Oral History as Evidence: Planning Histories and the Documentation of Erasure

Authors: Hilary Malson*, University of California - Los Angeles
Topics: Urban and Regional Planning, Qualitative Methods, Urban Geography
Keywords: Oral history, research methods, urban planning, black geographies, urban geography, urban renewal, erasure, evidence
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 5:00 PM / 6:40 PM
Room: 8229, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


How do we measure the impact of urban renewal? In this paper, I argue that oral histories must be considered as a primary means of evaluating the scope and impact of urban renewal. This arises for several reasons. First and foremost, reading the black absented spatial presence created through state erasure necessitates turning to the counter-documentation of the rebel archive (McKittrick 2006, Lytle Hernandez 2017). The photographs, community newspapers, and fragments of ephemera preserved in activist’s attics and church basements document the histories of communities in transition, yet many silences in those records prevail. Human memory – particularly of people referenced in the rebel archive – can fill in those archival gaps (Gilliland and Halilovich 2017). Additionally, experiences of displacement and dispossession often inform how descendent generations are connected to place, and oral histories uniquely offer a means of incorporating their perspectives into the scope of urban renewal (Roberts 2018). While I think from Southwest, Washington, D.C. as my primary case study of urban renewal, and draw from original research conducted for the Smithsonian Institution in 2016 and 2017, I make reference to secondary cases beyond D.C. to more critically examine this site (Mukhija 2010). Doing so illuminates the specificities of this geography, such as the distinctions of race and space at the border of the North and South; perhaps more importantly, it calls attention to the multiple scales of urban renewal by highlighting how federal policy was adapted at the local levels to meet distinct powerful interests.

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