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Narrative Archeology: Tales of Place in the Digital Age

by Emily Hanssen Arent Sep 26, 2012
Journalist Krissy Clark uses technology to share the stories that shape a place.

“The more that we understand about the places that we move through each day, the more care we take in those places, and the more care we take in the world.”

KRISSY CLARK IS A narrative archaeologist. As a journalist and public radio reporter in San Francisco, she has spent the last few years curating a series of location-based storytelling projects that give a sense of meaning to the places that people pass through casually on a daily basis. She brings stories and histories to the surface that were, until now, locked in these locations like “geologic strata”.

Through the use of technology, Krissy investigates and shares the way that people are shaped by the locations they inhabit and, conversely, how people and their stories shape each location. And it all started when she was driving across the desert in Utah.

She claims that she was driving alone, feeling slightly delirious, when she spotted an isolated, abandoned-looking cabin on the side of the road. And as a journalist with a love for narrative storytelling, she was instantly drawn to this place, curious about who had lived there, and when, and why. She says she had an overwhelming urge to reach out and click on the cabin like a hyperlink. She wanted to know more.

Of course, nowadays, this is possible. She admits that people can already click on a location in their iPhone for instant access to Wikipedia articles, restaurant recommendations, and user generated content and reviews about nearly any location. But this wasn’t what she wanted to know. She wanted to hear the story of this place. “A place is more than that,” she says. “There are the human dramas, the personal, and political, and economic forces that shape a place and its people, and these are the sorts of stories that journalists tell every day.”

Her projects have taken many forms but most recently she has released a story map of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. With the help of an organization called StoryCorps, which helps Americans share their personal stories about the unique joys, loves, disappointments, and challenges of their lives, Krissy pinpointed exact locations on the map, and recorded spoken stories from people for which these locations were meaningful, either personally or through their family history. Each story is marked with a red balloon that’s clickable and instantly brings a story to life. Now, the next time I’m in New York City, I won’t be able to walk past Foley Square without being reminded of the couple who recorded a story about why this exact location is meaningful to them.

View Festival of Ideas – StoryCorps (no numbers) in a larger map

There are an infinite number of stories to be told, but so many of them are locked up in books, in libraries, in archives, says Krissy. And in many cases, these stories can be locked within a family, where they’re famous among its members but never shared outside of family gatherings. “I want to drape them over the landscape,” she says.

I was reminded of Krissy’s project during a long walk to Jaffa with my roommate. It was the first evening of Rosh Hashanah, and while Jewish families in their best clothes walked up the sidewalks to family dinners that mark the beginning of the High Holy Days, we walked south out of Tel Aviv in our jeans.

Jaffa is where it all began, where Muslims and Christians and Jews have lived together for centuries in times of peace and in times of tension. It’s where violent Arab uprisings in the 1920’s scared communities of Jews north to establish a tiny suburb called Tel Aviv. And it’s where, decades later, Jewish uprisings and the Israeli War for Independence forced large portions of the Arab population out of their homes, or caused them to flee voluntarily (depending on who’s telling the story.)

It’s a walk by the sea peppered with mosques, churches, Israeli flags, and a memorial to a gruesome suicide bombing. And I wonder how one of Krissy’s projects would work in this country. Where places are crammed with competing narratives, where people tell their ancestors’ stories as though they lived them, where stories seem to run like blood in people’s veins.

It’s where, in the course of a week, you will meet people who speak the heaviest words of racism you’ve ever heard in real life, words that make you feel as though you’re watching their mouths move in slow motion, words that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. And in the same week, it’s where you’ll meet people with so much bright eyed hope for peace that it tricks you into thinking that this elusive and much-hoped for moment will be arriving momentarily.

I imagine a multitude of multicolored bubbles hanging over each corner of this city, infinite versions of the same story, each claiming to be more accurate than the last. And it makes me want to keep digging.

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