“And that wall there is where I first told your father I had feelings for him. He was leaning against, looking down at his feet. He said he didn’t have time for a girlfriend.”
My mother looked back over her shoulder, checking to be sure I was listening. I knew the story by heart— it was repeated nearly every time we drove past that spot. Just down the road was the attic apartment with the broken fan and a single window, the place she lived when she first started working in radio, and did I remember the story about the day she left her apartment before the sun rose and the bus never came so she walked all the way to the broadcasting station, and did I remember when they took off in the plane and flew right over her house, the time the pilot let her fly and she saw the whole town from right above, all the cars laid out like glistening june bugs below her?
I had never considered the intimate, interpersonal nature of the narrative of place before reading this excerpt from Kathleen Stewart‘s Mimetic Excess in Occupied Space from A Space on the Side of the Road. She draws on and recounts her own experiences living in rural West Virginia, piecing together a patchwork illustration of both the lifestyle and rhetoric to emerge from the area. She illuminates the differences between these disenfranchised, “got-down” towns with “layers of occupation”— stories upon stories of local history, primarily based around places— and brand new, middle to upper middle class suburbs. The core idea is place— Locations that act as homing beacons, or hatstands with pegs to hang stories, stories to be picked up and put on and paraded around at the discretion of whoever happened to be walking by. She observes that place matters most in marginalized areas, while secure places become “vague”, losing the intimacy and cultural warmth she finds in the holler of West Virginia. This phenomena is attributed to an anthropological observation she made, noting that these disenfranchised, rural people held onto two visions of reality: That-which-is, and that-which-could-have-been or that-which-was. There are memories of how the town used to be, or what it might have been like if the mines hadn’t closed, the economy hadn’t gone bad, things hadn’t gotten so rough. These physical spaces or objects are capable of holding all of the potentiality and actuality in the same moment. The history of the town is tied in with the mythology, hopes and aspirations, and everyday life of the townsfolk. Places become the evolving markers of memory— the house where she was born, the mining shaft where he knelt in the water and listened to the preacher narrate redemption. She argues that this sort of narrative is not possible in secure, developed locations, locations where place is evolving and shifting without any form of dialogue behind it.
I believe place-driven narrative is restricted not by population size, but is a unique reaction to a potent mix of economic pressure and oral storytelling tradition. I am thinking of a building on Lincoln Avenue, in Lincoln-Larimer, a Pittsburgh neighborhood near the Hill District. The building stands long abandoned, with several peeling layers of painted-over signs revealing a restaurant, a bar, a used car dealership, and a notary, to name the visible layers. A few rounds of graffiti lace across the corner of the building facing the intersection. There is a bullet hole through the top left window. This derelict building may sound like an invitation for demolition, but if you ask anyone, they’ll tell you that Ma’am is still selling hot chocolate there on cold winter mornings, and she’s still trying to get the money to open up her coffee shop, and she’ll have enough one day, just you wait. Anyone will tell you that the farmer’s market used to pass through there on Friday afternoons, and when they stopped coming— (because the money wasn’t always so good, and this neighborhood isn’t always so friendly)— the women from the church down the street got together to wash their potatoes and carrots til they were prizewinning clean and sold them out of the trunk of their late-model Buick Lacrosse. It’s where the kids wait for the bus as children, and where they sneak cigarettes and steal furtive glances over their shoulders to make sure their mothers won’t catch them. It’s where someone’s anger drove them so hot they put a bullet through the top left window.
(New Kenn power plant, 2013, viewed from the terrace parking lot of the old Italian restaurant on the hill that caught on fire one winter and shone like the Star of Christ over the whole valley— According to the owner.)
I think this investigation of the history of place will prove to be a valuable tool as we pursue Pittsburgh-based projects throughout the course of the semester. Location-based inquiry will always return a very specific kind of knowledge, the sort that only the locals will have and will be filled with lore, gossip, speculation, and exaggeration. Stewart’s model appears time and again in everyday storytelling— your grandmother telling you about the front porch she sat on with your great-uncle, or the way your friend recounts the mad dash home when the street lights turned on, because you never stayed out after the streetlights came on if you knew what was good for you. Posing buildings as lively, active characters in both investigation and narrative will open up new methods of communication between non-local students and old-time Yinzers. After all, who doesn’t want to know why Pitt is banned from having a rugby team, or about the time it rained bananas in the Strip?