By Michaela Dwyer
There is a book in my office with the words “You are here” on the cover. It was bought in Boston, then an unfamiliar city. I gravitated toward it in the basement of the Harvard Book Store not for the globular shapes and colors on its cover, nor for the title’s reassurance of stability. At the time, the book was actually displayed backwards. “Where am I?” I was thinking. “Where are you?” the back cover answered—answers—back. Between a grid of small, colorful maps are these three words, one falling after the other, like a more wistful Tic-Tac-Toe.
And now I am sitting at my desk, in my office, and to the right of me is this book. I flipped the cover over, so I’m still reading the words “Where are you?” I brought the book to work because Project Change begins in two weeks, and—without giving too much away, as mystery and messiness are hallmarks of the program—we’ve been strategizing how 21 incoming Duke students can document Durham’s geography over the course of the week. Many of these students have never visited the city. We want them to be able to stand at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish and know they’re at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish—literally, physically, as per street signage. But we also want them to take stock of how they got there, what types of places they noticed on the way, the attitudes of the people they encountered. If the students ask a stranger where are you?, what does she say in return? How does she describe her place in the city? Can she describe the city without placing herself in it? What are the contours of the city’s history, as she tells it?
Can we literally, physically, map these tellings, these retellings?
I think about Katie Davis’s “Memory Map,” one of the few written pieces included in You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. Davis, a writer and former Washington, D.C.-based NPR reporter, began producing the original radio series Neighborhood Stories in 1999. She did something simple, but radical at the time: reported stories from Adams Morgan, on the street and around the neighborhood where she’d lived for most of her life. You can hear one, called “Wide Shot,” here.
In “Memory Map,” she talks about being a reporter in Nicaragua after the Revolution. She was looking for the office of the censor. “A Sandinista official pointed north. ‘Go a few blocks and take a left where the big tree used to be before the earthquake.’” Davis got lost and missed the interview because, of course, she wasn’t there before, or during, the earthquake. She “began to use the story as an example of how different it is down south.”
Until her story of difference didn’t hold up. Davis realized her own tendency to “[use] memory as a map.” Back in D.C., years later, she tells friends looking for an Ethiopian restaurant to check out the one “where the post office used to be”—the post office with brass boxes and huge windows. “Yes, but is the food good?” her friends would ask.
I think about whether I do this. I’ve received messages in the past two weeks from a few people, one I’ve never met, who are about to move (back) to Durham. They ask me what my job is like. They ask me to describe the city. I cast myself as narrator. I say, Durham is different than it was in 2008. I can say, the food is good, and list my favorite restaurants. Of course, there is a lot I don’t say.
12 months ago I moved “back” to Durham*. 12 months ago I started working here, and rambled around Durham with 21 incoming Duke students for a week. Each night I went to bed with a head bobbing between threads of a city I’d known for four years in specific and poignant ways—ways that suddenly, in the context of others’ stories, felt severely limited. One month ago I returned to Durham from one month in Ireland and pointed out new construction around the city to my family. There’s the lot on Main St. that will soon house a Marriott. The architects are preserving the brick façade from what used to be McPherson Hospital. For several years prior, more than just the façade still stood. Anyone passing through downtown could see the sky through the abandoned brick building’s negative space, vines blowing in the wind.
But right now it is right now. I am planning an activity that requires students to document a city they’ve never spent time in: to create a map that incorporates, by necessity, histories and memories outside themselves. I’m hoping it’ll both alienate and somehow ground them. I’m hoping it will help them to straddle, in equal part, questions and answers: where are we? and we are here. To point neither to X nor Y, neither Corcoran nor Parrish, exactly, but to the idea of documenting space itself. To point, even with shaky fingers, at how difficult it is, and how unjust it can be, to pin down a common orientation in the first place. What information do we privilege? What, and who, do we leave out? How do we know? Do we know?
*Note: I adopted this retelling style from a piece posted by Adrienne Mathiowetz on Public Radio Exchange (PRX) a few weeks ago.