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Archive for the ‘City History’ Category

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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In July of this year Asian Longhorned Beetles were found in six red maple trees in a wooded area about a mile from my house in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood. Asian Longhorned Beetles bore into hardwood trees like birch, maple, and elm, eventually killing them if left untreated. Authorities consequently set up a quarantine area that includes my street. This means no one is allowed to transport firewood or yard waste out of the area, and an inspection is being conducted within the quarantine zone. There is a particular concern for the trees of Arnold Arboretum, which lies within the quarantine area.

In 2008 there was an Asian Longhorned Beetle outbreak in Worcester, Massachusetts. The city was forced to cut down 25,000 trees. Here’s a before and after comparison:

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

With old trees, as with historic buildings and artifacts, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. (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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One of the eight Fontayne-Porter daguerreotypes of 1848 Cincinnati, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Wired Magazine recently ran a feature on Charles Fontayne and William Porter’s 1848 photographic panorama of Cincinnati’s waterfront, owned by the Cincinnati Public Library. Conservators at the George Eastman House have been working on the eight daguerreotypes that comprise the panorama, and in the process they have done a couple of interesting things. First, using a stereo microscope, they figured out just how far they could zoom without loosing resolution—according to Wired, “the panorama could be blown up to 170 by 20 feet without losing clarity.” They also created high-resolution digital scans of each 6.5” x 8.5” plate and trained a computer to “clean” them of spots left by dust and other deterioration, pixel by pixel. Looking very carefully, the conservation team has been able to discover all sorts of new information embedded in these views: faces in windows, shop signs, the time on the clock tower, clues to a imminent cholera epidemic. The panorama even provides early documentation of Cincinnati’s free black community. On the Wired site you can see all eight images, and zoom in on one of them at 10x. (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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Courtesy Andre Bandim/Flickr

We hit Barcelona last week. It was a culture shock after Helsinki–loud, huge, hot, a little disordered, and out all night. It smelled differently too: on the streets there was always a faint whiff of frying food, garbage, urine, hot dirt. A few months ago I posted that it took time for me to get adjusted to the smell of Helsinki when I arrived there in March–my nose was off-kilter for the first few weeks. In Barcelona I realized that, having grown up in a warm climate, it was the underlying smell of things baking in the heat–slightly off-putting but nonetheless familiar–that I was missing in Helsinki.

The Barcelona city museum is in the old city, in a complex of buildings that includes a medieval palace and church. The lower level has been excavated to reveal the remains of dyeing, fish processing, and wine-making businesses. You can walk around on platforms just above the excavations. I have seen this technique at two other museums: Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal and Aboa Vetus in Turku, Finland.

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