Place, Space, Memories: City Lore

BLOG ASSIGNMENT: Examine the City Lore website, focusing on the “Place Matters” section, which includes several walking tours and a census of places. Post your response to the site, considering how, through the census of places and walking tours, these projects contribute to fostering a sense of place and memory on the urban landscape through digital media. Consider it in light of other projects we’ve examined during the semester.

According to their “About” page, City Lore‘s mission is “to foster New York City – and America’s – living cultural heritage through education and public programs.” As an activist organization interested in preserving the urban landscape in an effort to preserve the memory and history of New York, City Lore has turned to a digital platform to engage with the communities they seek to work with. Their site is also meant to serve as a “living archive” of the city’s history and has received funding from NEH to fulfill these goals. The following quote particularly struck me. 



A quote from the City Lore organization describing part of their mission.


One of the primary features of Place Matters is the Census of Places that Matter. The Census features an extensive list of locations with descriptions and pictures. The descriptions explain what the place is, where it is, and why it is uniquely important. The places listed have been “nominated by the public because they connect us to the past, host longstanding community and cultural traditions, or make the city distinctive.”


(From screenshot on 10/16/2014)

(From screenshot on 10/16/2014)


Community members can easily nominate places through a form on the site. The form requires the name of the place, a description, and the first and last name of the user. There are a number of other pieces of information that can be filled out as well such as the physical details of the place and plans or threats to a location. Users can also make comments on places that have already been nominated by others.

The ability of the public to contribute to the list of places that matter is vital to the mission of the organization to engage and work with the community. Judging by the hundreds of places listed on the Census, the project is extremely expansive and successfully engages people to contribute.

The Place Matters site also features a selection of “virtual tours.” These tours are in the form of a slideshow or booklet. Some are quite short, while others features dozens of “pages” of information and images. While the project, as we are examining it, is within a digital space, it encourages the user to explore the physical space as well. The tours do not attempt to use a street-view style tour of the locations, that would potentially replicate a tour in the real world. In fact, the site provides a detailed page of information on different tours and tour guides in the city.


(From screenshot 10/16/2014)

(From screenshot 10/16/2014)


The virtual tours featured on the site, six in total, explain how the story of relatively small geographical spaces can be representative of the history of the city as a whole. The “Seeing East 4th Street: Vernacular Architecture in New York City,” for instance, follows the history of the street early projects of speculators to create row houses for the from merchant class to the wave of immigrants and the Panic of 1837 that inspired landlords to repurpose single-family homes into multi-family housing.

These changes are representative of the history of New York as a whole as it expanded in the early part of the nineteenth century and then boomed as large numbers of diverse immigrant groups moved in. Other tours follow artistic movements in different neighborhoods, creating connections between old and new residents and art forms.

The guides use relatively short blocks of text along with large images to give both a visual and intellectual understanding of the evolution of each space. Through historic images, the site provides a visual representation of the memory of a location. The images serve to further reinforce the lesson that each piece of the urban landscape has a history to impart to us in the present.

The tours not only offer a better understanding and sense of history of the physical space they focus on, but also give the reader the tools to interpret the meaning of other spaces. Reading through one of these before going on a physical tour of the location would help someone know what to look for and how to interpret it.

For someone (like myself) with no training in interpreting urban landscapes, providing this information is vital for a fuller appreciation of what a physical space can tell us. “Seeing East 4th Street: Vernacular Architecture in New York City,” in particular, teaches the reader how to see the history represented by the architecture and geography of one block.

City Lore effectively uses digital tools to convey the meaning behind the historic urban landscape, connect memory with space, and create a connection between the community and an organization determined to preserve the past. I very much enjoyed exploring the site and I can see using it as a visitor to New York for AHA 2015.