while reading it. We accomplished this by having two walkers flank a reader, guiding them as they read aloud.

By connecting various sites in a linear path, the tour makes some sense of what might otherwise simply be scattered dots on a map.

While the original WPA walking tour is great–and I plan on following a couple of the tours myself–it is woefully out of date,  and includes relatively limited pictures. Plus one of my goals for this project was to get this sort of a tour in the hands of folks whose primary tool is the smartphone. StoryMap achieves that and allows me to draw from public image sources to craft what I think is a pretty good tour.

One of my favorite things about the final product is that there are a whole lot of things included in the 1937 tour that aren’t there anymore, despite their seeming timelessness. The number of sculptures that have been relocated out of Fairmount Park would put many other city parks to shame. We often think of bronze and concrete as permanent, but they aren’t, and this tour is a sharp reminder of that. I hope that people who embark on this tour find themselves mulling how quickly the built landscape (and at this point all of Fairmount Park is built) can change. There used to be a lake that’s no longer there!

The History of the United States is a story of Plunder

I was supposed to blog on the assigned readings for Managing History. Perhaps I will write about them later, but fate, as it does, intervened, and so it will be in another post.

“Are any of you going to the Ta-Nehisi Coates lecture tomorrow night?” asked Cynthia, yesterday.

“Are you going to the Coates thing? Want a ticket?” said Devin, last night.

And so I found myself listening to the esteemed Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates for approximately 2 hours this evening.

First was the more informal gathering in the Center for the Humanities at Temple to which I was half an hour late. Even in the short bit of the Q&A that I caught, Coates came off, as he does in his writing, as a level-headed thinker with a poet’s pen and an honest humility that grounds all he does. He expressed discomfort with the spotlight that has been shined on him after his annus mirabilis in which he earned not only a MacArthur “Genius” Grant but a National Book Award. He declined to speak on topics which he had not exhaustively researched or considered. He articulated a discomfort about being a public intellectual from whom positions of the news of the day are expected in pithy 10-second snippets.

An hour later, I found myself awaiting Coates’ talk in the Liacouras Center, a sports arena in which AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Billy Joel blasted, incongruously, from the massive speakers up near the suspended screens which would magnify Coates’ face. It seemed exactly the kind of venue that would make the writer uncomfortable, and his first comments upon taking the stage acknowledged that discomfort- “-my name is up there-” -before he commenced with a brief reading from Between the World and Me. Continue reading “The History of the United States is a story of Plunder”

Preservation and (Re)Development

Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia is likely on borrowed time. The historic district is perhaps the victim of being just one of many historic portions of the city and the ever-present appetite for condo towers. If these buildings, constructed a century ago, are knocked down next summer, they will join many casualties of urban development and redevelopment, alongside New York City’s fallen Penn Station and large swathes of urban America.

It was the demolition of that iconic station and countless neighborhoods over fifty years ago that first sparked the historic preservation movement into action. Fifty years ago this year, the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law, beginning a boom in historic-conscious redevelopment and preservation, but a half-century on, questions–such as those raised in the debate between Herbert J. Gans and Ada Louise Huxtable in the pages of the New York Times in 1975–remain about how best to use historic preservation or how to fight for sites such as Jewelers’ Row.

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Andrew Hurley provides a concise history of “urban renewal” and historic preservation before presenting case studies of projects that used methods of preservation and public history to serve the needs of urban communities. Pairing preservation of buildings and beautification of neighborhoods with oral history and archaeology, Hurley sets out the aims, pitfalls, and, ultimately, rewards of combining urban development and public history.

Hurley concerns himself less with Gans and Huxtable’s question (“What should be preserved?”) or even the issue of representation (“Who should be preserving?”) than with methods for effective projects and shared authority (“How should things be preserved?”).

Many of Hurley’s grounding ethics–authority should be shared outside of academia, gentrification is tricky, racial tension shouldn’t be sugar-coated–are largely self-evident (I hope) to anyone who has sought out a degree in Public History, yet it is his very practical concerns that make his book a must-read. Reflecting on the collaboration with the Old North St. Louis Restoration group, Hurley summed up some of the project’s shortcomings thus: “Appeals to more abstract community-building and social reconciliation objectives, while not entirely falling on deaf ears, lacked an immediate and tangible payoff and thus failed to animate the involvement of those on the margins, struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis” (94). A straightforward, if hard to swallow truth. Yet Hurley and his collaborators learned from the lesson, including the goal of “build[ing] greater capacity among local residents and expand[ing] participation” into the heart of their next project.

 I have a hunch that this blend of pragmatism and optimism is a necessary disposition in public history operatives.


Some of this week’s readings:

Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities

Max Page and Marla R. Miller, Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States 

Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History

 Jon Hurdle, “In Jewelers Row in Philadelphia, Condo Plan Worries Preservationists” in the New York Times:

 “Preservation50: Commemorating 50 years of the National Historic Preservation Act”: