David Ehrenpreis (Harrisonburg): Activating the Archive

In the years after World War Two, cities throughout the United States applied for generous federal funds to demolish what they identified as »blighted« downtown areas. These »Urban Renewal« projects were implemented across the country and officials consistently linked them with progress and modernity. But their human costs, most notably to African-American communities, where they were most frequently sited, were extraordinarily high. Urban Renewal robbed these citizens of their homes, churches, and businesses, destroying neighborhoods in a particularly violent way but through legal means. Residents were displaced and buildings bulldozed or burned to the ground. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, 125 houses were destroyed on a central downtown tract. Today, these projects are almost completely forgotten, except by the families of those who experienced the displacement firsthand. But the urban landscape clearly shows their impact. To this day, acres that held homes and businesses remain empty parking lots. Examining how Harrisonburg has begun to mark this absence offers lessons applicable to many small cities. Local repositories contained maps, photographs, documents, and newspaper accounts. But how could these archives be »activated,« persuading today’s citizens that such distant events actually warrant commemoration? Traditional scholarship, like my own book, exhibitions, and articles can be less effective in this arena. So a working group of local residents, faculty, and students adopted different strategies in a series of programs and classes that have taken place over several years. These include: staging a musical that chronicles residents’ experiences based on primary sources and interviews, mapping out and physically marking the original locations of demolished homes, and designing possible memorials to represent these events. The goal of all these ongoing efforts is to retrieve and transmit a difficult history that was not only forgotten but invisible.