Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Monday, October 19, 2009

Collective Memories: The Wall of Sorrows, East Cleveland

Wall of Sorrows. From

How social groups remember the history of the city is very important for the historical processes and the making of identity. Collective memory is not given, it is a social constructed notion. The past is known through symbolism, ritualism as well as historiography. Social classes, families, Unions, Armies, associations, all of them have constructed different type of memories. It is individuals who remember, but being located in a specific social group, they carry with them the specific context to recreate the past. Nevertheless, some groups prefer to eliminate the “inconvenient” remembrances.

Maurice Halbwachs shows a stratification of memories, from the religious to the domestic sphere, and from there to various other groups; it seems to exist only one area in human experience that is not rooted in a social structure: the oniric world. Compared to all other human memories, the dreams lack organization, continuity, progression. Dreamers do not recall the past in a coherent manner. Human collaboration and dignity can only emerge in the real presence of others. (Halbwachs & Coser, p. 23)
The autobiographical memory, is the one that compiles one’s personal experience of the past. It also serves to reinforce the bonds between participants who have shared the same or similar experiences. This memory tends to fade away if individuals do not get together over a long period of time. It is possible to stimulate it by readings, gatherings, or graphic and written exhibits.

Wall of Sorrows. From

This is the memory that I would like to emphasize here, as opposed to the historical memory, which is reached through written words, photographs, films, etc, and can be kept alive by commemoration acts and celebrations.
Spatial images play an important role in the collective memory, as place and group interact with each other; every act of the group is translated into spatiality. If extraordinary events are also fitted in this spatiality, the relationship between the group and the place suffers an alteration.
What follows is a critical example of the re-development and re-imaging of urban spaces and the production of urban collective memory.

East Cleveland was once wealthy, in the early 20th Century, they had a street known as “Millionaires Row”. Besides the “mom and pop” businesses that supported the rich, there was the East Cleveland Railway Co. and a division of General Electric Co. As cars and suburban sprawl grew, East Cleveland’s wealthy began leaving; working-class blacks migrating from Cleveland and the South, moved in. By 1980’s, the region’s manufacturing jobs dissapeared. The city was under unemployment and poverty, the buildings once inhabited by the rich shared space with boarded-up businesses and crime became a common every day situation.
An abandoned decaying two stories building at 14748 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, Ohio, in the former area of “Millionaires Row”, is now the Wall of Sorrows, a memorial to young victims of violence. The original design was, obviously, embodied in the materiality of the building; now it is not a famous memorial, an architect’s design, it is a wall with handmade painted plywood signs, drawings, stuffed animals to remember those lost to urban violence. On one side of this wall, there is an announcement “Home of the Memorial Wall of Sorrows”.
The building is between a liquor and a church surrounded by weed; the first floor has been covered in white washed plywood. This empty structure once was home to vandals and drugs dealers. Now, it offers solace to the victims’ relatives and friends. The first signs of collective activity are dated since 2002, when victims’ names were printed onto vynil sheets and then nailed to the plywood. Then, hundreds came to leave their offers; over the time, the names, the murals, the messages covered the whole first floor (about half a block long and more than one story high). The character is solemn, nobody disturbs it, no one bothers the visitors.
“At the cemetery there’s just dirt, just grass. Here, my babies aren’t by themselves. Neither am I.”(Juanita Freeman, whose son and grandson are memorialized on the Wall of Sorrows). (Source Los Angeles Times, page A23 august 13, 2005).
By 2005, the City Council was considering to demolish the building. For the local community, the thought of the wall being destroyed, or hidden or relocated is a cruel one. Because the camaraderie achieved among the families would fade, fewer people would come to visit. And the City cannot afford to help pay for the move or the new installation.
“This is not the history that we want to be selling to investors and developers” Said City councilman Gary Norton Jr. “Death is not what companies want to see”. (Source Los Angeles Times, page A23 august 13, 2005). City officials believe an empty lot would help the community far more than a wall of names, it would be more attractive to potential developers in a city where 15% of the residents are unemployed.
A Cleveland business woman who calls herself Griot Y-Von came to the rescue by offering a new site to host the memorial wall along with an adjoining empty lot that is due to become a community garden. By 2008 the new wall was going up slowly with a small volunteer crew that worked on weekends. Councilman Kevin Conwell said he wasn’t totally on board with the project, at first. He and some of the area residents had concerns that it would become a large scale version of one of those teddy bear and balloon memorials, fastened to telephone poles throughout the inner city. (Building a wall of sorrows, june 12, 2008). Maybe the City Council does not realize that if the names on the wall were increasing since 1990, the real problem does not reside in the building, it resides in the acts of violence that could not be stopped, and I wonder if investors would set eyes on such a dangerous area….
There is a difference between a memorial and a wall of sorrows. The memorial could be a monument, a building, there are also on line virtual memorials. But the wall of sorrows, in the sense it is exposed here, has techtonics and is very difficult to be replaced because of its symbolism. The plaques and boards can be relocated, but not the wall that is powerful in its own simplicity of the names that dominate everything. It provides each sacrificed person a place in history. But even if the bricks are relocated, the relationships established between the building and the victims’ relatives are not so easily altered, as their feelings and thoughts are influenced by the images from these architectural and graphic objects. So, it is understandable that under a menace of demolition, the group will object the authorities’ decision and offer resistance.
“Not only homes and walls persist through the centuries, but also that whole portion of the group in continuous contact with them, its life merged with things. This part of the group is just not interested in what is happening outside its own narrow circle and beyond its immediate horizon. The passivity that the group sees in this portion of itself that remains unconcerned about the passions, hopes, and fears of the outside world reinforces that impression arising from the immobility of things. The same is true for disturbances in smaller groups based on blood, friendship, or love when death, disagreements, or the play of passion and interest intervene. Under the shock of such troubles, we walk the streets and we are surprised to find life going on about us as if nothing had happened”. ( Maurice Halbwachs, 1950)

Wall of Sorrows. From

Halbwachs, Maurice; Coser, Lewis A. On Collective Memory. The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Chapter 4. “Space and the Collective Memory”. 1950
“From East Cleveland, Ohio. When she spoke of his bright smile, his career goals, their heart-to-hear….
(Building a wall of sorrows, june 12,2008)
Huffstutter, P. J. A Decript, Stirring Memorial. Los Angeles Times, page A23, Column One, August 13, 2005
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