When I was young, people taught me history from a book. This history was often a history of nations and political places (e.g. Texas, Germany, the South) and we usually discussed history as a distant idea with little relevance to our lives. I believe this omission is common practice, but in many ways it prevented me from fully appreciating the legacy of history and what Faulkner famously stated is “never dead … not even past.” Additionally, I’ve come to realize that the political history I was taught was difficult to interact with because politics themselves are abstract. I began to realize that the national history seems irrelevant because it seems to only indirectly relates to one’s personal life. I believe that we should rediscover the value in local, applied history that engages the mind on many different levels. Furthermore, I have realized that in studying the physical structures of a society one can develop a deeper understanding of the politics and power of the past.
This is my manifesto for studying that which is built.
Consider the legacy of segregation in America. While there has not been a law mandating segregation for decades, the reality of segregation today is difficult to deny. This legacy lives on in both the tangible structures and the intangible social divisions that locked themselves into the urban landscape years ago.
In my hometown, Jim Crow told black residents to live north of the railroad tracks and white residents of course lived to the south. This one simple policy, coupled with latent racism, has transformed my city into an oblong egg shape as more and more businesses and people move farther south. While they may claim they are moving towards new regions, they are also moving farther away from the historically black and historically poor northern region of the city. Implicit within this movement to the south is the stigmatization of those neighborhoods to the north and their residents. This stigmatization is no longer written in law, but it lingers in the streets named after MLK, the local HBCU Texas College, the Salvation Army and other similar signifiers of race and class. The power of stigma prevents many developers and individuals from imagining a profitable future for the spaces to the north of downtown Tyler. It’s a mental block, but it is directly informed by the physical environment.
This is because the built environment makes statements about the relative significance of a place. On the surface, buildings teach the observer about an area and the people who live there. On a deeper level, buildings teach the scholar about the society that has shaped that place and transformed it’s potential. Greg Dickinson further describes the way buildings “speak” to us in his article “Memories For Sale: Nostalgia and the Construction of Identity in Old Pasadena.” Dickinson writes, “Places are often constructed to make claims about a society. As time passes, these places become rhetorical artifacts that can maintain rhetorical and memorial significance. (Dickinson, 4). This rhetorical significance is powerful and shapes the way we experience places whether or not we are aware. There are many structures that obviously make claims about a society (e.g. Confederate monuments in Richmond) and others that are more subtle such as bike lanes and sidewalks for those who cannot afford to drive. There are also “absences” in many cities where significant places have been destroyed and memories have been lost (I will discuss memory places more at a later time).
As a student, I was not made fully aware of the rhetorical and historical nature of places until an independent study on the rhetoric of highway battles with Dr. Kevin Kuswa. As a spatial thinker, this lesson illuminated my view of the American city and activated my brain to think of history and society in three-dimensions. I believe that it is necessary to teach our students about the built environment because we will begin to realize how significant history is to our individual cities and lives. It helps to answer questions such as, “Why does everyone in my neighborhood look the same?” and “Why aren’t the roads in our neighborhood paved?” The city becomes the classroom and the students become active participants in both learning about the general history and more significantly about themselves and their place in society on a local and national level.