Jackson, Landscapes

I’m looking forward to training myself to keep a blog regularly, something I’ve tried to do before. Here goes for the first week.

J.B. Jackson’s piece, “To Pity the Plumage and Forget the Dying Bird” remind historians, city planners and activists to put a human face to the problems they are working with, and to look beyond simple visual aesthetics when making liveable places. This is what I have walked away with anyway. He frequently calls for redesign of communities and restructuring of resources to better serve the citizens of a community. Communities can be consolidates to bring about a higher level of inclusiveness. Jackson notes that one of the greatest issues with the cut-off state of impoverished neighborhoods is their lack of access to public assembly. Because assembly can be a driving force for change, or at least communication, restricted access for some community members can perpetuate social and economic differences. Jackson notes that hiding electric wires and removing billboards can do a lot for a community, but it cannot solve everything.

He seems to be urging city planners to look beyond simple aesthetic or environmental changes when looking into the areas he describes, or at least to urge them to “personalize” their methods depending upon the community’s specific needs. More than that, Jackson is urging people to look at these communities period.

I liked his brief comments of the need for historic preservation. On Page 144, he mentions that “the destruction of symbols and monuments continues.” I’m sure I’m biased in saying this, but I feel he could have gone into this aspect a bit more. I have spent so much time in the past defending the idea that history can foster a sense of community, or a sense of place, which is the focus of my graduate project. When these aspects of a community are lost, it can lead to the loss of so much more– morale, communication, activity, commerce. The reading this week made me think about these things in a more well-rounded way.

The coffee house as a form of social and cultural landscape

The emergence of the British coffee house is a perfect example of a cultural shift as an expression through urban landscape, visible in the way that public space was used and considered in early modern, pre-industrial England.  I am referring, in particular, to the political and intellectual landscape of the coffeehouse, which was at that time a growing phenomena in European cities.  By taking the Marxist approach outlined in Everyday America we can attempt to determine who and what shaped these urban and rural landscapes.  First, it is clear that these spaces were tied materially and economically to trade commerce.  The exchange of goods that took place in the 17th century directly influenced different social movements by providing a different type of social atmosphere to the public, which in turn influenced the political and economic fabric of the larger community.  This is a development that was at once an outlet to and of pre-industrial social organization, and it served as a social agitator to the old, monarchical social structure.  The institution had its beginnings with the older order of established intellectuals at Oxford, but eventually (whether the monarchy liked it or not) trickled its way to the working man.  The coffee house exhibits many of these transformational experiences and expressions, visible in each of its different forms and stages of development.  I think an investigation into the “sense of space” will merit a variety of meaning, a plethora of definitions to individuals of the 16th and 17th centuries, in accordance to their class, political stance, and (but not limit to) religious leanings, which are all a part of the larger cultural surroundings.  In turn, the social opportunity that the coffee house delivered to individuals allowed them to influence their larger social experience.  For this particular example, I think it would be possible to look at  the development of the coffee house in order to understand how class influences social spaces.  I can also see how an investigation could illustrate how hegemony and ideology is disseminated through the control of knowledge and ideas, and how hegemony and ideology is challenged through social channels such as the coffee house, as it provided urban populations with a stimulating, sobering, and egalitarian (ish) forum not previously open to working and lower classes.

Cultural Landscapes…

“To Pity the Plumage, and Forget the Dying Bird” truly hit home for this humble social scientist. The images J.B. Jackson portrayed in this selection embodied the exact reason why I developed an unbridled fascination with History, Historic Preservation, and the sociology of these objects and events that connect people to their past.

Growing up, I would always be fascinated by an old building. It didn’t matter if it was a factory, library, home, or warehouse; I wanted to know everything about it. This especially rang true for buildings that in their design or stature alone, the adage ‘if these walls could talk’ would repeat endlessly. I have been lucky enough to experience quite a bit in my brief 24 years, including traveling to 27 states and three countries. I have resided in suburbia, one of the largest cities in the world, as well as one of the last remaining rural regions with untouched natural beauty. In each of these different locations, the character of the city or town could easily be observed in the landscapes that surround you. The natural beauty that exists in agricultural areas is indescribable, however the dilapidated Main St. haunts the town with an overwhelming presence of poverty and struggle.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the commercialism and endless development of a major city removes any natural beauty that may have existed before. In addition to natural landscapes, structures of historical or sentimental significance are overshadowed and dwarfed by the sky-scraping monuments to capitalism. In either sense, the appreciation for what was, or always had been, is overtaken by the infinite demand to obtain, construct, and progress.

All too often the localities that are the heart of this nation and its essential services are long forgotten in the rustic natural beauty that surrounds them. The wonderful thing about the cultural landscape, is that it provides an abridged history of the town or city and its people, that may have otherwise been forgotten.

JB Jackson

I found JB Jackson’s writing to be very interesting. During my undergrad years at the College of Idaho, I watched and was involved in the revitalization projects in downtown Caldwell. While the restoration of Indian Creek and Main Street was certainly interesting and beautiful, I hadn’t thought about the changes needed to be made beyond the cosmetic level before I read this article. I believe that part of the reason that we, as a society, deal with failing city/town centers in this way (i.e. cosmetic over political changes) is that it is much easier to deal with cosmetic changes than it is to acknowledge and seek to change the major political and social failings that have led to mass poverty. I particularly enjoyed the final quote he included from W.A. Crook, who said, “This crisis is one of human worth.” The very idea that a healthy and safe town may still be impoverished if it does not help the individual’s work and social life is one that changed my idea of city planning.
On a lighter note, the reading reminded me of one of my favorite television shows, Feasting on Asphalt with Alton Brown. The show is a culinary/cultural history project that follows Alton as he travels around the country looking for truly local food that is off of the “franchise highway,” a similar idea to Jackson’s idea that the truly American places, which are different from the typical “small-town” look, are off the beaten path. I believe that it is the small, unknown towns that are perhaps the most interesting parts in America and tell the story of our country better than larger than many bigger cities. Alton quotes Herman Melville who said, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

Reflections on Cultural Landscapes and Public History

The older I get, the more I realize there is so little I actually know. It was invigorating and highly educational to read the assigned chapters and article this past week. My knowledge of cultural landscapes was shaky at best prior to the readings, but the readings cemented a foundation for further understanding and reading. I appreciated the introduction to the study of landscapes in chapter one as well as the biographical information provided on J.B. Jackson.

This being a public history course, I could not help but find connections between the study of cultural landscapes and public history. In many ways it seems that some of the driving concepts of studying cultural landscapes can be applied toward public history. In chapter one, Groth and Wilson explained that Jackson “took ordinary settings usually overlooked by academic study and made them interesting” (11). This makes me question whether public historians are doing enough to research and analyze topics that are unseen or dismissed. Public history can be so much more than an interpretive sign. I think Jackson’s passion is inspiration for future public history projects. Additionally, Jackson’s fervent belief in making the information accessible to the “intelligent layman” again can be brought back to the application of history for the public. The hoarding of new perspectives and knowledge by elite scholars within their inner circle is not unlike a squirrel stock piling nuts for the winter. Share the wealth. History, in general, should be available and obtainable by all. Another lesson learned from Jackson are his methods in asking probing questions. Instead of inquiring “What’s the history of this particular place?” models like “How do places like this come to exist?” and “What do they mean to us today?” are questions historians, public or otherwise, should consider (114-115).

On a side note, I was fascinated by Jackson’s beliefs on historic preservation. I found his reasoning compelling, especially the idea that “preserving architectural relics that outlived their social usefulness was a sign of obsessive traditionalism and cultural rigidity…[and] should not be allowed to constrain the vitality of evolving social forces” (74-75). This made me ponder other perspectives on the topic and where they diverge or intersect with Jackson’s belief. Needless to say, I am excited to start Historic Preservation by Tyler, Ligibel, and Tyler.

The long and winding road

Like others have mentioned, many of these readings have brought a flood of road trip memories from childhood back to the forefront of my mind. I remember long rides in the hot car through the desert on the way to southern California to visit my Grandparents. For much of the way, we would drive on what used to be the iconic Route 66. My Dad would tell us why the road was important– how during the Depression people used it to escape the Dust Bowl, how it provided economic opportunities, all things that my siblings and I couldn’t have cared less about at the time. But the road is a theme that we encounter all the time, in movies (Rebel Without a Cause, Forrest Gump, Thelma and Louise), lyrics (country songs are full of them) and literature. Usually they are a symbol of freedom and possibilities.

In chapter 5, I was introduced to “odology,” a term I have never heard before. Although my inner-roadtripping child can’t believe I’m saying this, linking the study of roads and what they mean for American culture is an intriguing topic. Davis, on page 65, says these roads “would reveal that, despite its reputation…the strip was a vibrant social and economic space that fulfilled important civic functions.” I think approaching the study of the landscape from any of the four approaches discussed in chapter eleven would open up a door to understanding the automobile culture, and American culture as a whole. It ties into our everyday lives, entertainment, economy… Our love affair with the open road is an aspect of history that I certainly haven’t thought about, but is clearly a worthwhile subject.

My dad would be proud.

It’s My First Time

I never thought blogging would feel this empowering. Hopefully the delightful illusion that people care about what I have to say will last the entire semester.

Chapter five touched me in a special way. I found it reassuring that one of Jackson’s foci was on the social function of the built environment. (64) His emphasis on the function of American roads in the 1950s and 1960s allowed him to react positively to a change in the American landscape. This made him a progressive in the truest and best sense. While static ideas in our minds might be potentially adequate gauges of changes in our environment (built or otherwise), keeping in mind the function of roads, buildings, institutions, businesses, social practices will provide a more accurate judgement of their social value. For example if functionalism is applied to roads it makes infrastructure changes easier to understand. I live about six miles from campus and use the connector daily. By using the connector I save myself about 15 minutes on a round-trip between my home and campus. I also save money on gas and lessen my carbon footprint. The connector ultimately is the most efficient and enjoyable mode of travel from my home to downtown. A similar thought-process could be applied to the proliferation of chain stores such as Walmart or Fred Meyer. They’re so popular because people prefer shopping at them in comparison to other available options.

Henderson’s chapter on a ‘return to the social imagination’ is a good illustration of some problems facing the humanities and social sciences. The ideal of social harmony, cooperation, and the possibility of some sort of egalitarianism seems to largely taken for granted and accepted with little analysis. This is in opposition to the focus on the individual which has been prevalent in certain branches of the sciences, especially those have some grounding in Darwinism. One of the major problems in these disciplines is why any sort of cooperation exists at all. Most often this is addressed as the problem of altruism (Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene provides a good discussion of this problem). Asking these questions would help humanities and social sciences academics gain a more nuanced understanding of their areas of expertise. In addition it might help us develop a more adequate and functional social imagination.

Cultural Landscape Studies

I began this week’s readings with J.B. Jackson’s piece “To Pity the Plumage and Forget the Dying Bird.” I had several questions about the article, such as, who decides what is urban, rural, or what it considered picturesque? And above all why were roads his answer to every problem? In general I thought the article had some valid points, but could never quite understand how adequate roads were going to fix poverty.

The selected readings from Everyday America helped to clear up a lot of my confusion. The loose definition to cultural landscape and introduction to the Landscape publication gave context to the article. This led me to believe that just jumping to a Landscape magazine would be difficult without knowing who Jackson was and where his ideas where coming from. In chapter 5, Timothy Davis said “Jackson sought to understand the modern motorway on its own terms and relate it to broader social and historical patterns.” This statement answers my question about “To Pity the Plumage and Forget the Dying Bird.” It makes sense that roads would be the fix for every problem if you are trying to prove that new roadways are imperative to our future social success. That being said, I still do not agree with Jackson’s article, however I do agree with the idea of cultural landscape studies.  

I believe that cultural landscape studies are another possible definition for applied historical research. The idea is open to varying studies of archeology, architecture, history, and sociology to name a few. As I see it cultural landscape study is a historical analysis of modern times.  History, as we all know, is complex; there are several different kinds of historians-social, political, cultural, environmental, ect. This mirrors the concept of cultural landscape studies. Cultural landscapes characterize what is happening at the time. Cultural landscapes studies can be an invaluable primary resource. It gives a clear historical analysis that will be helpful to any historian interested, in Jackson’s case, on the history of roadways in America.

Cultural Landscapes & Public History

I found the readings interesting and engaging, and was able to curl up and actually enjoy them. This is often a feeling unobtainable from required readings, but nonetheless I enojoyed all of the readings. I appreciated that chapter 1 offered a few defintions of cultural landscapes, since I have often heard the term tossed around, but never paid attention. The defintion on page viii, that cultural landscapes are “complex sets of environments that support all human lives and all social groups,” seems especially applicable to public history since our definition for public history is that it is history done by, for, and of the public, who would of course be responsible for the cultural landscapes around them.

I found other aspects from the reading applicable to public history. On page 161, in the introduction to the section containing chapter 11, there was a brief discussion about writing with accessibility so as not to isolate “perspectives, disciplines, professions, discourses, and publics.” When I think of public history, this is integral for any interpretation. You do not need to “dummy” down history for the public to understand; you need to engage your audience in a way that speaks to them. Interest in history can often be inspired by places, so using J.B. Jackson’s questions about a new place: “How do places like this come to exist?” “How do they work?” and “What do they mean to us today?” I also think in any public history endeavors, especially in the academy, we need to keep in mind Jackson’s disappointment in the academicization of landscape studies; if we allow dull and dry interpretations to pervade into the public eye, then we will be successful in making public history unaccessible to its very consumers. We will ask the same question that Jackson did about landscape studies: “Why must public history be so dull, so lacking in insight and emotion?” (p75).

The Ideology of Odology

I am surprised that I had never heard of “odology” before this week’s reading on J.B. Jackson. It seems to encapsulate that clichéd American ideal of being footloose, and fascinates me on a personal level since I have always loved driving for the sake of sightseeing.

In Chapter 5, Timothy Davis speculates about the future of odology in light of the lack of contemporary “Jacksonian approach[es] to landscape studies in general” (76). (Maybe the fact that I had never so much as heard the term “odology” until now implies that Davis’ fears were well founded.) It is true that cultural landscapes and roads themselves have changed since Jackson’s time; however, these changes should not be the demise of odology’s significance to American cultural studies.

Perhaps Jackson’s approach is not now irrelevant, as Davis wonders, but evolving. I think that cultural landscapes can and should be studied on an ideological level in addition to the physical; while physical landscapes may change drastically over time, there is of course significance in how they change, and even behind the implication of change itself. More than just canvases for cultural expression as Jackson saw them, roads are also ideological symbols themselves. Old scenic byways and the interstate highway system, for example, denote different underlying American values, and their respective decline and development demonstrate how cultural ideologies have changed over time. George Henderson most clearly acknowledges this ideological approach to landscape studies in Chapter 11 in his identification of “landscape as discource”—“the idea that the landscape is an ideological expression” (182).