Archive for the ‘Locals’ Category

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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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.

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When I was in China last month I spent a day in Hangzhou, a city of 7 million a few hours southwest of Shanghai. Like most Chinese cities, it has a temple for the god of the city. These gods serve as the spiritual counterpart to living local officials, protect their cities from all manor of problems (wars, natural disasters, crop failures), and also address the individual needs of residents.

Hangzhou’s current city god temple is not very old; it was built in the 1990s. But nonetheless it is beautiful, and well-sited. Surrounded by trees, it sits on Wu Hill, not far from the Hangzhou Museum, looking out at the entire city. Here’s the view from the temple toward West Lake:

And the view looking east, toward Hangzhou’s business district:

I’m not very religious, but the city god is a concept I can get behind. I’m thinking of America’s Rust Belt cities, struggling to reinvent themselves given new post-industrial realities. Or Washington, DC, which so often gets swallowed up by the federal government. Or New Orleans. These places could all use a god just for them, to give an extra push where us mere mortals fail.

Or a super-hero. Or a fairy god-mother. I’m not picky.

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Daniela Kostova and Olivia Robinson's Anxiety Map via Flickr/kthread

I’m a fan of the urban planner Charles Landry and his concept of the creative city. I just started his book The Art of City Making and came across this passage:

Our sensory landscape is shrinking precisely at the moment when it should be broadening. Sensory manipulation is distancing us from our cities and we are losing our visceral knowledge of them. We have forgotten how to understand the smells of the city, to listen to its noises, to grasp the messages its look sends out and to be aware of its materials.

I was reminded of Landry when I came across a link to a contemporary art exhibition currently showing at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in NYC. It’s called You Are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York City. (more…)

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I finally had a chance to try out Historypin, the website that lets you link old photos to Google Street View. Historypin was developed, in partnership with Google, by We Are What We Do, an organization in the UK that takes big goals like a cleaner environment or better schools and breaks them into small, manageable steps they call “actions.” Historypin represents action #132, Share a Piece of Your History, as part of a goal of strengthening intergenerational relationships.

I was home in North Carolina this week for my 20th high school reunion, so I rooted through my childhood photo album and found an image that seemed perfect for Historypin:

It’s the house I grew up in, just after an ice storm in 1979. The house was torn down in 1984 to make way for a baseball stadium, so the site looks radically different today. I was able to successfully pin the photo to Street View and upload a brief story about the house. You can view the results here.


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Soul Landscapes

A few weeks before I left Helsinki in June the director of the Helsinki City Museum, Tiina Merisalo, invited my husband and me over for dinner. In the middle of new potatoes and salmon smoked by her husband Matti, the subject of “soul landscapes” came up. This concept was new to me, but as Tiina explains it, your soul landscape is the one that hits you in the center of your chest, they one you always carry with you, the one that immediately feels like home. It is often the landscape of your childhood, but it doesn’t have to be. (more…)

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Hester Street, Lower East Side, 1902, Library of Congress

The other day I stumbled upon a great little program called Food(ography), hosted by the delightful Mo Rocca. The particular episode I was watching (still airing a handful of times on the Cooking Channel throughout September) was about street food, and it investigated various carts/trucks in cities throughout the US. I’m something of a foodie, and I love Mo Rocca, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to watch this show. But I wasn’t expecting it to have anything to do with my work until suddenly culinary historian Jane Ziegelman pops on the screen, on location at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC. (more…)

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Have I got a story for you. Earlier this month I paid a visit to two cities on the German/Polish border: Frankfurt on der Oder [German] and Slubice [Polish], separated by the River Oder. They used to be two sides of one German city, but Poland ended up with everything east of the river after WWII. The people who live in these cities don’t have much personal history there: Frankfurt was evacuated during WWII and very few of the residents ever returned; meanwhile Poles were brought in from elsewhere to resettle Slubice when it became Polish territory. There is one bridge across the river between the two cities (see above). From the end of WWII until 2007 it was at times a controlled border crossing and at other times closed completely. But now that Poland has joined the European Union’s border-free Schengen Zone, anyone can walk over the bridge without so much as a Simon says. The result: people who spent many years having nothing to do with one another (save perhaps a black market cigarette sale) are suddenly close neighbors. And although the two cities are starting to connect in small ways, traveling across the bridge is rarely a part of daily life. You can’t take public transportation from one to the other, for example.

Enter Michael Kurzwelly. An artist who speaks both German and Polish, he moved to the area in 1998 and began staging public “interventions” to explore issues of identity along the border. Most of these interventions center around his vision of a united city, called Slubfurt, and with help from other residents he has set about convincing people that it really exists. At the invitation of Florence Maher, a fellow Fulbrighter studying border politics at Viadrina European University in Frankfurt, I took a tour of Slubfurt and talked to Kurzwelly about his work. (more…)

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Locals and Tourists #14 (GTWA #7): Boston, Eric Fischer

I just heard about the work of Eric Fischer, a programmer in the San Francisco area who has created a series of maps of major cities showing where people take photographs. Because the public photo-sharing websites Flickr and Picasa enable geo-tagging of the images people upload, Fischer was able to create maps that show the hot-spots—the places that are photographed by many people every day. This is interesting for my research because it could help city museums visualize the urban spaces that are most important to the public—the places that possess a high amount of social capital, the ones we want to remember.

As if that weren’t enough, Fischer took it one step further and used the timestamps on photos to divide them into those taken by tourists and those taken by locals.   (more…)

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House Calls

Continuing on the topic of history-themed contemporary art, on Sunday I checked out a project called Encounters at the Helsinki City Museum’s main building on Sofianinkatu. For this project, the museum hosted a group of students from Aalto University who are taking a class called Museums as Artistic Medium. It’s taught by the artist Outi Turpeinen, whose work often centers on issues of museum display. The students created artistic interventions that were sprinkled throughout the city museum’s galleries, in and around the permanent exhibition Helsinki Horizons, during the month of May.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the students’ work—I forgot my camera that day and now the show has closed. But I want to tell you about one piece that got me thinking. This particular student had gone out across Helsinki, in different neighborhoods, and knocked on doors at random. If someone answered she would ask for an object to be donated to her display at the museum. About 20 of these objects were then exhibited as part of Encounters. Accompanying text listed the neighborhood and a few sentences about the donor, the meaning of the object, and why it was chosen. Objects ranged from a broken cell phone, to old cut nails found during renovation work, to a custom shot glass made by the owner’s husband (he had worked in the Arabia factory). From the text you could tell that these folks probably felt a little put on the spot—some of them chose the first thing they could get their hands on, or pieces that clearly held little value for them (a bottle of cologne bought for a husband who turned out to be allergic to it, for example). But others were thoughtful about their choice and told stories of personal significance.


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