Thoughts on Presenting Hyperlocal History: A New Year Round-Up
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Carin in New York, Oxford, local history, neighborhoods

It's probably not good practice to end a calendar year with dozens of tabs open in one's browser, awaiting attention. But that's just what I did. A whole clutch of those were posts and articles and sites that struck me as offering particularly interesting, exciting, or useful ways of presenting the history of urban places. So I've decided to celebrate the new year with a good, old-fashioned tab dump. This is long, but there are lots of goodies to explore.

"Streetscapes" retrospective

On Dec. 26th, the New York Times' Christopher Gray published a retrospective of the newspaper's "Streetscapes" column, which he wrote from 1986 till the end of 2014. That column has always been a treat for fans of architectural history and of New York. Interestingly, Gray connects the column's genesis with a particular moment in the field of architectural history, when a dissatisfaction with the traditional emphasis on the connoisseurship of great buildings led to new generation of scholars to turn to more ordinary buildings and the ways people lived in them. This is the same moment that gave rise to the Vernacular Architecture Forum. I was especially struck by Gray's account of his decision after a few years of the column to focus on whole blocks as the unit of investigation. It's the block-histories that have really appealed to me in "Streetscapes" over the years. Maybe that's because, much as I love individual old houses, I have always been especially drawn to ensembles of old houses. I love the rhythm of a block, whether harmonious or eclectic. A block is small enough to explore in detail on foot or by eye but complex enough to provide real scope for exploration. Moreover, a block is a psychologically "real" unit of urban space. It is the unit by which anyone who moves about the city measures distance and progress, and it is closely identified with personal wayfinding systems. Gray writes, "Soon I started writing about whole blocks, because these are what show the evolution of New York, especially of everyone’s personal city — stepping out the front door in New York is by its nature to take a walking tour." It's the connection between how we experience the city and how the writer presents the history of the city that speaks to me here. Gray's "Streetscapes" columns not only narrated the city's history on a scale a pedestrian could encompass by stepping out her door; he used the column to teach people how to use records like building permits and the census to do their own research. Browse the "Streetscapes" archive here.

Streets and Squares

British house historian Melanie Backe-Hansen also uses the city block as the unit of exploration in her book Historic Streets and Squares: The Secrets On Your Doorstepmutatis mutandis, since "block" in the US and NYC sense is not really a British thing. I rushed to buy Melanie's book after she tweeted that she'd been investigating the history of Holywell Street, Oxford, which is where I lived for two years in the late '80s when I was a student at Oxford. Despite the fact that I adored Oxford precisely because of its historic buildings and streetscapes, and despite the fact that I had experience in archaeology and was in Oxford precisely to study Engand's medieval past, I weirdly never investigated the history of Holywell Street or the two houses I lived in while I was there. So Melanie's book set me off on a 25-years-late investigation (or at least Googlevestigation) of the most picturesque place I ever called home.

Infographic for the history of a street

The most interesting thing I found while noodling around online reading about the history of Holywell Street was this site. OxfordHistory.co.uk presents the history of individual streets as schematics in which a map showing the location of every building links to detailed information about that building. The page for 20 Holywell, my old house, for example, gives a picture, the listing status, documentable changes to the house, evidence from advertisements in old newspapers, and reports from the census and city directories about who lived there. The visual presentation isn't super-snazzy or cutting edge, as infographics in the digital humanities go, but it's very legible and user-friendly. Why? Because the individual building histories can be accessed in a way that relates directly to the way people experience the street: we are in this street, at the corner of this intersecting street, and we click on a building and go "inside". The schematic also tells you at a glance something important about how the street is organized today: the house numbers go up one side and then down the other — a system that's been in place since 1837.

Peeking inside, thinking about change

This next item isn't a recently-opened tab at all. In fact, it's a tab I opened way back in 2010, two or three computers ago! The article stuck with me and I'd thought I'd bookmarked it, or at least remembered how I could find it again, but I was stumped. Like a good reference librarian, Michael Shapiro of Modern Capital came to the rescue and remembered the article I only half remembered. It was a New York Times feature on Mies van der Rohe's Lafayette Park townhouses in Detroit.

Photo: New York Times

The accompanying interactive photo essay explores how people actually live in these houses. It's not just about interior decorating, but about how the residents feel about stewardship of the works of a modern master, what the challenges are of living in a particular built form at different life stages, and how these spaces get modified over time.

This is presentation is appealing for a number of reasons. Visually, it captures the fun of a large dollhouse or the cutaway of a building full of people going about their lives in a Richard Scarry book, or the wonderful DK children's books and travel guides, like Leo Hartas's The Apartment Book. To me, there is little that's more fun than walking along a street of rowhouses at night and getting a glimpse into the lit interiors, to see how differently people live in houses that are all so similar on the outside. But the main reason I remembered this piece for four years is that it does something I wish we did more in the preservation field. Historic preservation in the US as a professional practice and collection of regulatory structures does many things well, but it is not good at accounting for change in buildings brought about by the way people actually live in them, which is assuredly part of their history. And of course it has little to say to interiors, except in the rarest of cases. Meanwhile, the popular literature on old-house restoration and local history is very strong on the heroic, high-end restoration of interiors and the rescue of single buildings in danger. But little is written, except in some scholarship within the small vernacular architecture field, about the variation-within-sameness that characterizes the lived history of a typical urban ensemble. It would be good to be able to see more of the interplay between continuity and change, identity and difference, inside and outside, when we think about historic groups of buildings. More and better presentations of this kind, accessible to the public, might inspire creative thinking for rehabbers of row houses, kit houses, tract housing, and other vernacular forms recognizable on the outside primarily for their sameness.

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