Hampden Heritage

Archaeology, History, and Heritage in Central Baltimore

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Heritage for Sale

This post is an excerpt from a paper I presented last week at the Annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

Last summer, Bob Chidester and I participated in a public history event at a Baltimore retirement community. During the hour long talk, we discussed the history of Hampden, a central Baltimore neighborhood and mill village, along with our plans to conduct archaeology there. Two other speakers, one a local amateur historian, and the other –the moderator – a retired local schoolteacher participated in the talk with us. We discussed the neighborhood’s history as a mill town. We recounted how it developed from a series of mill-owned villages in the 1820’s, through its boom years in the 1870’s and into the hardscrabble era of the mid-twentieth century. Bob talked at length about the strike of 1923, an incident that is either left out of Hampden’s history or blamed for forcing mill owners to move their facilities to the South, where cheaper labor could be found.

Toward the end of the hour, we fielded questions from the crowd. The discussion turned to the topic of company-owned worker housing in the mill town, and the system of paternalism, or welfare capitalism. I made a comment that the paternalist system robbed people of freedom by linking their economic wellbeing to their good behavior in the mills, a fact that has not been lost on Hampden historians. I have presented this argument a number of times without much controversy, so I was a little surprised when the moderator came out with a rather angry attack against it. Instead of my class analysis, she asserted something to the effect of “The mill owners were kind and gentle leaders who built this town and you have no business defaming their character.” Such a statement, is not, of course merely a statement, but the instantiation of a particular, middle class discourse about Hampden history: one that says that the history of Hampden ultimately resides in its relic mills, and not its living people.

In moments such as this, narratives about the past come to bear on contemporary politics. Hampden may have roots in its working class history, but histories that stress the agency of the middle class have for some time elided those of the working class. In part, this is because the early documenters of Hampden’s history were middle class newspaper reporters or official business chroniclers. But, it is also to due to an unmistakable silence, or silencing of alternatives. More recently, developers have appropriated the notion of heritage in Hampden in order to amplify sales in a booming housing market. They have cooperated with the local merchant’s association to create a historic district centered on Hampden’s commercial Avenue, 36th street. Merchants are currently lobbying for legislation that would make chain stores illegal on the avenue, even though they are conscious that it will probably remove basic services from the area.

History and heritage, then, become no small problem for people in places like Hampden. As sociologist Sharon Zukin notes in her 1995 book The Culture of Cities, historic designations can raise the cost of living in a neighborhood dramatically. University of Texas anthropologist John Hartigan has written about the propensity of working class whites to regard history in terms of people and events in the past, while middle class whites tend to regard it as being related to material culture, particularly houses. In the second formulation, houses are of course also imbued with elevated monetary value because of their possession of a general history. Thus, what was once particular history – the history of working class struggle, or alternately of neighborhood unity– is transformed into a generic kind of history that is assumed to exist in old houses. Places become worth something not because they are associated with a particular person or event, but because they have “something about them,” “character” or “style” that speaks to the aesthetic sensibilities of middle class gentrifiers.

More importantly, history of this kind can be marketed. Archaeologists Yannis Hamilakis and Eleana Yalouri argue that archaeological remains possess symbolic capital, which can be exchanged for actual or monetary capital. Developers have certainly attempted to cash in on the symbolic values of ruins at the multi-million dollar Clipper Mill redevelopment in the nearby neighborhood of Woodberry. Here, they have explicitly used the heritage of a nineteenth century foundry –partially burned in 1996 - as a selling point for their new luxury condominiums. An advertisement for the new development reads as follows:

In 1853, a modest machine plant was born on Woodberry Road, just north of a nameless branch of the Jones Falls at the foot of Tempest Hill. The new plant, coined Union Machine Shops, housed Poole & Hunt's general offices, an iron foundry, erecting and pattern shops, a melting house and stables. Instantly it became the backbone of the Woodberry/Hamden community, employing thousands of men as it grew to become the country's largest machine manufacturing plants.

Today, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Inc. is redeveloping Clipper Mill, creating a new urban corporate campus and upscale residential community.

This kind of marketing simultaneously erases the role of working people in the creation of the neighborhood and hijacks their history as a history of place over people. Notice the language that the ad uses: a machine plant, not a community or a person was "born" in 1853. People who live(ed) in surrounding neighborhoods – people with a real stake in how redevelopment goes, are dropped from the process.


Blogger Eric said...

Great piece. I have to admit I usually celebrate when projects like Clipper Mill come around just for the fact they're saving heritage rather than tearing it down. But the questions you ask about community do gnaw at me. Do you think this is a hopeless conundrum? Are there any examples around Baltimore of investing in heritage while recognizing and meeting the needs of the community that you can think of?

7:29 AM  
Blogger Dave G. said...

I don't know of any, which is why we're trying to do this heritage program in Hampden. I think that part of the solution has to be getting planners and developers to consider communities - to be good citizens - when they start major development projects. This has to mean creating discourses to counter the ones reify economic progress for the wealthy over community and place over person. This, in turn, means finding a way to encourage silenced members of communities to speak for themselves.

7:03 PM  

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