Spinning stories from the edges
The 2015 Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures field school examines a complex urban edge where a bucolic Olmstedian park meets the residential neighborhood of Martin Drive and a 19th Century industrial corridor housing Harley Davidson Motor Company and Miller Brewery intersects a once vibrant Vliet Street.
Pouring over hours of audio footage, peeking and squinting into the blue lines of the computer screen, distinguishing between guidelines and wall lines in autoCAD drawings, and playing with the documentary software - we are dreaming new worlds, composing new stories. We are music makers and dreamers. Yet that process of telling stories – choosing one from the many stories – makes the task difficult and awesome.
In the seventies Hayden White wrote about the art of writing histories. He argued that historiography is a poetic exercise in emplotment. Historians plot stories; they highlight certain aspects of it and downplay others. They explain change and interpret life in particular ways. Histories follow certain underlining and prefigured narrative structures within which we understand, read and reproduce our reality. Yet, each story, told differently, bent and crooked, follows some basic logic.
This year's stories speak to us about multiple ways we interpret and experience time. These stories can be organized under three categories.
The story of Vliet Street sharpens our understanding of cultural time, a sense of history that we share as a culture. Memories of the past, realities of the present and dreams of future coalesce as residents talk about this thoroughfare, its environs and the community that developed around it. The street's location in between a park, industry, a culturally diverse urban neighborhood and suburbia generates accounts of industrial labor and technology, the importance of nature and landscaped parks in US history, and stories of changing settlement patterns in Milwaukee due to constant movement of people.
The second set of stories deals with the cultural landscape of Hmong refugees, recent arrivals in this neighborhood. These tales take us to discussions of personal time, that is, how individuals operate in everyday life by straddling multiple worlds and world views. The story of Hmong is not a singular unified account of an ethnic group. Instead it is about how myriad individuals with distinct interests, lifestyles and backgrounds re-imagine a common past and heritage. It is about how valiant men and women mediate the immediacy and urgency of their everyday world with memories and traditions of a lost cultural past.
The third set of stories makes us aware of a different sense of time in order to take another look at this neighborhood. Washington Park at night explores how urban nocturnal life gives us a glimpse into a different and vibrant world that is often ignored, maligned or simply misunderstood. These stories seek to listen to lives that are rendered invisible, voices that are dismissed and a world that is often ignored. We acknowledge a pulsating and thriving world made of dreams, hard work, disappointments and courage that these stories tell us.
The three story-sets and the subplots are cacophonous and dissonant. They strive not to produce a neat singular urban narrative. Single stories kill conversations. Our stories are not complete, comprehensive and sweeping. We have learnt that the careful craft of a storyteller emphasizes leaving loose ends. Loose ends let your mind soar like a kite and then they set us free. A story, like a kite, flies on, its string limply dangling from the sky, daring us to catch it and pin it down - waving, twisting and turning into the distant horizon till we can see it no more. Some come crashing down on us; into a still and silent moment of utter sadness.
Stories have real power and as we ponder over the mines of digital data, our minds soar into the world of stories. We pick and choose, bite and spit, remember and remind. We have to do a good job – walk that tightrope – not too tight not too loose. Just enough to make space for the next story to snuggle up to us and change our tale in unpredictable ways.
This project was funded by grants from the David and Julia Uihlein Charitable Foundation, School of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Office of Undergraduate Research, UWM