Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Methodological Framework for Interpreting Ordinary Landscapes: Lexington, Kentucky's Courthouse Square

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Methodological Framework for Interpreting Ordinary Landscapes: Lexington, Kentucky's Courthouse Square

Article excerpt

A historical marker on the back side of the Courthouse Square in Lexington, Kentucky, at the intersection of North Upper and West Short streets, refers to the site's place in a historical geography of slavery redolent of southern antebellum practice more widely considered (Figure 1). The marker is fairly new, having been emplaced in 2003. The plaque and the site finally acknowledge a long-standing absence, perhaps even a suppression of slavery, race, and racism in the city's public culture. The plaques have helped to restart local conversations about these practices, which linger throughout the city and the region. Those conversations rely, in part, upon the physical or material presence of this space, as well as its visual and spatial order--not only as something from the past but also as a material representation of the past and the present commingled, both looking toward the future. The site is filled with tension, forgotten by many, remembered almost viscerally by some, and inevitably caught in the web of "race relations" in this southern city. It is also part of a landscape that provides an entry into a method for systematically interpreting cultural landscapes in the United States and their place in everyday life without losing sight of the landscape's very particularity: the "basic stuff of human existence" (Meinig 1978, 1186).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In this article I present a methodological framework for addressing U.S. cultural landscapes and an empirical explication of that framework's utility through the example of a racialized landscape, Lexington's Courthouse Square. First, though, I offer some comments on landscapes in general, especially as their description, interrogation, and interpretation draw on the kinds of historical geographical perspectives proffered by D. W. Meinig in his historical geographies of the American experience. (1)

LANDSCAPES OF PLACE AND THE PLACE OF LANDSCAPE

Donald Meinig is perhaps is best known for his four-volume series published under the metatitle The Shaping of America (1986, 1993, 1998, 2004). That series was first outlined in an American Historical Review essay in which Meinig presented his framework for describing the American experience (1978). Although Meinig took great care in his claim to be descriptive, his work is not, in the parlance of the time the prospectus was written, idiographic. What we might call the "empirical details" of Meinig's four volumes were indeed about specific times and specific places (or historical geographies), but the framework itself provides a perspective that transcends those specific places and times even as it relies on them for its existence and its persuasion. In short, Meinig's lesson for historical geographers is, in part, that we can--even should--focus on the "becoming" of specific places in the American experience even as we look at those places as part of a larger imperial impetus of first European and then U.S. conquest and occupation of continental proportions, including the fact that "the U.S. was created by massive aggression against a long succession of peoples" (Meinig 1978, 1196). This humanities-inspired social science rejects the search for universal models even as it relies on a model, albeit an interpretive model that is "not normative but heuristic" and can be seen as encompassing the entirety of the American experience (p. 1198). In Meinig's words,

  It is a view that is at once fundamentally historical and
  geographical. It is a view of America as an ever-changing place, an
  ever-changing congeries of places, an ever-changing structure of
  places, and an ever-changing system of places. These several views of
  places are held together by regarding places as the creations of
  particular peoples working over a period of time in particular
  locations and physical environments that are thereby stamped with a
  distinctive landscape and social character and organized as segments
  of spatial systems, all of which can be examined consistently at
  scales ranging from the local to the global. … 
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