We don’t need to cling to the past; instead, we can use the past to inform and inspire us, and use it as a springboard to move into the future. Our shared memory can propel us forward.
Geography and history have a special connection, especially for us city dwellers. Our crammed city streets, sky high buildings, and public squares are all repositories for human stories – they hold our cultural memories and our social history. They inspire us; they remind us of our past and can point us to what a better future might look like.
In New York City, Union Square has always been a flashpoint for political protests. This dates back to the Civil War, when pro-union organizers rallied a quarter of a million people there. Emma Goldman came to Union Square to organize garment workers back in 1893; over a century later, the Black Lives Matter movement used Union Square as a platform to raise awareness about their concerns.
Other public spaces – churches, markets, and even libraries – are also rich in shared memories. New York’s Essex Market has been in operation in one form or another since the 19th century (it moved indoors around 1940), serving as a natural meeting place, a chance for people from different walks of life to rub elbows. Saint Mark’s Church in the Bowery, one of the city’s oldest churches, serves as not only a place of worship but also a performance site, where poets and musicians can share their work with the public. And Saint Peter’s church, in midtown, carries on the tradition of a shared space which is used for both religious practice and the arts; some of the most dynamic jazz concerts take place in this space.
Again, the notion of a shared space is important because it allows for the mingling of different kinds of people, from vastly different communities. These places form a valuable function in society. The activist and journalist Jane Jacobs said it beautifully in her book Dark Ages Ahead:
“While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can’t afford to lose it…but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost. In miniature, this is the malady of Dark Ages.”
Jane Jacobs warned against losing our collective memory, because it meant losing our sense of potential and human possibility. In the urban landscape, tearing down buildings and changing the cityscape can mean losing that collective memory. If we lose our shared spaces, we will also lose our shared memory – which means that we will gradually become ever more atomized and isolated.
These communities of shared history are part of communities of circumstance, rather than those of choice, like communities of practice or action. And because of that we often belong to them in an almost automatic and unconscious way. This collective memory is something that binds us together. These memories, positive like a collective achievement or negative like a traumatic event can create a powerful sense of belonging. But as Jane Jacobs said these memories of the past can be fleeting.
How do we protect our public spaces, and our collective memories? Having some kind of artifact, a building, a piece of a leftover structure or even a modern sculpture, helps us remember and keep the power of the event alive. Rituals can also be a powerful reminder of the past (or as Casper ter Kuile talks about in his great book, The Power of Rituals, ways to foster connection with ourselves, others and nature).
Yet sometimes those memories and rituals can also hold us back. How do we remember our collective past and at the same time, how do we stay flexible and keep ourselves from getting stuck in useless nostalgia? We’ve all seen people who can’t stop complaining about how things aren’t what they used to be. It’s tempting to cling to an idealized past and reject the imperfect present. But nostalgia is exclusionary; it keeps people from moving forward.