“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.”
“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.”
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.
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:
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:
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 own—not for the past civilizations that they reference.
Just about anyone who loves Richmond has heard a story about streetcars: Did you know Richmond invented streetcars? Did you know that Ginter Park was a streetcar suburb? Did you know they piled them up and burned them all in the 50s?
And so the stories go, a hint of nostalgia here and a tinge of sadness there.
If you don’t love cars and highways, odds are good that part of you longs for streetcars. You also might have loved Richmond in the early 1900s when the city was denser (16,000 residents per square mile), connected (more than 80 passenger trains arrived in Richmond daily) and dynamic (real estate values doubled on Grace St. in the 20s.) Yes, this was the time of crowded streets, industrial haze, and grand plans to make our cities beautiful. In many ways, streetcars have come to represent this era as a symbol of the public good and a physical commitment to the life of the city.
From 1888 to 1949, the streetcar reigned as the liberator of urban life. No more stench of horse manure! No more flies! No more walking for miles in the rain! Streetcars filled a need for transportation with incredible efficiency and in a matter of years became an integral part of this growing city. But just as streetcars have come to represent the dense, thriving city, their removal has become a symbol of mid-century American planning and desire for change. As streetcars were ascending to power, the wealthiest of Americans were already turning their attention to the unbounded freedom of the automobile. The military also took note during WWI and afterwards paraded trucks through cities across the entire nation. Compared to cars, streetcars were standing still. You know the rest of the story: highways, suburban sprawl, urban decay/destruction, new neighborhoods, new churches, new malls.
But that’s not really how I want this story to end. Rather than chase cars through the next 60 years of history, I want to remain in the moment that the streetcar era ended and the very memory of streetcars began to fade. The moment when the Richmond City Council passed ordinance No. 51-45 and decided to remove every last piece of streetcar infrastructure from Richmond’s “streets, alleys, bridges and public places therein.” When I found this page in the city council records, I was struck by the wording of the ordinance:
The process just seemed so easy and the change so vast. I pictured a huge eraser passing over the city, wiping away all of that clumsy streetcar infrastructure. The people of Richmond were changing, the city itself was changing, and transportation would never be the same. The streetcar, it seems, couldn’t leave fast enough.
For more artifacts from my research, check out my Archives page.
I have recently come to the conclusion that life is a combination of therapy and trauma. There are moments in between, of course, but these are often forgotten.
I’m not really thinking of therapy in the strictly medical sense. I think of therapy more as an overcoming of the past. Two months ago I wrote a similar post from a slightly different perspective. At the time, I saw our selves as haunted houses full of fear and stigma. The ghosts, I thought, were the memories of trauma. And the therapy for trauma I described in this way:“We need to painfully return to embrace ourselves: chaos and all. We need to walk the halls of this haunted house, to run our hands over dusty railings, to notice what has been broken, and perhaps to even find that our fears were unfounded.”
At the time, I don’t think I really respected the difficulty of therapy. That is, I don’t think I understood how difficult it can be to work through and overcome the past. I also had a shallow understanding of the memories of trauma I carry within myself. Now, I see that embracing ourselves “chaos and all” is a much more difficult and long road, but no less worthwhile.
My next thought is also related to how we form memory and how events in retrospect can become therapeutic while others later seem traumatic. The former are the stories we tell ourselves from the past that help us to understand the kind of person that we are and want to be. The other stories, the stories of trauma, are the stories that we usually ignore or try and laugh about and forget. These are the stories that remind us of who we don’t want to be.
These are the stories we ignore … as well as the people and places with which they are associated.
But they are as intimately “us” as are the stories we enjoy hearing about ourselves. They shape the way we approach every situation. These stories affect the way we interact with other people, perceive authority figures, the opposite sex, peers, coworkers. And since each of us carries different traumatic experiences, each of us will see vastly different activities as therapeutic. For me, baseball was a sport that I was never good at. Struck out in T-ball, put away the bat, gave the pants to a friend’s little brother, and never looked back. So when I threw a baseball with one of my friends the other day, for the first time in about a decade, it was actually a strange sort of therapy.
For someone else, public speaking might be a therapy. For another, going back home is either therapy or trauma depending on how productive we think that it is vs. how much we revert to the person we are trying to forget. We all fear different things in order to protect ourselves, but these fears are usually more internal than we realize: hanging out with the old traumatic stories we love to hate.
As we interact with the past we don’t get rid of it, but, rather we grow to understand it and appreciate it. We also learn more about our negative cycles and can catch ourselves before they set in. Unfortunately, this process never ends, but I imagine it develops over time. I suppose that’s really the goal of these sorts of processes anyways: longevity. The more we’re willing to submit ourselves to life, to therapy, the more we’ll develop and mature. So here’s to long, healthy lives. Here’s to the good and the bad and the perfectly normal in between.↬ @Spozbo and the semi-controversial David Deida for leading me to consider the benefits of therapy not as something to fear, but as something integral to healthy human development: life as therapy.
Cemeteries are memory personified.
They are the tangible outcome of the human desire to be remembered. The desire to last beyond our death. They are the pyramids of the masses; each grave a person’s last chance to make their case for God and men. Cemeteries are also a halmark of civilized society … not everyone receives the dignity of a headstone. And because not all headstones are created equal, they’re also a tangible and public investment in the future of the family name.
In his book, The Language of Towns and Cities, Dhiru Thadani writes an entry for cemeteries that includes two photos of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. “Authentic towns and cities have cemeteries,” he writes, “and space should be planned to accommodate this essential component when designing new towns.” When I read this, I appreciated Thadani’s attention to the value of cemeteries in modern life. I also considered it a bit of a coup for Richmond considering the other noteworthy cemeteries in America. Then again, it’s completely justified.
There is something so basic and yet remarkable about the time and care that was taken in the planning and development of Hollywood Cemetery. It’s no wonder Richmond’s aristocracy used to picnic on the hills of Hollywood overlooking the James River. They escaped the smoke of the city, tidied up their family plot, and caught a cool breeze on warm summer days. Since the cemetery was first planned, it has been maintained, improved, and today remains a destination in this old American city. A brick walkway was added to create “President’s Circle” where two former US presidents are buried. The cemetery stands, in part, as a testament to the longevity of power and tradition in American society.
Another remarkable cemetery in Richmond, one that is not highlighted in Thadani’s epic, is Evergreen Cemetery. I visited Evergreen four days before I visited Hollywood and, as anyone would tell you, the difference is stark. Where one has improved, the other has declined. Where one is prominently placed on the hills overlooking the James, the other is beside a highway in Church Hill. Where one is a testament to power, the Other is a testament to the longevity of systemic stigmatization and shame.
At one time, Evergreen Cemetery must have been a place of prominence in the black community. At least a generation of leaders, their family and friends were buried in this place. The most noteworthy resident is of course the famed Maggie L. Walker: the first American woman to “charter a bank in the United States.” Her grave, like many others, is now shaded in the canopy of a forest that has grown where there was once a field. Mausoleums have been raided, pathways are hidden by brush, and the lives of black Richmond are gradually being lost to time.
With cemeteries, it’s always difficult to understand who is responsible for upkeep. The children of the deceased, the businessmen who sold the plots, or the society at large. The more fascinating question to me, of course, is not who, but why? At its most fundamental level, the maintenance of graves is actually a maintenance of one’s personal identity and heritage. In the case of Hollywood, this is both American and Confederate heritage. In both cases, the members of these groups seem totally unashamed of their pride. They live boldly in their past and work tirelessly to maintain the vestiges which prove it’s legitimacy.
In contrast, the people who would have maintained a place such as Evergreen were a vastly more manipulated and displaced group in the twentieth century. The successful class of black Richmonders, once confined to the city, were proud to erect monuments and sustain traditions that defied the white power structure’s condescending narrative of black inferiority. Once segregation was overthrown, however, many left the city behind and perhaps coincidently left behind their heritage as well. Of course, this is true of nearly every American who left the city in the twentieth century. And yet, one cemetery shines and the other is being slowly eroded by time.
“Segregated at Death” was a title that I considered for this post, but I decided that it wasn’t the message with which I wanted to lead. I decided that it would be more worthwhile to simply present these two cemeteries and hopefully develop more of a holistic understanding of both (and cemeteries in general) in the context of the other. Thadani’s omission of Evergreen is unfortunate, but not unexpected: his work is often more concerned with aesthetic than politics. For me, I believe that if if we’re going to talk about cemeteries, we ought to at least consider both sides of the American color line to get the full story.
If anyone else wants to start tearing down trees at Evergreen let me know! I still think it can be saved and I would love to be a part of clearing the brush from old Richmond graves. The task is daunting (if you’ve been there, you know), but I think would be worth it.
Perhaps the more we work the more we will know why.
This post is a part of a series I’m putting together on my RVA page.
Considering the trauma of urban destruction abroad, it’s not altogether surprising if the American city lost its ethos in the decades following WWII. While our cities were physically spared, our citizens may have lost faith in places that could now be so easily destroyed. In a matter of minutes, cities that were once homes became memories and photographs. While foreign nations surveyed the damage and made plans to rebuild, our nation realized that social damage was more difficult to restore. In this environment, such an urban rebirth would not suffice.
In contrast to the the restoration abroad, Americans returned home to find their cities inadequate to satisfy the need for privacy and control that accompanied post-war life. In a state of collective PTSD, upwardly mobile Americans fell into consumerist mania searching to restore the peace that had been lost during those war years. The dense urban spaces — those which had been so easily uprooted abroad — could no longer be trusted at home. As the banner photograph of this blog implies, the American city would soon be destroyed as well. Not as a destruction, but as a progression toward the better life many believed they would find at the end of the highway.
Sixty-six years later, many of us find ourselves still hopelessly desiring stability, but unable to remember the traditions and pride that once connected us to our cities. We also seem to carry an unspoken longing for that time when cities could be trusted and investment sustained. Uprooted and displaced, we move as much as the walls of our plastic cities: completely worthless to human memory and love.
In this third or fourth generation removed, I seem to notice that we are finally beginning to settle back into each other’s lives and our oldest spaces. We may have a very hard time excavating what was lost in the post-war mania, but it will be worth it, vale la pena.
Restoring trust in a city, like everything else, takes time.
If I were a historian, I might write a book about the relationship between the drinking age and car driving in America. I might wonder how much of our lives have been fragmented by these two devices. I might marvel at their intertwined stories and their combined affect on the way we live. I might mourn the loss of American tradition and culture.
I think I might be too emotionally invested to be a historian.
I recently felt convicted on behalf of the individualistic, intellectual, global community. Didn’t we used to sing drinking songs together? It seems like these days we spend our time talking and debating rather than getting lost in something greater … something that unites.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between beer and coffee. In 2010, Stephen Johnson gave a TED talk titled, “Where good ideas come from.” I highly recommend it. In his presentation, he argues that the advent of the English coffeehouse played a significant role in the development of ideas during the English enlightenment. With the coffee house, Johnson states, the English people moved from a perpetually drunk society to a stimulated community of thought and collaboration. The ideas that transformed society emerged, at least in part, from within the incubator of the coffeehouse. So I originally saw this as a good thing. Don’t we need good ideas to progress? Well, yes, but I think we’ve lost something in the process of becoming enlightened and thoughtful. In short, we’ve lost drinking songs. We’ve lost this social tradition that connected us to each other and our sense of belonging and place.
I see the effects of this coffeehouse culture on my own upbringing in Tyler, TX. My friends and I would often meet for coffee at the “local” Starbucks and talk about life. These were great times we spent laughing and solving the world’s problems. But they didn’t unite us or connect us to our city in a meaningful. We never spontaneously burst into song with steins of beer sloshing around as we sang, “Tyler, oh Tyler! Da-dum de-dum de-dum …” Or anything of the sort.
In addition, the people that did drink together in high school did not usually do so with members of the older generations because they were partaking in something that many consider immoral. Thus, if there were a drinking song for Tyler, they wouldn’t be singing it. Instead, they would still be stuck in the teenage ghetto while their parents either condoned or condemned from afar. It really is a tragedy. When it came time for me to look for colleges, I felt no remorse leaving that city in the dust. I had clearly not connected to it’s people or culture in such a way that made me feel like I belonged. I had not yet come of age.
Here’s the deal: It’s not about beer and it’s not exactly about drinking songs. It’s about the cultural traditions that unite people.
The thing about these traditions is that they have to be taught. This teaching process requires close, intergenerational relationships. Drinking songs clearly had an incredible ability to galvanize that “togetherness” of community because they eventually became Baptist hymns and even the national anthem of the USA. The difficult question for me is whether this generations is producing material that could be redeemed in the same way. Does our philosophizing bring us together? As I sit here at my computer developing this theory I wonder if instead I could be singing a drinking song (or any song) with a group of people. Granted, it’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday, but my point is this: I don’t want to care more about my pet theories than our collective humanity.
I think it’s time to start singing.