All posts tagged: trauma and collective memory

My October: fire and quake

for the next week I’ll be in Edinburgh, Scotland, at a storytelling festival called “Once Upon a Place.”  I’ll also be thinking about this time of year, which the Celts who created Scotland’s bardic traditions called Samhain (the predecessor of Halloween).  In many folk traditions, this is the time of the year when the boundary between this world and the next is thinnest.  There will be stories about land and I can’t wait to share them with you. October has a whiff of calamity. As a child in the San Francisco Bay Area I lived through two natural disasters, and they both happened in late October. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco on a Tuesday evening at rush hour.  I was six.  When the rumbling began, my mother gathered my sister and me under the broad wooden doorjamb in our dining room.  My sister’s little friend froze under the ceiling fan; I remember the feeling of urgency with which my mom darted out from our place of security in order to scoop …

Love that Dirty Old Boston

A new Facebook page has been blowing up my Newsfeed lately…Dirty Old Boston.  This community page, which features pictures and images of “Boston before the gentrification of the 1980s,” started just weeks ago on September 22 and has almost 4,000 likes and 8,000 comments.  Last week was its most popular week, with photos of the 1970s stripper Princess Cheyenne (who became a bit of a recurring theme for a moment there), the original Boston Garden, a hit list from WRKO, lots of arson and other historic urban fires…you get the idea.  Many of the images aren’t “dirty,” so much as they are retro: women in vintage swim suits, old nightclubs in Cambridge, dudes in bellbottoms, etc.  These images draw a sense of the city’s bohemian roots. Its rise in interest on Facebook has been rapid, and has been primarily among folks between 35 and 44.  Which means, probably not people who remember a lot of the things in the photos, except as kids and teens. Posted 10/18/12: “There was an arson ring that was burning …

civic culture begins at dinnertime.

I want to tell you today about my favorite holiday. It’s Passover, and while I’m no longer a practicing Jew (in fact I consider myself a Humanist) I’ve found that having a Seder is still extremely important to me. As an adult living away from my family, and just beginning to build my own, I’ve found that the Seder is a ritual that invites me to think, and rethink, my commitments to friends, to tradition, to food and to meaning.  Every year, it means something different. This year, it’s meant thinking about what it takes to produce meaningful conversations about identity and history.  In part, that’s because I’m working on some non-Passover projects about this myself: I’m finally launching Terroir Studio, a kind of roving collaborative initiative for exploring how we can use food and meals to help us create a sense of community and learn about the places we call home. Another reason why Passover has resonated so much with me this year is that  Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander have released their …

working landscapes, fantasy landscapes, cultural landscapes.

I just got back from a road trip through the Pyrenees, from the French Riviera to Barcelona.  It was a gorgeous trip, a relaxing trip, a very, very food oriented trip (like you’re surprised).  But you know what was surprising?  How industrial, how work-oriented the landscape that we traveled through was.  From Marseille and its warehouses to the industrial agriculture and viticulture of Languedoc, from large-scale salt production in the Camargue to the incredible manufacturing history and massive port of Barcelona, the places we traveled through were not exactly straight from the fairy tales.  When we passed a nuclear power plant we were reminded that France gets 75% of its energy that way, and as we passed through the Pyrenees and saw the vast fields of air turbines we marveled at their size, the sheer engineering of them, and the marvelous contrast that they made against the romantic misty landscapes and medieval villages that surrounded them.  It was so exciting to see up close the work of making a country run, the kind of thing …

when there’s nothing left to preserve.

Historic preservation is about two things: saving and protecting historic buildings (or structures, or spaces), and saving or protecting (or redefining/inventing) historic memories. But our ideas about memory change over time, and sometimes when a community wants to preserve a memory they find that the structures associated with that memory no longer exist.  This is especially true when memories relate to memories of conflict or pre-conflict society, since conflict is often characterized by physical destruction. So what do you do if there’s no neighborhood to preserve, no site to protect?  Or, more abstractly, if you want to recognize a particular event in collective memory independent of the physical built environment?  I’d like to propose that we can understand this as the difference between preservation and commemoration.  While preservation specifically refers to maintaining the appearance and structure of the existing built environment, commemoration is more abstract I think, having to do with the incorporation of social or collective memory into our experience of the physical world. How can you do commemoration effectively, with or without an …

ruins: urban, colonial, eternal.

I’ve written before about ruins in Detroit as that city confronts the challenges of urban abandonment.  Today I want to revisit ruins, and once again I’ll try to restrain myself from talking too much about Ruskin, the picturesque, and the patina of decay.  Because how we deal with ruins in our communities is a very practical question, as the city of Detroit shows.  When do you choose abandonment over rehabilitation?  What does it say about your sense of past, and future, when you choose to revere or ignore ruined buildings?  What stories do you tell when historic buildings are maintained, and what do you tell when they break down?  And finally, how do you build a new society, or continue to develop an existing one, in the context of previous narratives of abandonment and decay? I first started thinking about ruins when I visited my friend Alex in St. Louis last month.  She was interning for Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, a redevelopment organization that uses preservation and community history as the foundation of …

memorializing.

have you ever wondered why it seems like memorial day is just like veteran’s day?  every year we commemorate our fallen soldiers and reflect on what it means to be a nation at (what seems like) constant war.  but aren’t the two different? when i read this gorgeous op-ed in the Globe i realized what’s wrong: veteran’s day is our time to honor soldiers, but memorial day is — or ought to be — a time to think about war. more specifically, it was originally created as a day to remember and continue to heal the rift caused by the Civil War, a rift that continues to play itself out throughout our national politics.  i think it’s safe to say we’re more interested in barbecues and politically safe memorial services than any sober, profound interrogation of what it means to have entered into deadly and devastating conflict with ourselves and other peoples.  and certainly the fact that we have had such conflict within our own landscape is not something that goes well with hot dogs. …