Memory is the medium of past experience,
as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred.
~ Walter Benjamin
Whenever I live in a city for a particular amount of time, I find myself increasingly subject to a peculiar desire. It is perhaps not so much a desire as, in fact, a sense of responsibility. When something disappears, I try to remember what was there. This holds true for the merest mom-and-pop shop as it does for an entire city block. I play the role of casual historian-observer to the ongoing drama – whether tragic or comic – of the development and elaboration of a city. What does the disappearance of a façade tell us about what might have been there before? When an entire block is demolished to make way for a building or set of buildings, who remembers its antecedents, and why should this kind of remembrance be important?
Being the casual sort, I have never felt the need to record these memories in any formal way. Nor do I consider this an exercise in sentimentality – the point, if there truly is one, is to deepen my experience of the ground of a place, and as a result the act is entirely selfish and self-contained. The end result of eleven thus-far years in New York is a private catalogue of jinxed restaurant locations, dearly departed graffiti, and equally unmourned Modernist and corporatist passings. I have always mystified my friends with a need to recall these things, and have little sense of restraint in either quizzing or boring them with said catalogue while walking down the street.
But this assumes a stately pace of destruction and renewal – if we entertain the metaphor of the city as a body, it is old cells dying and being replaced by new ones. What happens when the city becomes truly injured? When vast chunks of it are gouged out of its topography, its very identity, if not threatened, then decisively knocked about and re-shuffled?
A recent conference sponsored by Columbia University, entitled Injured Cities/Urban Afterlives, sought to take up that question. One of the most thought-provoking presentations, by Eyal Weizman, concerned itself with the idea of a forensic architecture. Rubble, like bones, has a story to tell, and the manner in which that narrative is elicited and disseminated tells us much about who we are, and what we might expect of others, and ourselves.