Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘City Identity’ Category

Comment Board Memorial Location 3

A lot has happened since I wrote my post about the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s time for an update.

The bombing site reopened to the public on Wednesday, April 22 24, a week ago today. I’ve walked the Back Bay twice since then and found it so very comforting to see people out on the streets. People are the lifeblood of any city, and their absence in and around Copley Square the week of the bombings was even more jarring to me than the sight of soldiers and armored jeeps in front of the Boston Public Library. On both Thursday the 25th and Tuesday the 30th Copley was bursting with people of all stripes—office workers, buskers, skate punks, dandies, tourists, runners, campaign volunteers, dog walkers, moms with strollers. Bostonians are trying hard to get back to normal, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. On both walks I let myself get lost in the crowd; that’s what normal means to me.

I have paid four visits to the makeshift bombing memorial: April 20, 22, 25, and 30. Each time I have taken photos to document both the objects left there and the ways people are interacting with the memorial. Each time it has changed significantly since my last visit. It keeps getting bigger, of course. Twice it has changed location. Location 1 was in the middle of the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley, up against the police barricade that blocked Boylston to all traffic:

MarathonMemorial

In anticipation of reopening the crime scene, it moved about 50 feet to Location 2, against the side of a building at that same intersection:

Memorial Location 2

Then, perhaps when it became clear this public ritual needed a space befitting its importance to the city, Location 3 was organized at the north side of Copley Square itself:

Memorial Location 3

Locations 1 and 2 felt cold and hard—nothing but concrete and police barriers against a backdrop devoid of people. By contrast Location 3 feels much more human. It’s a large, U-shaped enclosure on the edge of the Copley lawn, an outdoor room of sorts. Ten of the Copley trees are inside the enclosure, and many of the signs and mementos people have left are propped against their trunks or hanging from their branches, with pathways in between. People are out and about again, and they circulate through the memorial, moving from tree to tree, like visitors at an exhibition. Memorial 3 feels like the right place, a place at the heart of the city.

At Location 1 people left their objects themselves, with no particular logic other than where they could find available space. But when volunteers moved everything to Location 2, they organized the memorial. Three white crosses, one each for Lu Lingzi, Martin Richard, and Krystle Campbell, became more clearly the centerpiece of the memorial. Around them, flowers were placed with flowers, stuffed animals with stuffed animals, and shoes with shoes. When the memorial moved a second time, this order was maintained and expanded. As someone who studies cities, I find the most striking addition at Location 3 to be the symbols of Boston’s membership in the global sisterhood of cities—”Istanbul Stands with Boston,” “Stay Strong –Miami,” “Nashville Believes in Boston”—but there is much more. There are several large comment boards people can sign. There are many, many shoes. There is a hat section and a flag section.

Which leads me to one of the most important parts of the memorial: its unofficial caretaker, Kevin Brown. He is not the only or the first person to tend the memorial but he has been its most enduring volunteer.

Kevin Brown Memorial Location 1

A carpenter from Brockton, he has been there during three of my four visits. At Location 1, he and another volunteer were handing out single roses for the children in the crowd to add to the memorial, to give them a way of actively participating in the ritual. At Location 2, which blocked public access to the memorial much more formally than Location 1, mourners had to pass their mementos across the police barrier for Brown to place, and he obliged repeatedly and good-naturedly, honoring requests for him to pose for photographs, answering questions, and following instructions like “please place this around the neck of the black stuffed dog.” He told me volunteers were organizing that night, in advance of the storms predicted for Tuesday the 23rd, to bag anything that would get damaged by water. He told me some of the marathon medals had been stolen so they had started setting all the medals aside for safekeeping. He told me he watched a female runner walk up to the memorial, take off her shoes, add them to the pile, and walk away barefoot. He told me he was going to make a fourth cross for Sean Collier. Not only was he the citizen curator of Location 2, he was also its docent; guiding people through the mourning ritual. Kevin Brown’s role at Location 3 on Copley Square is different. Because the memorial has grown so big that you can walk around in it, you could miss Brown if you didn’t know to look for him. He has a chair now. I watched him make a round to water all the potted plants, and then another round to light all the candles (it was 6 pm). I was glad to see him.

Kevin Brown Lights Candles Memorial Location 3

I want to pay particular attention to Kevin Brown because in so many ways he is my counterpart and colleague, even if we don’t really know each other. He quickly and spontaneously took up a role at this memorial that I have trained for and practiced for more than 15 years. While he has been out there in the sun and rain every day, those of us in Boston’s museum and archive community—the professionals—have been moving more slowly. Granted, there are reasons we are moving slowly. The stakes are high when you’re talking about caring for things in perpetuity and we want to do this right (or as close to right as we can). We have indeed made some progress. We have been systematically checking in with each institution in the area, and our list of whether and what each one plans to collect is nearly complete (most notably, at Mayor Menino’s direction, the Boston City Archives will preserve items from the memorial). Historic New England has offered its fumigation bubble to ensure that bombing-related artifacts are pest-free before they are introduced into existing collections. We have made contact with folks at the 9/11 Memorial who have offered valuable advice and ongoing support. We are trying to organize pro bono legal counsel to advise on all manner of issues, from how Massachusetts abandoned property laws will affect collecting to release forms for oral histories.

I remain concerned that we still have not identified homes for all of the material that should be collected from this event. Boston deserves a thoughtful, compelling, and flawlessly executed exhibition of this material on the one-year anniversary of the bombings—to help Bostonians process their emotions and memories and transform them into some sort of positive civic engagement for the city. But there is so much work to be done in order to tell this story—and tell it well—I remain concerned about that too. One thing I am not concerned about is Kevin Brown. This week Kevin Brown is my curatorial hero. This week Kevin Brown is the heart at the heart of Boston.

Read Full Post »

Alphabetical Family Meeting Area Marathon Signs

All week I have been trying to look at the events unfolding here in Boston through the lens of city museums. Boston doesn’t have a proper city museum. If Boston did have a proper city museum, I would’ve wanted it this week to open wide its doors to the city for solace and reflection (many existing museums in Boston did in fact do so) and to serve as a place for civic dialogue while Bostonians struggled to understand and respond to the bombings, individually and collectively. I would’ve wanted it to collect and document the material culture of this event, and I would’ve wanted it to actively participate in city-wide efforts to interpret and memorialize the bombings.

Museum workers are not first responders—let’s be clear about that. But they are part of the second and third and fourth waves. They are public servants, and in times of crisis their job is to collect and document, tell the story, keep the memory, and help the public make meaning of it all. Boston doesn’t have a city museum to do that work right now. I am writing this post to call attention to what we are missing without one, and also to do my part as an urban public historian to capture and frame the details of what Bostonians experienced this week. Right now I’m not so concerned about the facts and timeline—plenty of people are recording and analyzing the chain of events. Rather I care about ordinary Bostonians: what they felt and expressed, and how they are integrating the bombings into their own personal narratives of the city.

As most of you know by now (if you didn’t know already), Marathon Monday always takes place on Patriots’ Day, which is a state holiday that commemorates the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution. It also launches April school vacation week and serves as Boston’s unofficial first day of spring. Every year on Marathon Monday thousands of Bostonians turn out to support and cheer on the runners along the course. And if they aren’t at the marathon, they’re at the Red Sox game or at gatherings of family and friends all over the city. For all these reasons Boston’s collective emotional barometer was particularly high on April 15 just before it sunk so precipitously.

As Bostonians tried to make sense of the bombings this week they turned to history for signs of past resilience: the city that withstood the Siege of Boston and “invented America,” the city that survived the Molasses Flood and the Big Dig. They turned to the brand Boston projects to the world to reassure themselves about the city’s essential character: John Winthrop’s city upon a hill, with one of the best medical communities in the country; a city that welcomes thousands of people from all over the world each year to its universities. They turned to Boston’s popular culture—Dirty Water, Cheers, Good Will Hunting—to express their love and fidelity. And they turned to Boston’s sports teams—the closest thing we have to urban warriors in 2013—for signs of continuity and strength. As they did so, Bostonians were not all on the same page about what constitutes an appropriate level of tolerance, empathy, or law and order; they were not all on the same page about how to mourn and when to get back to business as usual.

Every urban resident carries a mental map of their city inside their head. It’s how they navigate on a daily basis, and it’s layered with personal memories and landmarks. Most Bostonians had to look up Norfolk Street in Cambridge and Franklin Street in Watertown on Friday during the manhunt for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No one had to look up the finish line stretch of Boylston Street where the bombings took place; it’s on every Bostonian’s mental map. They could instantly reel off the landmarks on those two blocks: the Copley Green Line station, Boston Public Library, Old South Church, the Lenox Hotel, Lord & Taylor, Marathon Sports. They could instantly recall years of personal memories—some mundane, some poignant—that were created there.

What a city museum would understand better than anyone else is that the bombings tore a hole in our mental maps. On Saturday afternoon I went down to the bombing site to try to get a handle on the exact nature of that hole. I took the Orange Line to Back Bay Station, walked up to the south side of Copley Square, and then skirted the southern and eastern edge of the secured crime scene perimeter. On one hand what I observed was comfortingly the same as always. The flower stall outside Back Bay Station was selling spring tulips in every color imaginable. The doormen at the Copley Plaza were at their post, greeting guests in tuxedos and evening gowns arriving for a wedding. Runners were running; college students were turning up for a Saturday night out on the town. The landmarks themselves—the library, the churches, the Hancock Tower, were all still there. On the other hand it was disturbingly, radically different. Even after the barricades are gone and the city returns to some version of normal, we need to remember that radical difference.

CopleyBarricade

Every flag I saw was at half mast. Wolf Blitzer and a half-dozen TV journalists were broadcasting cheek-by-jowl on the corner outside the Copley Place Westin, lights blazing and TV trucks humming. Across the street from the news teams, roughly eight men in camouflage and bullet-proof vests, along with several armored jeeps, guarded the barricade at the southwest corner of Copley Square. By that point, with the threat to the city subsiding, they were spending most of their time making small talk with passersby, posing for pictures, and giving directions. Lots and lots of directions—many pedestrians were having trouble figuring out how to get where they were going without crossing Copley Square. A Boston traffic cop was also there directing cars that were having similar difficulty navigating around the hole in the city.

MarathonMemorial

I walked east toward the corner of Clarendon and St James, where the lawn of Trinity Church was still strewn with plastic cups and marathon debris. No one had gotten around to removing the Family Meeting Area signs attached to the lampposts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that on Marathon Day give runners a way of finding their loved ones in the finish line crowd. At Boylston and Berkeley I stopped at the makeshift memorial and watched people pay their respects. Many of the items that had been placed there were still wet from that morning’s rain. Two older men were tending the memorial; one of them gave single yellow roses to kids in the crowd so they could lay them near the three crosses at the center of the memorial. Five or six therapy dogs were on hand and getting lots of attention.

I caught the Green Line at Arlington Station, heading outbound to a friend’s birthday party in Newton Centre. As the digital announcement system in my subway car flashed Entering Copley, we rode through but did not stop at Copley Station. The station was empty and dark except for a few dim security lights, still closed as part of the crime scene.

On Thursday night I talked with the students in my material culture course about the bombings and I asked them what they thought should be collected and preserved in order to capture the experience of Boston this week. With a few additional objects added in by me, their ideas included:

  • Marathon medals, bib numbers, space blankets, and yellow runner bags
  • The international flags from the finish line
  • Yellow Boston Police and BAA Physician vests, marathon volunteer jackets, hospital equipment
  • Bill Iffrig‘s orange singlet
  • Carlos Arredondo’s bloodied American flag
  • Martin Richard’s “No more hurting people. Peace” poster
  • Signs and t-shirts of support—local, national, and international
  • Slain MIT police officer Sean Collier’s uniform
  • The makeshift memorial at Boylston and Berkeley
  • Red Sox and Bruins memorial jerseys
  • Mayor Tom Menino’s hospital bracelet
  • The technology of the police investigation
  • The recovered lid from the pressure cooker bomb
  • The covered boat on Franklin Street in Watertown where suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid on Friday
  • Photographs, video, news and social media feeds, oral histories, statements by public officials, luminaries, and celebrities
  • The soundscape of the week: the typical happy sounds of the marathon (the starting gun, cheering spectators, cowbells) giving way to the explosion and confusion at the finish line; ambulances and helicopters, gunshots and house-to-house searches; and finally cheers of relief and gratitude as the second suspect was taken into custody

And this has been my growing concern throughout the week: that in the absence of a proper city museum, Boston is not prepared to document and collect this story. There is no museum in the city that has a mandate to collect contemporary Boston history. There are several institutions that will likely preserve paper records and photographs, but objects—particularly a collection of this scale—are another matter. I am reaching out to local colleagues to find out if efforts are underway that I just don’t know about yet, and if not, to see if something might be done.

I want to end by urging you to read a piece from today’s Boston Globe Ideas section by Stephen Heuser titled Vulnerability in an Open City. If I were planning an exhibition about the marathon bombings for a Boston city museum, this essay would be my compass. Heuser sets out to make larger points about social capital, openness, and risk that apply to any city, but he does it against the backdrop of Boston. In the process he captures in vivid detail the experience of everyday Bostonians this week. In his telling, we see the moral of this story and a value every city museum should hold: “cities bring us together in spite of ourselves.”

Read Full Post »

The Arts section of this past Sunday’s Boston Globe brought me an article by Jeremy Eichler about composer Tod Machover and his newest commission, A Toronto Symphony. If you’re not familiar with Machover’s work, he has spent his career developing technology that pushes the boundaries of both music making and music composition, and he currently directs the Opera of the Future group at MIT.

For A Toronto Symphony Machover asked Torontonians to collaborate with him in creating a piece that would truly capture their experience of the city. As Eichler writes, “He wanted to write a symphony not for the city of Toronto by with the city of Toronto, a piece of music that would ultimately be about Toronto in a way that was granular, participatory, and reflective of an urban landscape in all of its component parts.” There’s an excellent 22-minute video at the ideacity website of Machover explaining the Toronto project when it launched. The symphony has eight parts:

  1. OVERTURE: the city wakes
  2. CITY SOUNDS: based on crowd-sourced, recorded sounds of Toronto (listen to some of these sounds via Soundcloud here and here)
  3. CITY STORIES: people’s stories of the city, made into music and woven together
  4. IMAGINING THE CITY: “a memory of Toronto when one is far far away”
  5. IN THE CITY: a collage of on-the-ground moments throughout the city’s neighborhoods
  6. CITY SOARING: the birds-eye view of Toronto
  7. TORONTO DANCES: “a big dance party, a kind of ‘Song to Toronto'”
  8. THE CITY SLEEPS: rocking the city to sleep

Machover posted a series of calls for various forms of participation on the project website, took part in local festivals, and worked with school children, musicians, and individuals from all over the city, not only to identify what Toronto sounds like but also to shape the actual musical composition. His team from MIT developed a group of new applications (best accessed via Google Chrome), including Media Scores, Constellation, and City Soaring, that allow people to play around with and modify Machover’s core Toronto composition using graphic tools–colors, shapes, lines–such that no musical training is necessary to participate. I spent a little time with these tools today and particularly liked Constellation. It felt like a glorious experiment in synesthesia.

In the Globe article Machover makes this point about the collaborative nature of A Toronto Symphony: “If it feels in the end like basically my piece no matter what, or like a mash-up of other people’s stuff that I facilitated, I think that would be less satisfying. But if it’s something that couldn’t have been made without each other, it will feel really good.” This project, and this quote, speak volumes to me about the current work of city museums. I want them to be like Tod Machover: using their expertise to bring out the best in each of us and illuminate our collective experience of the city; doing it through participation, interdisciplinary learning, and new tools that help us see the city in a different light.

The piece debuts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on March 9 in Roy Thomson Hall as part of the New Creations Festival. Put it on your calendar. Meanwhile, apparently two other cities have already approached Machover about further city symphony collaborations. Maybe one of them is yours?

Read Full Post »

I know posts have been a little thin on this blog over the past few months. One of the reasons is that I’ve been working on two other projects that I’m now ready to share with my CityStories readers.

The first is an exhibition that came out of a fellowship I had in fall 2011 at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (JNBC) at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I was at JNBC to continue my research on city museums, but while I was there I also worked with five JNBC graduate students to develop an exhibition about what it means to live in Providence, drawing from the field of psychogeography for our methodology.

Pyschogeography isn’t exactly a household word. Loosely defined, it involves mapping abstract concepts like emotion, sensory experiences, and personal meaning, in contrast to our traditional concept of mapping physical elements—roads, landmarks,  topography. I had been grappling a lot with the disconnect between what city museums think is worth knowing and preserving about their cities, on one hand, and what city residents know and preserve as living, breathing “archives,” walking around their cities each day, on the other. The exhibition was an experiment to see what it would be like to create a city collection where the emotional, sensory, and personal experiences of residents command center stage. After this project I am further convinced that city museums should be incorporating psychogeography into their ongoing work. The exhibition, You Are Here: Archiving Providence in the Present, is documented here.

The second project is a little more personal, but still strongly tied to my professional practice. I’ve been developing a blog for my five-year-old cousin Thomas, who wants to be an explorer when he grows up. I post photos from cities I have visited as part of my research, and I challenge Thomas to figure out the location of each photo. When he solves one, he and his mom report on how he did it, which gets posted on the blog. It’s called Thomas Sees the World.

The blog happened organically. Thomas was working on one of Andrew Sullivan’s “View from Your Window” challenges, but it was really hard. I offered to send him a few of my own photos that I had screened to make sure they contained enough visual clues. Thomas attacked these photos with an overwhelming eagerness to learn, and I was fascinated by his thought process, which almost never conformed to my expectations. After four or five of these challenges yielded such rich responses from Thomas, his mom and I decided to try a blog. We are developing a small but devoted following, and this game is bringing us all a lot of joy. I think about cities—and the differences between them—all the time, but I have never thought about them quite this way before. I am learning all sorts of new things as I look at cities through Thomas’s eyes. Take a look at the blog and you’ll see what I mean.

Read Full Post »

A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours at the Museum of the City of New York seeing the temporary exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, which runs through April 15. I’m really glad I got down to New York for this show, because it reinforces a lot of the concepts I’ve been exploring on this blog, and in my research on city museums in general.

I got there around 1:00 pm, and the museum was a lot busier than it had been the last time I visited in July 2011, when the main temporary exhibition was about colonial revival architecture. I had to wait in a line 20 people deep at the admission desk, and it was a good thing I arrived when I did. By the time I left at 3:00 not only had the admission line gotten longer but there was also a separate line for The Greatest Grid; the exhibition was so popular that the gallery housing it reached fire code capacity. I talked to a security guard who said it had been that crowded every weekend since the exhibition opened. At one point the exhibition curator, Hilary Ballon, showed up to do a gallery talk and had to use a microphone to be heard amidst a sea of attentive visitors.

Blockbuster exhibitions happen all the time at art museums, and at a lot of science museums too, but they are rare at city history museums. Why is The Greatest Grid so popular? From what I observed during my visit, I would say that MCNY struck a chord with New Yorkers. The museum could’ve presented a fairly standard urban planning exhibition, filled with historic maps, and gotten a reasonable turnout. But instead a decision was made to structure the exhibition around the concept of the Manhattan street grid—why and how it was developed, and what effect it has had on the city over time. That’s a concept that New Yorkers can really sink their teeth into.

Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan contends with the grid on a daily basis (click here to see an excerpt from 12×155, a video installation by artist Neil Goldberg, included in the exhibition, that illustrates this point quite effectively). Not only (says the gal from Boston) is it a particularly easy system to navigate—because of the grid you always know which way is north, and how long it will take to get from one place to another—but it also has a lot to do with what makes New York, New York. For example, the 19th-century real estate boom set in motion by the introduction of the grid is one of the big reasons NYC became such a financial powerhouse. And because the grid doesn’t really allow for inner courtyards, it constantly pushes Manhattanites out on the streets, ratcheting up the energy to that frenetic level we all associate with NYC.

Consequently, what I observed at the exhibition was a gallery packed full of locals in small social groups, spending a very long time pointing and talking about this grid and what it means to them. Often they were trying to find themselves—their home—on the historic maps, but just as often they were pointing out all the interesting things they noticed about how other parts of the city had changed. Here’s my slide show of all the pointers:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Anyone who follows Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog knows that museums have a new imperative to craft social experiences that compel visitors to engage with one another while learning. The Greatest Grid is very effective on this level.

Another thing the exhibition team did really well was to develop a small companion exhibition, The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan, installed upstairs from the main gallery. It features the eight winners of a call for ideas sponsored by MCNY and the Architectural League of New York that asked architects and urban planners to envision ways of improving the grid for the 21st-century. These proposals are quite creative, and pull in visitors even further by asking them to consider whether the grid actually works in its current form. They also reinforce a theme introduced by the main exhibition, that the grid was not inevitable but exists because of—and will continue to be shaped by—a series of urban planning decisions. I’ve written before about the need for city museums to address not just the past but also the present and future of their cities. Therefore I was glad to see The Unfinished Grid help visitors extend the historical timeline to include both contemporary urban life as well as hopes and dreams for a New York still to come.

But the exhibition team missed an opportunity to address another new imperative that Nina Simon regularly writes about: creating experiences where visitors actively participate in making meaning, alongside the curators. If I were a New Yorker visiting this exhibition, filled with excitement and new knowledge about something that feels very personal and real in my daily life, I would want to express it beyond my own social group. I would want to stick comments on a giant map of Manhattan, or photograph myself sharing the most interesting thing I learned, or vote on my favorite avenue. And doing so would help me see beyond my own experience, to the collective life on the street that all New Yorkers share.

New Yorkers, get thee to MCNY to see this exhibition, and then tell me what you think. Do you find it compelling? Did it make you want to share your own experience of the grid? What did you point at?

Read Full Post »

This spring I spent a few days in Vitulano, an Italian town of about 3,000 residents, built against the side of a mountain northeast of Naples. It seems that everyone in Vitulano is from a family that goes back generations in that same spot—half the town is related to each other by marriage or birth. And many of the families that have moved away to seek their fortunes elsewhere still come back to Vitulano whenever they can—on the weekends, during holidays, for family events.

While I was there I met a man named Corrado Mazzarelli. He left Vitulano when he was a teenager, first for Argentina and then for the U.S. But as a young man he came back to Vitulano to find a wife, and now that he is retired, he spends time there regularly. About Vitulano, he told me, “Your town is your second mother.” About his wife (they are still married), he told me, “the cow and the bull must be from the same town.”

We don’t always have the relationships we want with our mothers, but they are our mothers for better or worse—hopefully better—and that personal connection to place, like our connection to our mothers, is an imaginary line tied tight to us wherever we go. For some it may just be a thin thread; for Vitulano I think it might be a steel cable.

As for the cow, that’s an entirely different story.

Read Full Post »

Is the one from April 18, 2011, with the “Journeys” theme. Fittingly, this is the issue I happened to grab for my trip to Europe last month, and I read it slowly, on a train in northern Scotland, in a small town in southern Italy, during the white nights of Helsinki’s midsummer. Under the heading “Coming to America,” it has one-page reminiscences from six different writers about their experiences immigrating to the United States. I was particularly struck by Lore Segal’s piece, “Spry for Frying,” in which she talks about her memories of moving to New York City from Austria, by way of Dominican Republic. She writes at the end:

“The refugee in me still feels displaced when I leave New York. It’s not in America, not in the United States, that I’ve put down roots. It is in Manhattan.”

This quote reminded me of a point Jette Sandahl, the director of the Museum of Copenhagen, made in a talk she gave at Harvard back in April. She said that one either is or isn’t a Dane—this is determined by where you are born—but one can choose or not choose to be a Copenhagener:

“In the city we are more interested in where we are going than where we came from.”

Sandahl went on to say that city museums have a duty to emphasize diversity and teach tolerance, because part of the experience of living in a city means learning to share the same apartment building, or subway car, or park bench with the many different kinds of people who have also chosen that city to put down roots.

In my own way I am an immigrant in Boston. It’s true that I was born an American, but I come from a part of the US that’s quite different culturally from this New England city. I have chosen to be a Bostonian, and I love my city all the more for the ways it reveals itself to me slowly over time. I like the idea of a city museum that has room for me and all the people I see on my block and in the subway and the park. So how do we make that happen? The Museum of Copenhagen is taking on these issues this year in an exhibition, Becoming a Copenhagener. I look forward to seeing it this fall.

Read Full Post »

If you happened to miss, like I did, the Grand Rapids LipDub video that went viral two weeks ago, stop everything and watch it right now. The video was created through the efforts of Rob Bliss and Scott Erickson in response to Grand Rapids’ inclusion in Newsweek‘s list of America’s dying cities (based on population decline) in January. Hundreds of local residents turned out to appear in the video, lip-syncing to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” to help Bliss and Erickson prove Newsweek wrong. I won’t go into the details too much because really, you just need to watch it.

I’ve been traveling in Europe for the past few weeks, with spotty internet access, so I hadn’t heard anything about this video until it was referenced on my favorite blog two days ago. Then there I was Friday morning in a friend’s kitchen in London, reduced to weeping at the sight of all these Grand Rapids residents, from different walks of life, stepping up to make a statement about their city. Fifty or a hundred years from now, when Rob Bliss, Mayor George Hartwell, and even perhaps Newsweek itself are long gone, Grand Rapids LipDub will be a powerful historical document, a snapshot of the city during a period of significant change: the dress, the cultural life, the architecture, the people. Here’s hoping someone stays on top of migrating the video to new formats.

Addendum: Two more comments as I continue to think about Grand Rapids LipDub. First, it’s definitely boosterism, but at least it’s an organic form of boosterism, widely supported by local residents, in reaction to boosterism’s other extreme, “ruin porn.” And second, because I do see this as a form of documentary, something Grand Rapids will want to look back on years from now, I wish it had been able to show us the full picture—good and bad, ballroom dancers and local celebrities but also the city’s homeless citizens or children without health care. But of course then it wouldn’t be boosterism. I’ll take it anyway.

Read Full Post »

Today I found the ticket stub for Baarìa, a movie I saw at the Glasgow Film Theatre last summer. Baarìa is written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore of Cinema Paradiso fame (another film that should be in your Netflix Queue if you haven’t already seen it).

Simply put, Baarìa is Tornatore’s love song to his hometown of Bagheria, Sicily. History is a major character in the film: we see Bagheria change through three generations of the same family, from the 1920s to the 1980s. Without spoiling anything, there is a breathtaking moment at the end of the film where time runs together and you feel—acutely—Tornatore’s longing for the Bagheria of his memories. Baarìa is a visually stunning example of the imprint a place can make on one’s soul.

Interestingly enough, parts of Baarìa were filmed in Tunis (presumably in the Medina?), because it more closely approximates what Bagheria looked like in the early 20th century. (As an aside, you might want to check out the work of my colleague Habib Saidi at Laval University in Quebec City; he studies tourism and cultural heritage in Tunis, among other places.) Which raises another possible topic for a blog post: cities that feel like other cities—past, present, or future.

Read Full Post »

One of the best parts of my November visit to China was the tour I took of West Lake, in the city of Hangzhou. West Lake is a special place, treasured by all of China but treasured in particular by the residents of Hangzhou. After a few hours there I could understand why; the landscape is restorative. Everywhere I looked there was a different kind of beautiful. We took this boat:

Across the lake to this island:

And along the way the view looked like this:

After the boat ride we toured the West Lake Museum, where I developed an even deeper appreciation for the power of this place. Turns out that for hundreds of years there has been a history of identifying the best views or spots at the lake and giving them special status, sort of a West Lake Top Ten. An important part of this practice is that each special place is given a poetic name. In fact, according to the museum interpretation West Lake serves as one of the best examples of the Chinese tradition of assigning poetic names to beautiful places. There have been a number of these poetic lists at West Lake over the years; the most well-known (and one of the oldest, although I had trouble pinpointing list origins) is this one (I recommend clicking here for the full effect, with photos):

Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring
Curved Yard and Lotus Pool in Summer
Moon over the Peaceful Lake in Autumn
Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter
Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset
Two Peaks Piercing the Clouds
Orioles Singing in the Willows
Fish Viewing at the Flower Pond
Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon
Evening Bell Ringing at the Nanping Hill

Periodically, even up to present day, new lists are created, sometimes involving public contests. A recent list is:

Cloud-Sustained Path in a Bamboo Grove
Sweet Osmanthus Rain at Manlong Village
Running Tiger Dream Spring at Hupao Valley
Inquiring about Tea at Dragon Well
Nine Creeks Meandering Through a Misty Forest
Heavenly Wind over Wu Hill
Ruan’s Mound Encircled by Greenness
Yellow Dragon Cave Dressed in Green
Clouds Scurrying over Jade Emperor Hill
Precious Stone Hill Floating in Rosy Cloud

Poetic indeed. After some online investigation I found other places in China–Beijing, for example–with designated poetic names, but not a whole lot of information about the overall history of the practice and its cultural meaning. Let’s be clear, therefore, that I’m coming at this as an uninformed outsider, but I really like this concept. And while a visitor like me can appreciate poetic names at West Lake, I think they are mainly meant for locals. It’s a way of acknowledging the places we go back to again and again, the ones that make us appreciate changing seasons and times of day, the ones we would fight to preserve. It says: “I know this place. For it, not just any name will do.”

My experience at West Lake made me immediately start thinking about my own special places and what their names should be. I’ve been playing around with some of my favorite cities: Ball Soaring toward Green Monster (Boston) and Tervasaari Burning with Afternoon Light (Helsinki), for example. I’ve also been thinking about my house: Sun Streaming through Front Window Turns Us Catlike, and Sunday Funnies Enveloped in Fluffy Goosedown Cloud. Some results have been better than others but I’m not too concerned about that; it’s the process that matters. There’s a lot of joy in thinking about your favorite places and distilling them down to their most meaningful attributes, savoring the possibilities of each word. And I could see how a city-wide effort–crowd-sourcing suggestions, voting on the best names, arguing passionately, celebrating the outcome–could be a powerful collective experience.

Post a comment if this has you thinking about poetic names for the places in your life. I’d love to start keeping a list. And who knows, maybe turn it into a full-scale project some day.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 397 other followers

%d bloggers like this: