Sites of Memory

Mural to Fallen Firefighters

Introduction: Neighborhood on Fire

When I first moved to Kensington, one of the first things I did was buy a new grill for the new house. I finally had a backyard (once I cleared out the forest of weeds), and I was eager to use it.  Although I have owned and used gas grills, and I see the attraction–I remain a traditionalist. I was taught by my father to master the craft of smoking meat on a wood fire and grilling over briquettes.  I set up my grill and started my first fire.  As anyone who has cooked on an old-school grill knows, they smoke a fair bit at first. And smoke it did. Within about 10 seconds I had attracted a lot of unexpected attention.  From one side, a neighbor was asking if everything was OK.  Another was yelling at me from the second-story window. Over another side of the fence, a head and a water hose appeared, ready to dowse my flames.  “No, no, it’s ok! I’m just grilling,” I said apologetically. 

I later learned why my little grill aroused the response it did.  

In the dark hours of an April morning in 2012, a fire broke out a few blocks away in the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building.  This city-block sized relic of Kensington’s glory days as an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse had been vacant and neglected for years.  According to an article at Hidden City  the out-of-state owners—Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein of Brooklyn-based YML Realty Holdings—failed to pay $60,000 in taxes or to respond to code violations. Perhaps as a result in part of this neglect, a fire broke out. A really big fire. I have heard stories from several people who lived in the neighborhood  at the time.  They described an apocalyptic scene of thick smoke, large embers and flaming debris raining down on the neighborhood for many blocks, setting fires as they fell on trees, roofs, and weed-choked vacant lots and alleys.  One person told me a crew had to drag a firehose through her home to get to the back yard in order to save her house.  Less her words than the way she spoke reminded me of something out of the Revelation of St. John.


According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, about 30 minutes after the fire was declared under control the wall of the Buck building collapsed onto a furniture store next door, burying four firefighters under tons of debris.  Two were rescued.  But two perished: Lt. Robert P. Neary, and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney.  Two years later, in 2014, a memorial to the two firefighters in the form of a large mural was completed.  It is visible from the corner of Arizona St. and Emerald St, but it is honestly hard to miss.  The project, supported by the Philadelphia Mural Arts program  not only remembers the men, it also celebrates the history and lore of their profession and recalls the industrial and manufacturing past of Kensington, a glory which has long vanished and whose derelict remnants were fodder for the apocalypse that took those men’s lives.

Mural to Fallen Firefighters

In my ignorance, I stumbled upon the collective memory of the neighborhood, as well as its history, but in doing so I came to learn something about both, and about an important site of memory.  However, this story is not just a self-deprecating tale of my own ignorance. I have plenty of those—s a hazard anyone who studies culture is familiar with. It is about these three concepts: history, collective memory, and what Pierre Nora calls “lieux de mémoire” or, in English, sites of memory.   In this post, I want to explore Nora’s argument about the relationship between these and consider the usefulness of his argument for the study of vernacular memory in Kensington. 

Between History and Memory

Nora begins his essay, “Between Memory and History,” with what seems like an apocalyptic diagnosis of the present: we live in a moment where the present seems to be rapidly becoming history, and the speed of this slippage of the present into the oblivion of the past induces anxiety. It’s like riding a motorcycle for the first time: you hit the throttle a little too hard and the bike feels like it is shooting away without you.  As with that feeling of panic on a motorcycle, we are gripped by feelings of anxiety and dread because we know once the present slips into history, it is, in Nora’s words, “gone for good.”


The acceleration of history: let us try to gauge the significance . . . of this phrase.

Why do we feel this way?  Nora suggests it is because we no longer feel as if we are part of the past. Or to put it another way, we no longer feel our shared past is part of the present in a meaningful way. I can connect this to Kensington and Fishtown, two North Philadelphia neighborhoods which are suffering from a tension between “old” and “new” neighbors.  “Old” residents—who  feel a strong sense of place and belonging, who lived here for generations, have weathered tough times,  and share a sense of connectedness and of a collective memory—feel besieged by processes of gentrification and the influx of “new” neighbors it brings, many of whom, like me,  have starkly different cultural, economic, educational, and religious backgrounds and who often bring a strong “suburban” sense of entitlement to these neighborhoods.  There is even a t-shirt for sale in local chain of second-hand shops that ironically symbolizes some of these feelings of discontinuity and longing: “I miss the Old Philadelphia.” “Philadelphia” is even printed in a calligraphy-style font that visually accentuates the sense of the lost past that the words express.

My point is that we no longer feel and embody a profound sense of connection to the past. “Old” neighbors knew it once, perhaps, but they feel it slipping irretrievably away.  They recognize something once valued is disappearing. “New” neighbors experience that past in highly attenuated and curated ways, but they experience it not as a way of life but as history. Perhaps part of the reason the second-hand shops do such a brisk trade in this part of the city is because what they sell is a piece of the past, which can anchor some of those feelings.  Such encounters with the past may be more or less positive for us. But just as often our encounters with collective memory and history can be unpleasant and a source of conflict.  And in the context of gentrification even the highly attenuated, curated past is being rapidly swept away by the current of “the new.”  

As I said—apocalyptic. Nora’s point is that we once lived or better embodied the past as tradition.  Tradition here refers to the ordinary, taken-for-granted, way-things-are-because-they-have-always-been-that-way nature of collective life.  The past was once embodied in our everyday lives as a shared sensibility and as a backdrop of understandings and expectations against which our individual and shared stories played out.  This sensibility is what defined us as individuals in relation to a collective, just as it defined that collective through the shared knowledge, rituals, stories, and habits passed on as tradition.  But this state of what he calls collective or “real” memory—“social and unviolated”—was put into crisis by the modern advent  of “history.”  For Nora, history is understood as “how our hopelessly forgetful modern societies, propelled by change, organize the past”(8). “Real” or “pure”  collective memory was “torn” from lived, unscrutinized everyday life by history.  This tearing continues, and it feeds those feelings of dread and anxiety we experience as we watch our way of life in the present rapidly becoming past, and thus being lost to the oblivion of history.

This contrast between memory and history is the main point of Nora’s essay (as the title suggests). “Memory is life,” he insists, and it is therefore “a perpetually actual phenomenon,” something always in the act of becoming real in the present, even as the present is always passing away and becoming the past (8).  Accordingly, memory is “affective,” connected to the “sacred” and the magical: It selectively preserves the past in the present in order to align the collective with something that transcends the sum of its individual parts.  It imbues groups with a sense of destiny, of inevitability, of being special, even exceptional.  It is thus also “collective, plural, and yet individual”(9). For while it is inherited, it is nevertheless found in the hands of those who understand themselves as connected through memory to something greater than themselves. Importantly, memory is not just ideas or feelings, it “takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects”(9).

We can conclude from this that collective memory does not simply go away because history wishes to “annihilate” it (9).  It persists and so our anxieties about its slipping away mount. In response to these feelings of panic that arise when the present (the motorcycle) feels like it is taking off and leaving us behind, collective memory “crystalizes and secretes itself” in what Nora called “lieux de mémoire” or sites of memory.  We respond to (or maybe “act out”?) these feelings of dread and anxiety in a frenzy of memorial activity.  This frenzy is what Erika Doss terms “memorial mania: an obsession with issues of memory and history and an urgent desire to express and claim those issues in visibly public contexts”(2).  Doss’ book explores the various practices through which we express these “urgent feelings about history and memory”: we rename parks, streets, schools, and other public places; we create and attend ethnic festivals and fairs; we remove old and erect new statues and plaques; we write and rewrite accounts of the past; we build museums and curate exhibits;  we create shrines, hold vigils, designate holidays, and insist we will “never forget.”  

Sites of Memory: Memorializing and Power

Memory is life.


All of this activity, Doss argues, is “excessive, frenzied, and extreme,” and that is why she diagnoses it as “maniacal”(13).  However, I don’t think we need to adopt this negative, medicalizing tone, nor the apocalyptic tone of Nora’s argument, to learn something from them.  First, it allows us to acknowledge that the tensions, the crises, and the feelings (what might be better terms “affects”) these induce have become commonplace.  Second, it calls us to recognize the variety of ways these affects or feelings are being expressed in the urban landscape.  

Consider the statue memorializing the infamous former Philadelphia mayor, Frank Rizzo, and the controversy surrounding it. The statue has become a lightning rod for a crisis over collective memory and the consequent surge of feeling on both the “old” and “new” sides of the conflict.  We need neither the apocalyptic tone of Nora’s approach, nor Doss’ psychological diagnosis to observe the way feelings of anxiety about memory are playing out in the City.  We can, however, see evidence for the two claims I made above.  First, memorializing results when collectives feel a sense of anxiety about shared memory (as a way of life, as a sensibility and a “way of feeling,” as a consensus about what matters of the past and what it means).  It also makes clear that memorializing is a way of conserving and preserving collective memory, as well as a way of contesting and transforming it.  

In other words, memorializing is always linked to power.  Memorializing is the power to represent the traces of the past in a meaningful way (and thus not in another, differently meaningful way). It is the power to create or contest a single story that reflects a set of dominant interests.  It is the power to shape public space in a way that affects and reflects (often in distorted ways) individuals and groups who enter and dwell and interact within it. And it is the power to contest and transform public space and the meanings encountered there. Of course, this does not suggest all efforts to cope with the anxiety of memory are created equal. Some memorials are “more equal” than others.  The Rizzo statue is a site of “official” memory.  It is made of bronze, placed prominently in a public place where multitudes must view and live with it. It is swathed in a blanket of permanence and protection—and thus inevitability—that only political, cultural, and economic privilege can accomplish. Even “officially” removing the statue has proven a sticky problem.

Memories need not be cast in bronze and lionized in a prominent, public square in order to “count.” They can be improvised from all kinds of materials: paint, flowers, candles, wood, cardboard.  In fact, the neighborhoods of Kensington, Fishtown, and other North Philadelphia neighborhoods are as rich in memory as the Independence Mall complex.   The mural, supported by the Mural Arts program in Philadelphia, lies somewhere between the “official” and “vernacular” forms of memorializing that can be found all around these neighborhoods.  The Mural Arts program began as a small office in City government to cope with a graffiti “crisis” in the 1970s, but it has since become a non-profit that funds murals and arts education programs.  And while not all of its projects speak so directly to collective memory, this one certainly does. It connects to and resonates with other memorials—like the bronze plaques that can be found embedded in the sidewalk in Northern Liberties at the corner of 2nd St. and Germantown Ave., or the other murals on the front and side of the local Richmond Firehouse in Kensington. It resonates, too, with broader cultural practices of memorializing and the various sites devoted to memorializing death, tragedy, and loss which can be found throughout this part of the city.  

All of these are sites of memory, places created within the broader urban landscape by the “secretion” and “crystalizing” of memory.  Maybe fire isn’t such a bad metaphor for thinking about these sites of memory as connected.  Memory burns brightly throughout these neighborhoods.  Its intensity is perhaps an indicator of how hotly the affects and emotions related to collective memory and the loss of memory to history burn. Thinking in this way helps put gentrification, “old” and “new,” the Black Lives Matter protests which occurred in this part of the city and the backlash against them, the ongoing debates about what to do with Rizzo’s stature.  These neighborhoods have become hotspots, points where the crystallization of memory in a variety of sites has taken on renewed urgency.  Thinking of these various forms of memory as connected to others might put such debates in a different light.  


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