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79 Chapter Three Contesting Public Memory Neighborhood borders are but one component in the complex construction of individual perceptions of community identity. The expression of neighborhood borders within the oral history interview frames distinct spatial identities, but the construction of place includes much more than the act of drawing borders. Following his inquiry into the understanding of neighborhood boundaries and spatial identities, Jim Wallace progressed into the realm of meaning as he investigated various aspects of the genius loci. In the narrative reconstruction of a sense of place, the interviewer poses questions in order to gain insight into the informant’s system of encoded signs and symbols and attempts to “decipher or decode space.”1 The neighborhood once known as “Craw” or “Bottom” now exists only in memory, but the act of communicating life stories and remembrances of the neighborhood in the present transforms individual memory into a shared communal entity. When individual experiences and perceptions are absorbed by the shared memory of the collective, combined with predominant versions of historical memory, the result is the formation of a collection of knowledge primarily based on public memory. However, the presence and intervention of the ethnographer somewhat problematize the exploration of public memories by altering and shaping the content , tone, and direction of the constituent narratives. Wallace chose each individual to interview for the project because of his or her connection to the neighborhood. Interviews often commenced with questions establishing the relationship of the individual with the neighborhood’s history: “Now, where in Craw did your family live?” Often interviewees responded to this introductory question with brief narrative descriptions of childhood homes in Craw, leading people to mention details like the lack of electricity and running water, or the use of outdoor privies while they were growing up. This 80 CRAWFISH BOTTOM line of questioning usually yielded some details regarding the individual life histories of the informants. Following his inquiries into the individual’s past personal relationship with the neighborhood, Wallace often proceeded down a list of people, places, and events— neighborhood symbols, icons, and personalities assembled from his extensive preliminary research and augmented with each interview. He hoped that his mention of a particular business establishment or individual would trigger relevant memories and find congruence in his informant’s cultural frames of reference. If Wallace’s question connected with associations with a particular sign or symbol situated within the informant’s system of memory, he adjusted the line of questioning accordingly. When that topic had run its course, he would resume listing places, names, and events relating to the neighborhood . Certain symbolic representations from that list consistently emerged as shared components of the community’s public memory. Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage states that “collective memories, like personal memory, are constructed, not simply reproduced.”2 This chapter explores the construction of the symbolic components that served to perpetuate this community’s sense of place in memory . Along the way, it examines the interviewer’s role in the construction of oral history narratives. “WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER?” Early in each of his 1991 interviews, Jim Wallace would pose some variation of the following question: “What are your earliest remembrances of Craw or Bottom?” In theory, this open-ended question allowed his informant to begin the interview with an initial statement relatively unmediated by the presence of the interviewer. Responses often began with the informant’s description of impressions from childhood, which would segue into a nostalgic tribute to the closeness and cohesiveness of the Craw/Bottom community. Mary Helen Berry’s response focused directly on her earliest memory of the neighborhood and quickly transitioned into a commentary on strong community ties: Wallace: What is your earliest remembrance of growing up in Bottom? Berry: Well, the first thing I remember, there was no automobiles in our area. It was all horse-and-buggies. The Contesting Public Memory 81 people there were poor people, but everybody looked after each other. And my mother had to work and I had to stay in homes of other people, but I was a child of the neighborhood.3 With some exceptions, the neighborhood remained very poor throughout its existence. Wallace’s interviewees frequently referred to the daily struggle against poverty and to the community’s role in helping families and individuals to overcome. White former resident Jo Beauchamp, for example, focused on the difficulties his family experienced while living in the neighborhood: Wallace: When you think about your earliest remembrances of the Bottom, or of that area...


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