Category Archives: Memory

New Museums for Atlanta and Charleston

In the past year I’ve heard dozens of arguments in Richmond against museums: they’re not profitable, no one cares about history, they’re too expensive. In the past few months, Atlanta and Charleston have told a different story.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta opened a few weeks ago on June 23, 2014. The goal: tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship to Atlanta and legacy in the American Civil Rights Movement within the context of global human rights battles being fought today. Here’s a remarkable article on the center from the Bitter Southerner.

The International African American Museum in Charleston, set to open in 2017, will tell a complex cross-continental story of forced migration from Africa to Charleston and the American South. Mayor Riley announced last week that the museum will connect to Gadsden’s Wharf, the actual location where slave ships arrived in Charleston. Although the museum is still years away from it’s projected opening date, it already has a snazzy website promoting the museum and region:

IAAM Website

ArtNet News reports, “The 42,000-square-foot museum will feature interactive exhibits that describe the black experience in America. The displays will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who is responsible for the exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the new Visitor Reception Center at the United States Capitol.”

Reading about these new institutions reminds me of the life lesson: make choices or they will be made for you. Richmond has a venerable place at the table in terms of historical significance. After all, it was Richmond, not Charleston or Atlanta that was chosen to lead the CSA. It was Richmond that industrialized while the Charleston elite held on to their agricultural society.

And it is Richmond that has spent the last 150 years wondering why.

Vocal residents and politicians in Richmond seem to think that history alone won’t be enough of an attraction for the city. Really, we make excuses to avoid telling the story we were born to tell. And while Richmond thinks, argues, and tosses plans on the shelf, other southern cities are making sense of their story and inviting the nation to drive down I-95 for a visit, passing straight through Shockoe Bottom on their way.

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My Room: As it never again will be

I recently moved out of the house I lived in for two years. That is the longest I’ve lived in any place in the city of Richmond.

Before I left, I stood in the middle of the room to take this panorama of the space as it never again will be:Room panorama

I spent two tumultuous and rewarding years in this room as I worked to resolve the dissonance of post-grad life. I printed photos, hung my art, displayed my books, and taped inspirational quotes and life lessons everywhere:

“Something is wrong. FIX it.”

“I went from, ‘How could I possibly do this’ to ‘ How could I possibly not?'”

“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.”

The night before I moved out of this room, I posted a photo on Facebook and wrote a long, emotional homage to my room and house of two years. Two weeks later, I had almost forgotten about it entirely. I moved into a new house, created a new routine for myself with new habits and a new environment. I have new roommates and a new city block with new neighbors to meet.

Also, I’ve realized that over the past few years I developed the habit of leaving unfinished business laying around. In the photo above, it’s on my desk (which I rarely used as a desk), on the floor, on my bed, on my bookshelves. Moving was an incredibly healthy process for me as I was forced to sort through all the unfinished tasks and gradually resolve each one.

So I’m glad I took this photo. I’m incredibly thankful for the two years I spent in this room, the two people that I shared it with, and a total of 15 guys with whom I shared the house. It’s a powerful thing to share a space with someone.

It’s a generous thing to remember.

Dust in the Light

Light illuminates dust played through the air as everyone goes everywhere. It’s golden hour in the Charlotte airport.

Staring into that playful dust takes me to my playful past. A son drapes his arm over his dad’s shoulder. A woman walks by talking on her cellphone. The world draws me away from by book then back into my mind.

Book. World. Mind. Journal.

I’m amazed by the depth of our diversity. Where are we from? Who do we love? Where are we going? The dust in the air turns day into dream. Conversations, beeping shuttles and rustling feet fade to the background as I, entranced by that light, sit and rest like a silent protagonist monologue or a string of thoughts tangled and blended together.

The sun is now shining on my entire body from the window across the room and I can feel it when I close my eyes. When the sun begins to set you wonder where you’re going to rest your head, and with whom.

I first wrote this as a journal entry in May, 2013.

Nostalgia in the Bible

“I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. But to the land to which they will long to return, there they shall not return.”

Jeremiah 22:26-27

Smelling Magnolias

When I worked at a high school in Richmond last spring, I drove the bus in the morning before going in to teach. Each day, I dropped my students off at the front of the building then drove around the corner to park. Several times on my way back to the entrance, I walked past a small magnolia tree covered in blooms:

Walking by that tree, I would stop and lean in for a minute or two to smell an old, familiar smell. It’s completely cliche, but magnolias will always make this southern boy think of home. For that brief moment, I was there: climbing in the magnolia in front of the house where I grew up.

Memory is, of course, powerfully connected to smells and I have noticed this more intensely in the past few years. Maybe I’m more aware of the smells or perhaps I’m becoming more aware of the memories. Either way, smelling magnolia was a comfort on those mornings before walking into school and trying/failing to teach.

In recent months I’ve begun to move toward “nostalgia” as a topic of interest. During this time, I’ve remembered moments of nostalgia in my own life as I’ve also found it referenced in books and articles. Nostalgia is intimately related to the themes of this blog. As we propel ourselves forward we’re also liable to make an occasional backward glance. Also, nostalgia reminds me that “leaving” is not always as complete as we wish. We are all building on the past and it surely composes much our future.

I can’t always predict when I’ll come across a magnolia to remind me of another place or another time, but I hope I’ll stop to smell and remember. As my brain visits old synapses and makes new connections, I will be content to rest in the moment. And then, to take a step back and be thankful for the past and the present.

Magnolias grow in the most unexpected places.

Selling Memory

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my generation: many of us living, working, and studying far from the places of our birth. This post is a semi-related follow-up to answer questions related to memory of the place you’ve left.

Today, I want to write about how and why we think about the past. In particular, I want to write about nostalgia. Nostalgia is longing for what has been lost and holding onto memories of a place and a people from the past.

It’s also a comic book store in Willow Lawn:

Nostalgia Plus

As a cities guy, I first started thinking about nostalgia the summer after my second year while working in Richmond and reading Twentieth-Century Richmond by Christopher Silver. Driving through the region’s sprawl, I lamented the loss of what I believed was once a dense and invested place. I longed to return to the Richmond of the early 1900s with its streetcars and city festivals. I was amazed at how dense Richmond was and how much people cared about this place and cities in general. I wondered if I’d been born in the wrong century. In a previous post, “Longing for a Heyday,” I wondered that many American cities like Richmond are stuck in an unhealthy, backward gaze toward something they once were: places that people loved. Even cities that are actually old are sometimes forced to appear old in a certain, scripted way that flattens their experience.

By the end of the summer, I realized that I had made a mistake: holding onto nostalgia for the past involves denying the difficult realities of life at the time. I began to integrate my knowledge that the early 1900s was also a time when the KKK was experiencing a rebirth, segregation was increasing, and dirt roads were the norm. I also remembered that public health at the time was a nightmare. In my final presentation on the research, I called for an attitude of “thoughtful nostalgia” that learned from certain aspects of the past, while accepting their context in the overall reality of life at the time. It was an important shift for me and one that I have carried to this day.

A year later, I read Greg Dickinson‘s article “Memories for Sale: Nostalgia and the construction of identity in Old Pasadena.” It’s a fascinating piece about memory and place: Memory place. He writes that Old Pasadena has been crafted into a shopping center where people can visit and consume nostalgia in the form of architecture, period-themed restaurants, and walkable city streets. Most Americans live in places that were built since the 50s, but we like to visit places where we can feel like we’re connecting with the past. He writes:

“Old Pasadena’s new, old style is more a set change than a revival of the ‘real’ past. This nostalgic recollection formed as a movie articulates with the nostalgic films that Fredric Jameson suggests are typical of postmodern culture…For Jameson, nostalgia is a dialectal response that attempts to overcome, consciously or unconsciously, the emptiness left by the postmodern loss of the past.

This loss of the past, for Jameson, includes the very elements lamented by authors such as Robert Bellah–loss of communities of memory, loss of the extended or nuclear family and loss of concrete relations caused by the abstractions of post-fordist economic structures. Old Pasadena becomes one of the dramatic sites that responds with simulacra of the past to the contradictions of the present.”

The last four generations have, in essence, left historical places behind and replaced them with lesser representations, simulacra, that assuage the loneliness of our displaced souls. We consciously and unconsciously seek lives within historical context, or, as James Kunstler called it, “a hopeful present.” Kunstler states that the “public realm” needs to tell us where we are geographically and where we are as a society.

Today, while some seek architectural authenticity, others are left with historical references to old times on new buildings. The result is absurd on the verge of caricature, but we don’t even notice it anymore:

Old brick road

This is a photo from a development in Richmond that Ed Slipek playfully called “the future.” At West Broad Village, the future looks strangely like the past. With references to French, American Colonial, Italianate (?) and modern strip mall styles, the development doesn’t tell you much about our society in a coherent way, but instead calls upon a whole host of references to look like “something.” This is the veneer of nostalgia Americans have used to cloak the cinderblock and steel of our daily lives.

Once you start to see it, you will notice it everywhere.

I hope that as we begin to see this commodified nostalgia for what it is the market will respond with more thoughtful developments. I realize most real estate developers weren’t assigned Dickinson in college and I don’t expect everyone to think the way I think. I’m mostly just concerned with the nation America will be in 50 or 100 years.

I hope we’re building places that will still have worth for what they represent on their ownnot for the past civilizations that they reference.

Desiring Streetcars

Not Even Past,” a blog produced by the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, just posted a piece about streetcars in the city. It’s amazing how similar the story of one American city is to the next.

Austin street scene