The street as a locus of collective memory
Thinking about root shock and the reverberations of urban renewal, I remembered this article on urban collective memory I wanted to share.
Michael Hebbert. 2005. The street as a locus of collective memory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol 23, pages 581-596
It was [Maurice] Halbwachs’s belief that all memory is socially constructed around some concept of space: only spatial imagery has the stability to allow us to discover the past in the present (1980, page 167). He studied various frameworks that allow memory to be shared and transmitted: for example, musical notation, the layout of churches and ceremonial spaces, and town plans (1928; 1980). He wrote that, in our perceptions and memory of place, “we are never alone” (1980, page 23). In particular, urban space is a receptacle of collective memory. French geographers had constructed an entire science on the nexus between rural people and their landscapes — Halbwachs dared to suggest that the identity embodied in a city’s streets is even stronger:
"The place a group occupies is not like a blackboard, where one may write and erase figures at will… The board could not care less what has been written on it before, and new figures may be freely added. But place and group have each received the imprint of the other. Each aspect, each detail of this place has a meaning intelligible only to members of the group, for each portion of its space corresponds to various and different aspects of the structure and life of their society, at least of what is most stable in it" (1980, page 128).
In contrast, 20th century modernist optimism saw the past as slums to be torn down and replaced with the new, the orderly, and the ordering. “Policymakers assumed tabula rasa even in the absence of wartime destruction (Diefendorf, 1993).” Urban renewal was the marching order of the decade. But:
At this moment of total eclipse, Halbwachs’s theory of collective memory was suddenly vindicated by grassroots politics. Across the Western world, urban communities facing the bulldozer reacted to the breaking down of street walls with grief and anger (Marris, 1974). Interviewing slum relocatees in the West End of Boston, Marc Fried (1963) recognised that what his interviewees were experiencing was a bereavement — “intense, deeply felt and at time overwhelming” (page 151).
”How did you feel when you saw or heard that the building you lived in was torn down?”
"It was like a piece being taken from me."
"I felt terrible."
"I used to stare at the spot where the building stood."
"I was sick to my stomach" (page 152).
Observing the Neubau (new building) of German cities in the 1950s, Alexander Mitscherlich (1970) discovered the same sense of psychological abandonment amongst individuals stripped of the shared identity of their urban setting. In The City: New Town or Home Town? (1973) the sociologist Felizitas Lenz-Romeiss contrasted the impersonal `transit-camp’ ambience prescribed by modern town planning with the complex and rich semantic environments of the unimproved street. Reacting against the triumph of the “Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumerism” (1984 , page 65) in the morphologically exploded settings of the suburbs of Paris, Henri Lefebvre explored the meanings of traditional urban form, and demanded an alternative urbanism that would reconstitute the street as a space of continuity, variety, and encounter. Michel de Certeau wrote his two-volume L’Invention du Quotidien (The invention of everyday life) in response to the same “immense social experience of loss of place” (1990, page 155), sending his research team to explore “the true archives of the city”, the spatial practices of everyday life in neighbourhoods where town planners had not yet imposed their standardising logic of production (1990; de Certeau et al, 1994). Back in Boston, reviewing the first appearance of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs, 1961), Herbert Gans had rightly predicted that the destruction of street-based environments would send intellectual shockwaves through the modern project (1968, page 30). Direct encounter with the amnesia effect of urban clearance was formative for Jane Jacobs and many other late-20th-century urbanists — Spiro Kostof, Henri Lefebvre, Richard Sennett, Rene Schoonbrodt, Joseph Rykwert — who together restored the Halbwachian conception of urban space as a locus of collective memory.
Selected references from excerpt
- Diefendorf J, 1993 In the Wake of War: The Reconstruction of German Cities After World War II (Oxford University Press, Oxford)
- Fried M, 1963, “Grieving for a lost home”, in The Urban Condition: People and Policy in the Metropolis Ed. L J Duhl (Basic Books, New York) pp 151-171
- Halbwachs M, 1980 The Collective Memory translated by F J Ditter, V Y Ditter (Harper Colophon, New York); first published in 1950
- Marris P, 1974 Loss and Change (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London)