Travels: Empty Places in the Heart

By Eva-Maria Simms

A few years ago I walked with a group of older neighbors through the inner city neighborhood of the Hill District in Pittsburgh. The Hill was once a thriving African American quarter, but has fallen on hard times since a large section was razed during “Urban Renewal” in the late 50’s and destroyed during the riots after the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968. Today there are empty lots and dilapidated buildings and streets that once led downtown but end now at a large parking lot built for a sports arena. As we walked the sidewalks past the empty lots, the neighbors began to talk about what was once there. In their minds, they saw small tailor or cobbler shops, places where the bookies did their business, jazz clubs and restaurants, doctor’s offices and grocery stores, porches where everyone used to sit and watch street life unfold or listen to the “Inner Sanctum” radio show. The barbershops and the jitney station are still visible, but hanging on by a thread.

Like gaps between teeth, the empty lots have become commonplace, and usually the neighbors walk past them without notice. But on that day they began to speak about the city of memory which overlays the physical space like a double exposed negative. Together they tried to recreate descriptions about the houses and narratives about the people who once lived there, but after the excited creation of the remembered events there was always a moment of shock: the vivid virtual space of memory stood in such stark contrast to the rubble and weeds that were before us. Where did it all go? Solid structures built out of brick should not vanish like that. And when it goes, what does our memory have to hang on to?

The rift between reality and memory ordinarily creates a sense of nostalgia, particularly if the change in the landscape has not been sudden and radical. We fondly remember the places of our childhood and speak of them with attachment and wonder. But the Hill changed so quickly and thoroughly that it has left the inhabitants breathless. Deeper than nostalgia is the loss of faith in the solidity of places, in the reliability of the earth under our feet, which happens when the devastation is too great. Then the weave of memory has nothing to hold on to, and the heart creates memories that hang in tatters from certain places in the landscape.

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