education, food, neighborhoods, places., plans and policies, politics, pop-up urbanism, projects, public spaces, social capital
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What is the story of a place? Thoughts on field research.

A lecture I gave to the Qualitative Research for Urban Planners course at Harvard’s GSD.  The talk was based on my Master’s thesis, which I have just now (finally) published online.


I came across this headline in the Onion yesterday – about a planner who got through his whole urban design before all of a sudden he realized, oh my god, he was recreating a city that already exists, in a totally different place.  This is funny of course because this is what people imagine planners kinda actually do.  So today, I want to talk about how not to be that guy.  How to ensure with your research process that you are intervening in a place on its own terms, based on a good understanding of what is already there,­ and not imagining that DesMoines is Philadelphia.

Here’s the guiding question of what I’m going to be talking about: “What is a place’s story?” Questions are important because they’re the basis for entering a research problem with an open mind, and also to focus on what you’re listening for.  Research is always a balance between being open to surprises and being attentive to specifics and keeping your eye and ear on your particular research interests.  And stories are important because they’re how people integrate their own personal understandings and values with what they see in the outside world – it’s how people make sense of where they are.  Sociologists have words for all of the subtle processes that underly the big idea of “storytelling” that I’m talking about here, but I have found that stories are the best way to understand and communicate how people make sense of the world around them.

Qualitative research gives you the chance to take the time to understand the dynamics of a place – whether it’s a neighborhood, a corridor, an intersection – and what it means to people.  I say place here but you could also be thinking about a community group in the same way.  And when you intervene, your project becomes a part of it.  So the second half of the question is, “What is your role in that story?”  And what I found in my thesis research was that the stories that different groups of people – including planners — tell about the same place influence what they think should be done there.

A professor I had once said to us that “qualitative research is listening for what you should be studying.”  When you go into a community, you don’t know yet what they think is important, what kind of stories they tell about their lives.  So your first step is just to be present with them.

So today in my talk I’ll spend most of my time on my thesis research at Boston’s Haymarket – how my own personal story fit into my research, how I designed the project, and how I gathered and analyzed my data – and what my findings say about the role of this kind of research for planning.  And then, we’ll spend some time on what is actually involved when you get into the field and are faced with the messiness of real life as a researcher.


First, a little bit about me.  I grew up in Oakland California, but my mother and grandmother are from Boston.  As a child I always heard about my grandma’s childhood in the North End, and when we came here on vacation we would wander the streets of that neighborhood as she reminisced.  It always seemed to me amazingly old and marvelously authentic.  So when about 7 years ago I started looking for my first Boston apartment, naturally I knew exactly where I would live.

I spent a year in a little studio in the North End.  On my first day I met my neighborhood repair man and was pleased to hear him say to me that he would look out for me.  It was exactly as my grandmother had told me.  I tried out my rusty Italian in the little shops and learned which bakery made the best bread – I even once gave an impromptu tour to a newcomer who I met in my cheese shop.  I felt proud to be a part of it.  But over time I started to realize that not everyone was experiencing the North End like I did.  I don’t need to rehearse for you the mixing of tourism, old-timers, and new young professional residents that characterizes the North End.  Suffice to say, I quickly grew tired of dodging gawkers outside Mike’s Pastry while carrying heavy grocery bags from my closest supermarket — the Whole Foods a mile away, walking home from my restaurant job through late night techno parties, and – most of all – smelling the rotting food at Haymarket.

Haymarket is an informal produce market located adjacent to the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston.  It’s permitted by the city and protected by state statute.  Only cash changes hands.  Current planning and development efforts in this part of the city are attempting to capitalize on the new park’s increasing success, making the adjacent parcels extremely valuable.  Proposals for these two parcels have become intrinsically linked to the Haymarket, and might influence the market’s future.  When I realized that the market itself has been very little studied, I chose it for my subject, realizing that this was a pivotal moment in its story.

So my research question was: how do the stories that different stakeholders in the market and the redevelopment adjacent to the market influence their opinions about the path that development to take?

I tackled answering this question in a few ways.

First, as you saw I divided the stories into two parts: about the function of the market – how it works and is used, and about the meaning of the market.  That meant I had two different kinds of content to pay attention to, and I could separate them from each other for clarity’s sake.

When you land in a new place, you can take two stances.  As a participant, or as a participant-observer.  I did both for this project, and I usually do both, because they give you an opportunity to check what you notice against your previous visits.  Researchers try to give this process a lot of rigorous sounding analytical terminology but really it’s about instinct and awareness – that process I described before of going back and forth between having your senses wide open to what’s going on, and having a careful attention to what you’re looking for, based on your research question.  So, again, I was looking for stories – what this market was to people, and whether for different people that story was different.

The first few times I went to Haymarket I just watched. I also took photos and videos, for my reference, as well as taking detailed field notes – I find this is easiest to do on my phone, because it’s more compact and inconspicuous. I called my approach spatial ethnography, because I was not just looking at how people behaved but where they were.  I watched how people moved through the market.  Sometime I moved with them, and sometimes I stood still.  I would go at different times of day and stand on the same corner and note how many people walked past me.  I noted what kind of groupings they were in – and it really varied!  From families to couples to friends to solos.  I noted how they got to and from the market, and how they carried their produce, and, of course, what they bought.  I saw how much money they spent. I watched how they haggled and hurried, and whether they seemed confident or confused.  I watched how the vendors interacted with them, stocked their produce and arranged their wares.  I watched them fight and set up their booths and break them down.

But observation isn’t just about watching.  It turns out, for example, that one of the major issues that people have with Haymarket is that it’s smelly.  So I wondered, did I find it smelly?  And, in fact, it had been cleaned up since I had lived in the neighborhood, so it was decidedly less smelly than I remembered.  Many other shoppers noticed that too.

I also did a lot of listening.  I listened to how the vendors flirted with their customers, or yelled at them, as the case may be.  I listened to those accents that tourists always commented on, I listened for the languages that were spoken.  I listened to how the vendors talked with each other, and how shoppers talked with each other as they moved through the market.  I didn’t then, but if I were doing it now, I would take sound recordings to listen back to, and maybe even use like photographs in my final presentation.  Many shoppers remark on the sound, and it’s an essential part of the experience.  I did record my interviews.

So after several times of walking, standing still, listening and watching from the center of the market and from a distance, I decided to start shopping.  I wondered if I would have success shopping if I used all the techniques that I had observed.  This is participant-observation.  Once I spent the market pretending I was a first-time shopper, and asked people for advice about how to do it the best.  And I got lots of help!  They taught me how to look for the best price and highest quality by never buying anything on the first walk through the market, which helped me to understand how visitors to the market are thinking when they’re there – something an interview might not give me as clearly. Once my vendor informant let me hang out with him behind the stall, so I met his regulars and his employees and watched how he conducted his business.

I want to mention that in this case I was studying a large, anonymous, crowded situation, so all I had to do was join in.  The vendors and their customers that I interacted with in-depth knew I was studying them, but since shoppers are unknown to each other in that situation, there was no need to try to present my project to every single person I encountered.  In smaller settings or more long-term community settings, this is not the case.  It is one thing to attend a single community meeting and listen – for this project I watched previously held meetings online – but if you’re planning to engage with a community in a sustained way, part of being a participant observer is making clear to the people you are participating with that you are studying them. We’ll talk more about that later.

So I did all of this observing.  I combined it with interviews with key informants and reading lots and lots of articles, which gave me insight into the issues at hand. They also helped me put together some of the numbers and practical details that no one had written down before, because the market is put up and taken down every week, and run informally as I described before.  I also read hundreds of online reviews and coded them for themes, based on what I found in the field.

So those are all of the kinds of data that I gathered in the field and in the media.  I got really good at knowing how to pick out a good orange!  But the present-day story of a place is only part of the story.  Where do people get their stories from?  Are they new, or part of a long tradition?  I couldn’t be sure if I was finding anything interesting unless I looked at archival materials about the market, like postcards, articles, photos, law documents, books.

I have to admit that this was one of the weaker parts of the project.  Archival research can’t be done by web searches.  Field research requires that you embed yourself in an environment, send your antennae out, gather a massive amount of information and then sift it – whether by coding or another organizational process – to find patterns.  Archival research is more like trying to follow a path through a maze that’s sometimes hard to decipher.  Key words don’t work, because things aren’t organized according to your research priorities. I did find what is probably a representative sample of historic documents about Haymarket, which gave me the sense that the idea that the market is an endangered relic from another age was nothing new.  For probably a century Bostonians have been looking at Haymarket as a piece of another age that’s lasted into the present.  That kind of perspective makes the idea of “honoring Haymarket” not seem like an innovation but instead something pretty inside-the-box and safe, and without the evidence of those earlier romanticized ideas about the market I would only be guessing that this wasn’t the first time people thought pop-up tents and produce in the city was a lovely thing.

I also was able to find digitized versions of the state and local regulations that authorize Haymarket, which required an email to the librarian at the State House and some creative experimentation with the terms used to describe Haymarket.  It turned out that Haymarket was described as a “hawker market” and so it took some time to track the documents down that we needed.  Without them, I wouldn’t have had an idea about what specifically the legislation authorizes, and what words the government used to specify the market, what they thought it was for, and how they described its function in the city.  I can’t say enough how important it is to look at the actual language of zoning and other land use documents, because they can be really revealing about intent and context in a way that a map can’t.

If I were to do it again, or if I had had more time, I would have tried to find information about the families who have been working at the market for a long time, and about the Haymarket Pushcart Association and how it came to have its current structure and power. I don’t know where those documents are.  If I had to start, it might be with the New England Genealogical Society or the Boston Public Library, using names of people that I could get by interviewing some of the guys who are still around now, like my main informant.  I would also ask my informants if they had any old records, and if so, I would help them digitize them so that others could make use of them after me.  Because traditions and attitudes aren’t formed overnight, and because people often use stories of how things used to be in order to imagine future plans, having more historical material would have been really valuable.

When you walk into a community that hasn’t had much research done on it in the past, though, this can be a difficult process, because you have to gather the materials yourself. However, this can be a powerful community building project, so if you have the time and the space in a project to undertake something like a community photo scanning day, or a visit to an informant’s home, then it can be really valuable.

So, let’s go back and summarize.  Haymarket is an informal, pop-up space that is in-between superformal, very planned areas of the city.  It occurs on extremely valuable land, between the oldest block in the city and the newest park in the city, and there are active development opportunities happening there.  I wanted to understand how different stakeholders’ stories about the market influenced their opinions about the future of development at the site.  So I did a lot of observation and participant observation, watching and listening for the spatial and social patterns of both vendors and shoppers at the market.  I combined what I found there with several other kinds of data – from interviews, community meetings, media articles, historic sources, and coded online reviews – to develop profiles of different kinds of shoppers and different kinds of stakeholders, and realized that these categories had distinct stories about the market, which clearly influenced how they imagined the future of development.  Also, Haymarket had a distinct culture, a set of rules that insiders knew and outsiders didn’t – and whether someone was really an insider or an outsider also had a bearing on what they thought the market could and should be in the city.

And what about my personal story?  Well, my first day behind the stall with the head of the vendor’s association, he asked me an important question.  He said, “What made you want to study Haymarket?”  This is a question that every researcher gets asked.  So my answer, of course, was that I had a family connection to the neighborhood, and had also lived there before school.  The vendor asked me for my grandmother’s last name.  When I told him, he pulled out his cell phone – this is something he did often, it’s one of the reasons why he’s such an effective community leader – and called a friend.  “Hey!  Do you remember a DeLeo, from Endicott Street?” He asked.  He was checking out my story, too.



  1. Diane Rizzetto says

    Love the “fly on the wall” approach. I would imagine interesting bit of conversation picked up as well.

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