Emotions Flow Through Places – Thoughts After Charlottesville

Last week I referenced Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s book Root Shock with a story that spoke to how emotions flow through places.  I wrote before the events in Charlottesville—and the reactions to that weekend—brought place, memory, and emotion to the forefront of our national conversation.

Stephanie Meek’s statement on Confederate memorials and the confronting of difficult history speaks to how emotions that arise from place are not always built upon strong, positive memoriesOf course, Dr. Fullilove understands this all too well.  Root Shock is focused on the difficult history of urban renewal, something seen in Charlottesville’s destruction of the African-American community of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s.  At the Trust, as Stephanie notes, “we believe that historic preservation requires taking our history seriously. We have an obligation to confront the complex and difficult chapters of our past, and to recognize the many ways that our understanding, and characterization, of our shared American story continues to shape our present and future.”  That is especially true of our Civil War history, and the fact that many of these statues and symbols were erected well after the war “to vindicate the Confederacy at the bar of history, erase the central issues of slavery and emancipation from our understanding of the war, and reaffirm a system of state-sanctioned white supremacy.”  I am a Southerner with a grandmother who was a lifelong member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  When I see symbols used to support hatred and divisiveness, the confrontation of the difficult chapters of our past is personal as well as professional.

Two notes I received following last week’s post referenced, in different ways, how our emotions are inextricably tied to place.

The first one shows how difficult it can be for preservationists to support the removal or destruction of places from our past. Yet, there are many among us who have reluctantly reached that conclusion when it comes to Confederate memorials in their specific cities.  A friend and professional colleague who has spent her life working on the preservation of cultural landscapes also happens to sit on the City of Charlottesville’s Historic Resources Committee (HRC).  She has long supported contextualization of the city’s downtown parks and the statues.  But she wrote late last week saying that while she still believes that the city “could have led the way with the addition of powerful design and new interpretation,” her thinking has evolved with the charged emotions of the issue. She shared that evolution with me as well as with the members of the HRC.  In explaining her thinking, she noted that “the political situation locally, statewide, and nationally post-August 12 would make it difficult for any local political leaders to be effective and continue to support such a nuanced position or for our city to begin to return to any semblance of normal governance.”  She adds that this is a difficult decision professionally, but that she does not see “another way forward for Charlottesville at this time.”  She ended her thoughts to the HRC by noting “I hope that Charlottesville will continue to address this issue legally and with appropriate strategies for relocation of resources that have local, state, and national designations that come with various degrees of responsibility for continued conservation and mitigations.”  This is very much in line with Stephanie’s statement that these decisions should be made “on a case by case basis at the community level.”  These are conversations where we as preservationists are engaged, and removal of these symbols should not stop the necessary conversations about how the “understanding and characterization of our shared American story continues to shape our present and future.”

In the second instance, a friend of mine (and fellow blogger) responded to last week’s post with a note that I believe speaks to why much of what we save from our past has such meaningful and moving impacts on our lives today. As a priest, she focused on the preservation of sacred space, which I found insightful and applicable in ways beyond her reference. I want to share her note with you.

In response to Mindy Fullilove’s words, my friend wrote:

“This is one reason that I think it is important to set apart dedicated sacred space. When I was in New Jersey, a megachurch start-up rented the ballroom of our neighboring hotel each Sunday. They grew like wildfire. I would look across the street from my office in a colonial-era church, where maintenance costs were eating us alive, and sometimes I would be green with envy. And yet, our buildings let us do things they never could: let us feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, advocate for the immigrants to came to us for legal help. And one thing I knew: the air in those ballrooms would never be thick with prayer. At the end of Sunday morning, their folks would pack up and go, to be replaced by wedding parties and conventions and business meetings. But in our building, the walls held the prayers of all who had wept or rejoiced or begged in that place for hundreds of years. The difference was palpable.”

Sacred places

Sacred places (photo credit: Claire Brown)

Sacred places have long been landmarks which evoke emotions and generally point us towards our better natures.  They may be places protected with the help of the National Trust’s National Fund for Sacred Places or sites such as Mount Taylor, sacred to as many as 30 Native American tribes and which the Trust has fought to protect through our National Treasure campaign.

Two different ways of seeing the importance of place and the ties places make to our emotions. Both made me think, and I hope you’ll find in one or both something of value.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

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