To remember or not to remember?

Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport – fake or real history?

M. Christine Boyer, an urban historian at Princeton, argues for the former in “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport”:

“Places like Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport are sustained not only by the pleasures of picture-writing, but by the expansion of historical tourism, the desire to ‘just look’ at the replicated and revalued artifacts and architecture of another time. Yet to historicize is to estrange, to make different, so that a gap continually widens between now and then, between an authentic and a simulated experience.”

South Street Seaport lighthouse

Her main argument in the article is that the historicized architectural forms cropping up everywhere in cities aren’t actually historic – they’re bite-sized, easily consumed freeze-framed pictures of the past intended for tourists who don’t know how little relation they actually bear to the city’s past.

“City after city discovers that its abandoned industrial waterfront or outmoded city center contains enormous tourist potential and refurbishes it as a leisure-time spectacles and sightseeing promenade.” Other examples of this recycled, clichéd waterfront tableaux: Quincy Market in Boston, Harbor Place in Baltimore, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and the Riverwalk in New Orleans.

Fulton Market in South Street Seaport

There’s no doubt that city planners recognize the cash value in building or preserving relics of the past in today’s cities. And this undoubtedly leads to a fine line between representing the past and commodifying it. While I agree with many of the points the author makes, I find myself resisting her critique against any attempt to historicize or represent the past. There are dangers in recreating the past in the present (out of which an inevitable gap occurs that Boyer talks about in the first quotation), but still I wonder: Isn’t there also a gap if we don’t even try to preserve a memory of the past in our cities, through such means as heritage buildings and historicized architectural forms? There’s a gap either way, and I think the risk of entirely forgetting a city’s past because there’s no visual stimuli is greater than the risk of remembering it and not necessarily getting it completely accurate.

My backlash largely stems from the fact that in my master’s essay, I argued for the importance of remembering a city’s past – Vancouver’s past, actually. Vancouver, you ask? A city that’s only been around 126 years? Yes, especially a young city like Vancouver that’s praised so much by people like Douglas Coupland as the bright and shining city of the future. This kind of rhetoric strongly risks forgetting Vancouver’s past, which happens to be not-so-shining (particularly towards Asian immigrants). I think architecture and literature about the city – historic fiction specifically – play a vital role in helping remember the diverse layers and peoples of a city. Literature has perhaps an even greater potential as a tool to remember because books last longer than buildings, which are constantly getting demolished and replaced with new ones, thereby building over and erasing the past. Literary and architectural representation are two ways that come to mind when I reflect on ways to remember the city’s past in the present – perhaps we need to brainstorm others that would lessen the historicizing gap even more.

I appreciate buildings like Woodward’s in Vancouver (left) or yes, even the South Street Seaport museum (right) where something as simple as the material or words of the building visually indicate a previous past for the site that I would not even be aware of had they not been there. I guess I’d rather remember a little than not remember at all.

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