Civic Memory and Public Commemoration in America's Post-Industrial Cities
In my dissertation I ask, how do commemorative processes -- as modes of production -- drive urban development in American cities during and after the industrial era?
My project shows how public commemoration is an arena in which diverse forms of urban development can be articulated. I argue that studying commemorative processes provides us with fresh insights into the economic, social, and cultural changes of post-industrial American cities over the course of the twentieth century by shedding a light on the ways that civic memory frames local dialogue about the legacy of the civil disturbances, urban renewal, and demographic transformation.
My project is not limited to physical memorials but rather investigates broader commemorative processes in that have taken place in Newark: the sestercentennial and tercentennial celebrations of the city’s founding in 1916 and 1966, the 40th anniversary of the 1967 riot in 2007, the 40th anniversary of the 1969 student takeover of Rutgers, The State University in 2009, and the 100th anniversary of the 1910 Newark Factory Fire in 2010. Although these processes embody certain narratives of national progress, their meaning is not fixed; public forms of commemoration become scripts off of which people can build their own meanings and practices, repurposing the remembrance activities to serve their individual and community needs in the present. This study shows that the twenty first century “memory boom” in post-industrial cities signals a shift in public commemoration from nationalist themes that celebrated American exceptionalism and technological innovation to more community-focused initiatives developed to create a collective space for private grief among racially and ethnically diverse citizenry.
As of summer 2012, I have completed all of my archival research and oral history interviews. I have already drafted chapters two and three and presented them at the American Studies Association, Oral History Association, New York Metro American Studies Association, and Urban History Association annual meetings. I am now working on chapter four, which features my collection of oral history interviews that have been accepted as part of the NYC Triangle Fire collection at the Kheel Center Archives at Cornell University. I am also in the process of transcribing the interviews I conducted in Newark on the 1967 civil unrest and the 1969 student takeover of Rutgers University in order to return copies to individual interviewees by December 2012 and to create a searchable user-friendly digital archive of civic memories for the Newark Remembers public history website. In Spring 2013, I will present findings from my research and solicit feedback from the community during public meetings of the Newark History Society and through the online digital humanities portion of my project. I will then incorporate feedback from Newark residents and complete drafts of the remaining chapter, introduction, and conclusion by December 2013. I will finish revising my dissertation and defend it in Spring 2014.
My research shows the relevance of commemoration to wider economic, political, and social developments impacting residents in post-industrial U.S. cities. By providing a lens into how citizens use diverse commemorative activities to drive different modes of production over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this research holds broader impacts for scholarship on larger national trends in urban development. While my project utilizes theoretical framework and methodology of American Studies, it also contributes to such disciplines as Memory Studies, Cultural Anthropology, and Digital Humanities.