Expanding Humanity: Seeing Traces

During our last class, I clarified that our main goal this semester is to “Learn from Lexington” as outsiders/students and present our research on what we have learned to the public at the end of the semester. We are exploring the history, culture, and stories of the market and need to be upfront and ethical in our work. We do not want to cause or solve problems, or even offer solutions or make interventions or changes. We want to explore, document, and learn and then share with the public.

In class we discussed the history and role of zines. We learned from Chole Arnold’s A Brief History of Zines in Mental Floss (November 19, 2016) that the first zines were science fiction fanzines from the 1930s, which speaks to the role of zines in sub/counter cultures in the U.S. The community of science fiction zine writers and readers even successfully fought to save the Star Trek television show from being cancelled in 1968. We also discovered, by following links and confirming with Lindsey Loeper in Special Collections, that UMBC holds an extensive archive of these early science fiction and fantasy zines. There is power in building community around zines as seen by their role in punk and riot grrl subcultures of the 1980s and 1990s. Jenna Wortham’s New York Times article from February 28, 2017 Why the Internet Didn’t Kill Zines explores that power in today’s oversaturated media culture. Zines also connect to the (tenuous) survival of print in a city like Baltimore where a digital divide (inequitable access to digital culture) still exists.

Shakar Mujukian (producer of a zine about queer and trans Armenians) told Wortham via email “just because technology can fully replace something doesn’t mean it should” and described zines as the “precursors to personal blogs” (which have been in decline over the past decade). Here’s an especially relevant section from Wortham’s article:

Devin N. Morris, who edits and publishes 3 Dot Zine, told me that he sees self-publishing as a political and radical act. He’s a young queer artist from Baltimore, and the zines he creates reflect that experience and create a historical narrative that otherwise would be ignored. For him, the act of creating a zine is more about defining his reality on his terms and legitimizing it than it is about the novelty of making indie media and distributing it. It was a sentiment I heard from almost every zine creator I spoke to. Morris, who recently hosted an indie-press fair at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, said that zines have a way of encouraging people to have “inspiring interactions in real life.” He described a hunger to physically interact beyond simple likes or direct messages. Social apps weren’t made to inspire that desire; they were created so that there would be no need.

Wortham’s last line is especially relevant for the goals of the “Learning from Lexington” project: “The internet is especially adept at compressing humanity and making it easy to forget there are people behind tweets, posts and memes.” Indeed, urban redevelopment projects are also “especially adept at compressing humanity” and forgetting that there are actual people attached to even an old an imperfect building (like the LM). The “human connection” comes from taking a blank space built in 1952 and giving it a sense of place from years of interaction and use. The Baltimore Traces project is committed to documenting these traces left on the landscape and to critically engaging the past as a productive way to think about the future of a city. When we went down below the Market into the Tubbs night club and deeper down into the catacombs, we were in a sense going back in time by inhabiting a place long gone… but not forgotten.

Both the series of public history zines the students are working on and the podcast they will create from the voices of individuals who are kind enough to share their time and their stories with us will be a pause in the movement of these traces of the past through the act of cultural documentation. That is why students are reading Folklife & Fieldwork: An Introduction to Cultural Documentation (American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, shared by Michelle Stefano) for our next class.

The real goal of this course, and public humanities courses in general, is to expand humanity and to make sure we never forget the people behind the traces written on a place. While expanding humanity may seen lofty and huge… it is really only another way to say that we want to learn… and then share… some traces people left on a place. This semester that place is the Lexington Market. And the fact that the building will be torn down within the next three to five years, does not mean that it does not matter. There will still be many traces left behind. We hope to add to the collection…

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