History as a Periphery

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Among other tenets, AREA Chicago is committed to “gathering and sharing information and histories” about Chicago. My interest in dialogue about history propelled me to contact Forgotten Chicago, a group whose website http://www.forgottenchicago.com had intrigued me. Conceived in their high school explorations of the city, Forgotten Chicago is chiefly the product of the labor of Jacob KaplanSerhii ChruckyCorinnè Aquino, and Mike Damian. The four, whose interests about the city vary from industrial history to public housing to auto-related architecture, share a common vision that shaped our conversations: that the “remnants of the past often tend to get paved over or torn down without much thought. Aside from major well-known landmarks, what does remain often tends to be overlooked and forgotten.” Such amnesia has provided the impetus for Forgotten Chicago to “discover and document little known elements of Chicago’s infrastructure, architecture, neighborhoods and general cityscape, whether existing or historical.” —Ashley Weger


Typically, we understand the peripheral as what exists at the edges of what we can see and hear. What would it be to treat time as a periphery—to conceive of history existing within the present? In what ways does history manifest itself as peripheral, and in what ways does it disappear from our perception entirely? These questions began our dialogue, a conversation on the relationship between the urban geography of Chicago and the social, cultural, political, and economic history represented by spaces and places. All too often, artifacts and documents of our history are lost, neglected, destroyed or forgotten. AREA Chicago and Forgotten Chicago ask: Why? How? Our respective projects prompt us to pool collective talents, interests, knowledge, and memories. In doing so, we begin to build a repository for a complex history of our city that threatens to become wholly inaccessible. As the photographic and journalistic inquiries of Forgotten Chicago suggest, one possible source for such an urban archeology would be physical remnants. What remains, either in benign neglect or prideful preservation, speaks to the value the present attributes to the past.

With this perspective, details gain importance and become central to the changes and contestations over historical memory. In Gage Park, a 1970s 7-UP logo appears on a liquor store, unobtrusively serving its primary economic purpose of demarcating the store’s site and contents. In Old Town, that same sign might have been common during that decade, but has fallen out of favor as the area has gentrified. The shop owner, not wanting to appear gauche to this posh clientèle, would have been pressured to change the sign to something newer, whatever the next may logo have been. In a place like today’s Wicker Park, residents have different tastes than their Old Town counterparts. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see that same venerable sign employed on a store in a show of fashionable aesthetic nostalgia. The same romantic notions once applied to replica gas-lamp streetlights and faux-brick street pavement are now assigned to objects such as the commercial sign. In its life, the sign moves from being a ubiquitous object to one of revulsion, to a rare one then a retro-decorative one, and finally a “historical” one. Like other cultural objects, this small detail, a 7-UP sign, is a loaded symbol. Its meaning, and the underlying social and political value it serves to represent, can be decoded based on cultural and spatial context. All cultural objects carry some baggage and the older they get, the more they carry.

A detail-oriented approach toward the city’s history might help us radically reconstitute our relationship with the past. Forgotten Chicago gestures towards such a realignment. Its photographs, research and explorations, hosted on an ever-expanding website, provide a visceral experience for the observer and the possibility of interaction through a new imagination of the city. The city’s past reflects off stained glass windows in Ukrainian Village, in downtown municipal parking garages, and long-disused brewery buildings surrounding the city’s center. ◊

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