Invoking history in voter registration law

Register to Vote signs

2008 voter registration drive in Texas. Photo credit: Barack Obama’s photostream on Flickr

Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court and a federal district court issued separate rulings striking down voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas. The Texas ruling should be of particular interest to public historians because of the extent to which history is at the center of US District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos’s decision.  Continue reading

What I learned on my (public history) summer vacation

Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University.  Photo credit: Richard Anderson

Participants gathered for a farewell photo on the final day of the seminar on the campus of Shanghai Normal University. Photo credit: Chen Xin

This summer I traveled to Shanghai, China, with a group of fellow students and faculty from Princeton University for an immersive seminar in public history, memory, and preservation. The trip provided an opportunity to think about public history in a transnational framework, which is important to me for two reasons. First, public history remains far too parochial in the United States, despite efforts in many corners of the discipline (and on History@Work’s International Perspectives section) to fashion a more expansive geographic and cultural lens. Second, I’ve been struck by how many of my Princeton classmates most enthusiastic about public history specialize in fields outside North America. As a historian-in-training who studies–and resides in–the United States, I see both a need and a demand for transnational approaches to public history. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part II)

townhouses on wharf

Portland’s waterfront has been the site of considerable redevelopment in recent decades. Photo credit: Wendell

Continued from Part 1.

Portland’s gentrification and redevelopment attracted the attention of Loretta Lees, a United Kingdom professor with family in Maine. She documented the rehabilitation of residential, commercial, and industrial properties and the reconfiguration of public spaces in Portland’s upgrading downtown neighborhoods. New people, new capital, and new regulatory regimes aimed at protecting new investments collided in Portland’s streets and squares. Lees honed in on the city’s youth culture and its clash with business owners and city officials in competing to use adapted old spaces.

The Portland conflict Lees documented occurred in a global process that sanitizes and homogenizes urban spaces via socially engineered diversity initiatives. Since Portland isn’t New York or some other big city, its downtown gentrification provided Lees with an opportunity to observe urban conflict on a smaller scale. Continue reading

Cuban-Americans seek to institutionalize, streamline, their past

Proposed location for Cuban Exile History Museum. Image credit: maps.google.com

Proposed location for Cuban Exile History Museum. Map credit: googlemaps.com, Google Earth

On July 17, Miami-Dade County Commissioners—several Cuban-Americans among them—approved a controversial plan to construct a Cuban Exile History Museum (CEHM) alongside Biscayne Bay. Few would deny the importance of the Cuban community to Miami’s rise from sleepy getaway to sprawling “gateway to the Americas.” The museum project, however, raises troubling questions about not only the development of seaside green space or the apparent clout of one group in city government but the slippery politics of the past in a changing Miami present.

Located behind American Airlines Arena in the heart of downtown, the proposed site for the CEHM has been the source of public wrangling for some time. After rejecting a proposal to build a soccer stadium on the plot, commissioners gave the exile museum the go-ahead. Conservationists and non-Cuban constituents alike have grumbled at the inside political baseball seemingly favoring the city’s preeminent ethnic voting bloc.No one, though, seems to be debating just what would go into the new building in the first place–the kinds of exhibits it would feature or stories they might tell–let alone how this new institution would sustain its mission over time. Continue reading

Producing history and ironwork in an urban crucible (Part I)

blacksmith in shop

Sam Smith holds an axe head and displays other objects he has fabricated and some of the raw materials (many of them salvaged) that he uses in his work. Photo credit: David S. Rotenstein

Sam Smith’s blacksmith shop is part living history laboratory and part urban sustainability experiment. He is a former history major who turned passions for the past and metalworking into a business that produces objects, artisans, and history in contested space on the edge of a gentrifying Portland, Maine, neighborhood. His business, The Portland Forge, is a local craft shop that could succumb to a global process that is displacing artisans and small-scale industrial operations in cities worldwide. Continue reading

A side or B side? Postindustrial artisans walking a fine line (Part II)

Continued from Part 1.

parking lot

“The B side” of the Fringe building was seen by one potential developer as part of what needs to be fixed in Union Square. Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

So how did the small-scale artisans at Fringe fit into the proposals put forward by the master developer candidates at the March meeting? The short answer is: ambiguously. They were clearly seen by the developers as both part of the hipness of the neighborhood and part of the set of problems–what in an earlier era of urban redevelopment was more bluntly termed “blight”–that the proposals aimed to overcome. This was made particularly clear by one presenter who showed slides of what he described as Union Square’s assets—a collage of logos from new-economy businesses, including Fringe’s—but then pointed to what he called “the B side,” ugly and problematic things that still needed to be fixed in the neighborhood. His slide for the B side included an image of Fringe’s entrance and loading-dock on the utilitarian back side of the IH Brown building, and he seemed unaware that the logo and the loading-dock belonged to the same enterprise. Lacking the high-tech polish of Artisan’s Asylum or GreenTown labs, Fringe is harder to pigeon-hole–and thus perhaps easier to overlook–in discussions about affordability and inclusivity within urban redevelopment. Continue reading

A side or B side? Postindustrial artisans walking a fine line (Part I)

street scene

Somerville’s Union Square has been relatively affordable within Boston’s expensive real estate market, but an impending city-led revitalization plan is already boosting prices in the neighborhood. Photo credit: Cathy Stanton

On a cold March evening this past winter, my students and I caught a bus from Davis Square, near Tufts University, to attend a public meeting in Union Square, at the other end of Somerville, Massachusetts. Within the generally-pricey Boston real estate market of the past two or three decades, Union Square has remained relatively affordable and as a result has been something of a haven for artists, artisans, low-income immigrants, and small, often marginal businesses. The March meeting, though, was part of an ongoing “revitalization” process that had already started to bring big changes to the square. Candidates vying for the role of “master developer” for the square were strutting their stuff, trying to demonstrate both familiarity with the neighborhood’s bohemian character and capacity to coordinate more than 2.3 million square feet of new development in seven blocks currently assessed at $26 million.

My class was conducting ethnographic research focusing on a collaborative of small artisanal businesses in a former industrial building in Union Square, and we were curious about how these kinds of companies–tied to currently-hip ideas about “maker culture” in some ways, linked with the longer history of small-scale local craft production in others–would appear within the image-making that was sure to be going on at the meeting. Continue reading

Uncovering the hidden paradise of Guantánamo

Editor’s Note: This piece continues a series of posts related to the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a collaboration of public history programs across the country to raise awareness of the long history of the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) and foster dialogue on its future.  For an introduction to the series, please see this piece by the Project’s director, Liz Ševčenko.

My most vivid memories of Guantánamo was everything just being free down there and the closeness of all the people. There was no crime, none whatsoever. It was summer all year round.”

Johnson - H@W image 1

The Guantanamo Public Memory Project online stories collection.  Photo Credit: Guantanamo Public Memory Project

Anita Lewis Isom first arrived at Guantánamo Bay forty years before the orange-suited detainees that would make the US base infamous around the world. Her description of an idyllic life at the base seems far removed from the images of leg shackles and barbed wire typically associated with Gitmo in its current function as a “black site,” an extra-legal and extra-territorial space. Images of Gitmo as prison and military base and as island paradise are not, however, mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is in part its isolation that makes Gitmo such an effective black site and its tropical location that has long made it an attractive destination for military families. Continue reading