- Maxwell Street: Writing and Thinking Place by Tim Cresswell
Maxwell Street is about two things at once. On one hand, it is about a specific empirical case of a historical compact market district in Chicago, Illinois. On the other, it is about the nature of place and how one operationalizes the study of it. Professor Tim Cress-well’s new book extends a poetic, artistic sensibility to his slow scholarship in a way that is creative, formally experimenting, and occasionally exhilarating. The book deserves attention. It is inconvenient for me, then, to also write that geographers working within contemporary conversations about place should in my view read it with a cautious eye. Cresswell’s approach to place is at odds with where many in the discipline have been moving over the more-than-a-decade during which he has been developing this project. I suspect this will reduce the ultimate impact of the text; however, I celebrate both its relative epistemic openness and its formal and aesthetic ambition.
The text is broken into three sections. The first, “writing place,” is a relatively brief discussion of writing as a method for coming to know place. “Writing” here is defined capaciously; it includes walking through, participating in, exploring archives regarding, sitting and watching, making lists about, as well as the process of producing text meant for a reader. Cresswell is chasing an idea of place-method which is both ethnographic and poetic. I find the argument for this kind of methodological bricolage generally persuasive. However, there is a current of place-as-particularism—a focus on finding the truly authentic aspects of a grounded, specific place—in these pages that sometimes gives me pause. It is also the case that in making room for the poetic, Cresswell seems to downplay structured data from the social and physical sciences; these are not explicitly excised, but they are decentered to the point of seeming marginal.
The second section (“market/place”) attempts to put this method to use in its exploration of the market district historically centered on West Maxwell Street. Cresswell makes great use of the interplay between archival materials and his own lived observations. His selection of historical photographs and artefacts is both beautiful and informative. He mines a kaleidoscopic array of written and visual records to reveal a sedimentary history of the market district across different moments. The historical arc of the market district is compelling and alive in this telling. Two eras in particular seem especially well drawn. [End Page 275] The first is an early 20th century period in which the market flourished as a kind of polyglot [im]migrant experience; the second is a post-expressway and post- urban-renewal decline in which artifacts of past grimy glories are found again as part of a failing resistance to contemporary redevelopment. The interlinkages are beautifully drawn.
The third section of the book (“thinking place”) is a kind of guided diary for place theory: it contains many pages of (excellent) long block-quotes framed with a light touch by the author’s own thinking about place theory and its application to Maxwell Street. Prof. Cresswell completed his doctorate under the supervision Yi-Fu Tuan in the early 1990s, and his approach to place theory—paralleled by contemporary Wisconsin graduates like Paul Adams—very much reflects a contemporary take on the humanistic and phenomenological tradition that Tuan (1977) and Relph (1976) elegantly articulate.
Here, my underlying differences with the author became more explicit. I must digress slightly to put my cards on the table: my own key intellectual antecedents regarding place are in Deborah Martin’s work on place-based social movements (cf. Martin 2003) and also in the late career works of Doreen Massey (cf. 2005cf. 2007). I have spent much of the last decade writing on place in this vein (cf. Pierce et al. 2011, Pierce and Martin 2015, Pierce et al. 2016, Davine et al. 2017, Allen et al. 2019). Massey argues for a notion...