I haven't written recently, but it has not been for lack of compelling ideas and discussion in my classes and reading. It has been in fact because of too much of it, alongside a new, second job that I have taken on, and the regularly hefty amount of school work. But I just finished another book for class, that has again drawn me into contemplating a few other compelling books and themes, and alas, this is the place where I can put those thoughts concretely.
Historian Alison Isenberg's 2004 book Downtown America: A history of the place and the people who made it is in fact a testament to the people, more than anything, who are responsible for the good and bad and the complicated personality of U.S. cities today. Oftentimes the city holds a nostalgic identity for people, a loss of something bygone, a sort of deflated self that holds some sort of hard-to-define sadness. Isenberg reminds us however, that in considering our efforts today at defining our downtown economic areas and "Main Streets," we must recognize that "the democratic, melting-pot downtown has been an evolving ideal, not a past accomplished reality from which Americans have strayed." Certainly there was never a democratic reality in the segregated shopping districts of the early and mid twentieth century, yet it is oftentimes portrayed or revered in memoriam as having been a free-wheeling, glorious environment. That may have been so, but for a very selective group of individuals; for everyone else, it has a much more complex definition, a much less rosy spot in memory.
She also sheds light on the criticism of some of today's shopping centers that hark back to historic facades or utilize (some might say exploit) nostalgia in the creation of their urban commercial centers. This is not a new desire, this image of a tidy, historical ideal. In the early twentieth century, there was an entire industry around artists' renditions of American cities, which the book's images show to be very much tidy clean-ups of what the actual cityscapes looked like.
This is not a criticism of either the 1920s-50s, nor of the most recent efforts, either by Isenberg or myself. Rather it is part of her argument that it has been and will continue to be the people who construct the cityscape, both literally in physical development, and ideally in how they invision their city and its image.
It got me thinking of another study on the American city, or one in particular--the public history project that has resulted Lowell, Massachusetts as the subject of an entire National Park, and the recent book on its history. One of the questions at the core of Cathy Stanton's whole study of the city is whether or not economic development and interest is compatible with public historians' goals of preserving and interpreting a city's past and its meaning in American history. Both sides can be argued, I am not here to answer this, but this same thought came back many times while I read about the larger developments of the economy of "downtown America" over the years, and the many vested interests that laid at the heart of each decision within a city's planning. Most often, it was businessmen, investors, retailers, and real estate appraisers who were making the biggest decisions, but in the wake of urban renewal projects and other controversial methods of "cleaning up the downtown," historians and preservationists had their say as well, spanning much of the city's recent past (1980s to the present).
Most compelling to me is the way in which every vested party uses the past to their own ends, and how many of the symbols of the past appear very differently depending on who is looking at them. This was most explicit in Isenberg's description of the 1997-98 exhibit "Main Street Five-and-Dimes," which was on display in Washington, D.C. at the National Building Museum. The exhibit's interpretation says nothing about the enormous effects of integration of the downtown, and how many of the department stores had not been serving African American urban citizens. She uses the comment book to show just how much people really did want to talk about the effects of a separated society on the downtown, even if the curators only wanted to show nostalgic "thingamabobs" and enlist positive images of the way things used to be.
Some of those are truly thought-provoking, so much so that I will post the entire excerpt a little later on. But it reminded me again of how much specific images and symbols from the past are used to many different ends. To investors and retailers, symbols of the past utilize memories, or perceived memories, to add significance to their project. To some white citizens, like this guestbook commentators, it was a vision of a "happier, kinder world," while to other less-than-subtle commentators, it was a positive memory of "'whites only' drinking fountains--the way it should be." To black visitors, it was that "some change is good," and that these old department store must be considered in the wider context of the times they were in, including the fact that while they no longer exist, life itself has in fact gotten better for many people who live around the same places the stores were located. One guest book writer agreed that yes, it was a look back on a simpler time. "Simpler perhaps but was it better?" Indeed, a more complex interpretation that gives us more to consider.
Surely I have gone past making a concise point. But my intention was just to unite the discussion in the Lowell Experiment about what history means to certain people while having wholly different definitions to others, and trying to reconcile every group and perspective when your goal is to consider the larger narrative of an entire community, or city, or even a larger metro area. In Lowell as well, part of the complicated story was often the notion of history on an upward ride, that we have surely improved our lives from those of our grandparents, that we no longer suffer in factories. And in the case of Lowell, residents could tout its more recent past as having also given this same improvement to new immigrant groups. One of the corkscrews thrown into its cohesive interpretive plan has been that complicated truth that this reality has really only moved to another part of the world, and that there are people in other countries who would like this to someday be their story too. That is something that Lowell has recently included in their story, making it altogether more complicated and global, but also reflecting much more accurately the world we live in, as one that is connected to the past, rather than separate and removed from it.
This trajectory is indeed a labyrinth of complicated stories, controversies, diverse groups with specific vested interests both in their past and present lives or portrayals, and when it comes down to it, questionable whether it truly is an upward climb of improvement at all points in time. Almost certainly it is not.
But that doesn't get Isenberg down. "It remains to be seen which constellation of values and participants will chart the course of downtown real estate and urban commerce in the twenty-first century," she says, bringing it back around to her book's economic focus. But, during the twentieth century, "Main Street [was] a place to teach, debate, exclude, fantasize, argue, include, make new dreams, and visit old ones." Maybe we start there to find the best way to write inclusive, thoughtful histories of our city spaces, and of the communities that live in them. Lowell is certainly one prickly example of this, are there will surely be more.
(The colorful quotation that is the title of this post is by Isenberg, found on page 313 of her book.)