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Archive for the ‘Locals’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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The George Washington University has announced a major gift from Washingtoniana collector Albert Small. Small’s collection of rare books, maps, documents, and ephemera comes with a $5 million dollar fund that will be used to create a new museum of Washington history in the 19th-century Woodhull House on the GW campus.

In 2003 the Historical Society of Washington DC opened a new City Museum in the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. Although there was considerable buzz when the museum first opened, it closed a year later due to lack of funds and poor attendance. It has since reopened with a smaller staff and a more limited range of programs and exhibitions. Local history can be complicated in Washington, where the Smithsonian museums, and the federal government in general, loom so large. The needs of tourists, as well as those of transient federal workers, often overshadow the needs of longtime locals. The new Small museum at GW seems to be a more focused project and it has the backing of a major university—hopefully it will fare better than the City Museum, and will provide some meaningful programming to help the residents of DC understand their city.

Meanwhile, I’ll take this opportunity to point out one thing I love from the DC urban history scene, something that does work for locals. It’s the Art on Call project, which restored police and fire call boxes throughout the city, and partnered with contemporary artists to fill them with interesting installations:

 

(Photos by Nick Eckert © 2009 via Cultural Tourism DC)

Each neighborhood chose its own theme for its call boxes, so they really do have a local, community feel. They often allude to nearby historic buildings, or to famous people who lived in the neighborhood. The Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood even has a call box website with images of each box and a map of the box locations. So next time you are in DC put these call boxes at the top of your must-see list. Air & Space Museum can wait.

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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.

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Photo by Geff Rossi via flickr

Last week one of my students, Madeline Karp, told me about her family’s visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. She was particularly struck by the Hall of Birds, which she described as a long hallway lined with glass cases displaying the bird collection, some stuffed in poses and some displayed more as specimens, flat on their backs. One case was filled with comparisons: birds from popular culture (Tweety, Opus from Bloom County) next to their counterparts from the natural world. Here’s the photo she took of Toucan Sam:

Photo by Madeline Karp

According to Madeline, there was a lot of intense birdness in the Hall of Birds. It was maybe even a little disturbing if you weren’t used to seeing bird specimens flat on their backs like that. The experience led her mother to comment that it looked like the exhibition had been made either for or by cats.

I was thinking about Madeline’s story the next morning while I was walking my friends’ German wirehaired pointer. I was imagining cats roaming the Hall of Birds, noses pressed to the cases, and a team of cat curators making decisions about the most tantalizing specimens to display (maybe throw in some fish for variety, and open the window shades to make plenty of sunny spots on the floor).

Meanwhile, here I am walking the dog, and she’s investigating every nook and cranny of the neighborhood streets with the kind of enthusiasm and detail that I wish every city resident would display. And it hit me: cats don’t get out in the city all that much, but dogs certainly do. Has any museum ever done an exhibition depicting their city from a four-legged point of view? The urban history of things dogs care about: hydrants, parks, smelly things, leash laws, dogcatchers. Historic photographs taken from two feet off the ground. I would give a nice tasty chew toy to see that, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

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Walking the Talk

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of exploring cities at a pedestrian’s pace and scale. You pick up details that could easily be missed in a car or train, and repeated walks over the same ground create layers of experience, a sense of change over time. Walking tours of cities or neighborhoods are nothing new; they’ve been around for years. But I’m starting to collect examples of tours that go beyond the typical expert-walks-you-around-and-points-out-sites-of-interest, or you-walk-yourself-around-and-read-said-expert’s-text.

One I encountered recently is a self-guided, oral history tour of Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood called Speaking of Wickenden. It was created by students in Anne Valk’s Community and Documentary Storytelling course at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities. At each stop, instead of commentary from the traditional expert guide, you hear oral histories by longtime residents of Fox Point (historically it was a mostly Portuguese, Cape Verdean, and Irish working-class neighborhood) that were recorded and edited by the Brown students. I’m sure Speaking of Wickenden isn’t the first oral history cell phone tour, but it’s a nice example, nonetheless.

The first time I heard this tour I was reminded that no public history project can be successful without great content—you either have it or you don’t. And these oral histories are great content, primary source content. I’ve posted before about online historic photograph projects like Historypin and SepiaTown. I would love it if these sites mapped oral history content as well. There are a few projects doing it in small doses—PhilaPlace and City of Memory are two. But it’s too bad that something as massive as the StoryCorps archive isn’t geo-tagged online. Meanwhile, you can listen to Speaking of Wickenden audio stops on the Internet, even if you’re not in Providence. Here’s hoping the students expand their scope to other neighborhoods.

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