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Past and Present

Past & Present: Attaching Meaning to the Landscape


A few weeks ago, I gave a walking tour through the Fairmount neighborhood. The crowd and I had good conversations about noted buildings such as Fairmount Congregational Church and Holyoke Cottage.

The landmarks that aroused the most energy were a series of traffic barriers in the middle of certain intersections. These barriers prevent cars from driving down Fairmount to 13th Street or across 16th Street past Fairmount Park. I had been told they were put in to reduce congestion.

The significant African American presence in my tour group had a very different interpretation. They said that Fairmount Park had become a local hangout in the 1970s, attracting  people from a wide range of backgrounds. Among them were groups of young African American men who came to socialize and drive around the park’s edges. At the time, though, desegregation, white flight, and racial unrest were transforming the area around WSU. In the process, the neighborhood erected the traffic barriers to keep these young men from congregating at Fairmount Park in their cars.

I have since talked with people who were involved in the barriers first being erected. For several, this was the first time they had ever heard of race being a factor. For whites, it was a matter of traffic flow, but for African Americans, seemingly mundane hunks of concrete curb conveyed much more powerful emotions.

While it’s tempting to try to drill down and find the “original” motivation, another way to look at this is through the lens of place and local memory. The meaning we attach to the landscape often tells us more about our current issues and challenges than what once happened. Conversations like this one are good indicators of how different people can pose strikingly different interpretations to the same events and objects.