Archive for the ‘City History’ Category

My own joke repertoire is pretty slim, but I did just hear about a really interesting collaboration between the Chicago History Museum and the improv comedy group The Second City. They are teaming up to create a new show about the history of Chicago. The Chicago History Museum is providing guidance and historical materials while Second City develops the show, and last month CHM hosted eight preview performances where the audience was invited to provide live feedback on the work in progress. Second City is scheduled to debut the completed show in December. A recent writeup on redeye gives this description of the preview:

Though in this construction phase the performances are different each night, but if a recent show was any indication, the comics don’t plan to hold back on much. Chicago Public Schools, aldermanic elections, Chicago police, Chicago politics, Wrigleyville, trolley tours, Schaumburg, and the bean (“It looks like a lady’s pleasure button”) all fall under the satirical scrutiny of the show….If this performance was any indication, the show will blend those kind of catnip-for-the-audience jokes with more esoteric references to Chicago’s long history.

There are two things I like about this project. First, it looks at history in a different way, always a positive in my book. Second, it makes sense from a collaboration standpoint. The Second City is a venerable Chicago institution in its own right, but it is not the traditional kind of partner for a city museum. Therefore Second City brings a lot to the table: fresh ideas, and a new audience. So look around your city: what are the beloved institutions, no matter the field, that might make interesting partners? And let me take that one step further: maybe city museums should establish residency programs, inviting specialists from a variety of different fields to spend a few months to a year creating collaborative work. I would like to see the results of such cross-pollination, comedic or otherwise. In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for reviews of the new Second City show at the end of the year.

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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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Map of the City of Brooklyn, 1855, NYPL Collection

Like old maps? Have a little time on your hands? Maybe you want to participate in the New York Public Library’s Map Rectifier project. NYPL put its collection of historic maps online, and is asking the public to help align all the old maps against a more precise contemporary map. The rectification process not only allows everyone to compare then and now, but it also helps resolve inaccuracies in the old maps. The contemporary map NYPL is using for this project is Open Street Map, which is sort of Wikipedia for cartography. By tagging “control points,” specific coordinates that are constant for both maps, the historic one is brought into alignment with Open Street Map. At the NYPL site, in addition to actually doing the rectifying, members of the public can browse all the historic maps and also view the rectified ones in Google Earth. A video tutorial on the NYPL website, using an 1860 map of Central Park as an example, makes the process seem easy enough for anyone with basic computer skills. This project is an interesting example of crowdsourcing, and a great way to get to know a city better.

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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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Walking Through Time screenshot, via ITunes

In my continuing effort to keep abreast of urban history-themed apps for mobile devices, today I’m featuring a new IPhone app developed by a team from the Edinburgh College of Art and University of Edinburgh, Walking Through Time. It syncs historical maps of Edinburgh with the current, GPS-enabled map on your IPhone so you can navigate both geographically and chronologically as you stroll around Edinburgh. You can set the application to follow maps from a range of different time periods, 19th and 20th century. You can also toggle back and forth between old and new, or customize the transparency level to view both maps at the same time. A set of walking tours gives the application some structure if you don’t want to wander aimlessly. (more…)

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