Category Archives: placemaking

129: Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place

Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History is a reflection on 8 years of work at her Boston nonprofit The Power of Place, which she started in 1984 to “to situate women’s history and ethnic history in downtown, in public places, through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers, and artists.”  Written for academics, fellow practitioners, and the general public, The Power of Place shows how collaboratively-produced public art can bring together urban space and urban history in new, generative ways, while also identifying and preserving significant public places from changes in the configurations of capital.  With the increasing interconnectedness of cities and the rise of placelessness, Hayden argues, an urban landscape history that accesses and generates “place memory” is the surest route to recovering both a sense of place and the historical agency/ capacity for social change that comes with it. 

Preserving and marking a city’s cultural sites, in ways that incorporate members of the community into the design process and that give both insiders and outsiders access to the multiple meanings and histories of those sites, uses the power of place to recover both historical memory and historical energy.  In other words, place can make struggles from the past feel real and accessible to people today – if it’s done right.  For Hayden, doing it right includes involving multiple community stakeholders; incorporating vernacular, rather than heroic, structures wherever possible, so that the social and political significance of a building trumps its aesthetic appeal; inscribing the experiences of immigrants, women, and people on the landscape; and developing a network of preserved places to “reconnect social memory on an urban scale.”  Throughout, she discusses various examples of this kind of preservation work: tenement buildings in New York that people can visit to get a sense of turn-of-the-century working class life; Cincinnati’s flying pigs; Kevin Lynch’s cognitive maps; the invisible angelinos in LA; Remembering Little Tokyo, an African American Homestead, and workers’ landscapes in LA; and the casitas in New York, which she reads as critiques of tenement space.

Throughout, Hayden looks for creative ways that ordinary people can connect history with cultural landscapes, so that place and memory can help generate progressive social change.  While I suspect increased urban mobility might make it hard to find the long-term community participation many of her Boston projects needed, and I’m not sure how much a particular place is going to spur someone to political action, her emphasis on making memory more multiple and more visible on the landscape could go a long way toward opening up history to more diverse, and more embodied, perspectives.