Public History and the Streets
Wed, 10/05/2011 - 2:18pm | by cchristensen
I recently attended a conference sponsored by Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life called “What Sustains Us?” I listened in on a panel discussion about “Confronting Urban Renewal through Public History and Public Art.” Throughout the course of the discussion my thoughts turned to the streets and freeways of the Twin Cities. On a daily basis we interact with the living history of urban renewal through our local roads. Roads, streets, corridors, highways, and interstates are a great example of the many faces of history that shape the story of our communities.
Streets can be examined from a variety of historical lenses including political, geographic, public, private, cultural, and economic just as streets have many functions, from conduits for utilities to public space. Public history offers a way to examine streets by capturing the viewpoint of everyday people. According to the Public History Resource Center, public history is, “history that is seen, heard, read, and interpreted by a popular audience. Public history is also history that belongs to the public.” Oftentimes public history is recorded as a way of validating a marginalized viewpoint. In the case of streets, it could be a voice that has been excluded or underrepresented in the development or management decisions around a given site or corridor.
Locally there are several contentious histories of street, highway and interstate development that can only be accurately remembered through a variety of perspectives including that of public history. One local street that has captured local attention time and time again is the Hiawatha Corridor, from its success as a light rail corridor to the significant Native American history at Cold Water Springs. At the Imagining America conference, artist Mona Smith shared her recently launched project, the Bdote Memory Map (http://bdotememorymap.org/),that touches on the Hiawatha Corridor from the perspective of the Native voice. Her project, which could certainly be called public history, was a welcome addition to my internal dialogue that day about streets and public history. It is an excellent example of how public history can offer up a powerful sense of history and validate a traditionally marginalized viewpoint by simply creating a place where people can share stories.
Not to say that the story of the development of the Hiawatha Corridor doesn’t have many faces. MNDot has their version, http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/construction/hwy55/55faq.html, which includes letters of support from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and scientific claims disproving any possibility of the desecration of any sacred trees in the construction of the Hiawatha Corridor. The Friends of Camp Cold Water have another story at http://friendsofcoldwater.org/hwy55/hwy55.html . And the list goes on.
While all sides of the story are important, public history offers a way to validate the voices of the citizens that have traditionally been marginalized during the planning and development processes in our communities. It provides a forum for practitioners, scholars, and citizens alike to record the nuances of history and place as they should be remembered. What is YOUR story of the Twin Cities’ streets?