Notes on Nieves Placemaking Book


Perhaps if we learn more of what has happened and why it happened, we’ll learn more of who we really are.. And perhaps if we learn more about our unwritten history, we won’t be so vulnerable to the capriciousness of events as we are today. …

From Ralph Elison, Going to the Territory

The premise of the book:

one can document, record, and interpret the “unwritten history” of African American “space making” while focusing on the multiple processes of Black self-determination. (p. 1)

“neglecting the experiences of Blacks in shaping the American cultural landscape can no longer be attributed to their supposed absence from the historical record.” (p. 2)

What are”legitimate” sources of evidence? “In addition to emphasziing the usual newspaper, archival, and statistical accounts, it is important that attention is drawn to such rarely used sources as burial grounds, artifacts, and other aspects of material culture.”

Essays seek to “provide insights” into the “ways in which African Americans have succeeded in mapping cultural landscape of resistance and self-definition for the race. (See also White Papers, Black Marks (2000) and Sites of Memory: Perspectives on Architecture and Race (2001)).

Race and racism:

do not emerge unprompted from individual minds, but are thoroughly embedded in our collective everyday lives [past and present] and in the very structures of our social, political, and economic activities.

From Richard H. Schein, “Race, Racism, and Geography,” The Professional Geographer, 54, no. 1 (2002): 2.

Early recognition by “radical cartographers” (John Brinckerhoff Jackson, John Kirkland Wright, and David Lowenthal) that “by examining the widest breadth of American vernacular cultures, an understanding of cultural landscapes could effectively provide a critique of power relations and their resulting social constructions.”

Armstead Robinson, “Plans Dat Comes from God”

Pierce Lewis from “Axioms for Reading the Landscape” (1979):

the human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form

Robin D.G. Kelley from We are Not What We Seem, Journal of American History (1993):

[P]olitics was not separate from lived experience or the imagined world of what is possible. It was the many battles to roll back constraints, to exercise power over, or to create space within the institutions and social relationships that dominated their lives.

Cultural mapping of sites of black activists are “all-important to a rising working-class consciousness and political activism… How then might we come to consider the buildings, homes, and institution-building efforts as the cultural markers of a new race history and the coded signifiers of resistance to oppression?” (p. 5)

“Understanding that space was not a static construct, to be marked by simple physical boundaries or even by architecture, has helped us to envision the collection more broadly in terms of the African American search for social justice.” Essays organized into six broad categories (p. 6):

  1. Community building
  2. Intellectual and political space
  3. Segregated spaces
  4. Schools and educational spaces
  5. Urban space and leisure
  6. Churches and sacred spaces

Two themes:

  • “the idea of how Black community space was made”
  • “the publems of white hostility or social contestation toward these Black spaces”

Urban space and leisure

Social equality was deeply connected to notions of citizenship, and the establishment of streetcar lines in most American cities provided access to downtown civic life. Passage on streetcar lines for African Americans helped desegregate spaces across the city, changing the ways in which African Americans interacted in the public realm. (p. 14-15)

Michael Kahan’s study “demonstrates the depth of white hostility toward Black racial progress, noting the abundance of race riots in antebellum Philadelphia as well as the virulent opposition to the integration of public spaces… about the problematic construction of ‘public interest’ in the United States”.

David G. Orr:

cultural landscapes are the most complex ‘manuscripts’ given to us from the past.

Ralph Ellison “warned against efforts to bury part of our unwritten history”:

By pushing significant details of our experience into the underground of unwritten history, we not only overlook much which is positive, but we blur our conceptions of where and who we are… It is as though we dread to acnowledge the complex, pluralistic nature of our society, and as a result we find ourselves stumbling upon our true national identity under circumstances in which we least expect to do. (Going to the Territory, 591, 595)

Mahan Chapter