A R.U.B. (Review of Urban Books) of:
Adrienne L. Burk. Speaking for a Long Time: Public Space & Social Memory in Vancouver. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
In this book, geographer Adrienne L. Burk describes the history of three counter-hegemonic monuments in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside: Marker of Change, which memorializes the Montreal Massacre; the CRAB Park Boulder, which is dedicated “in honour of the spirt of the people murdered in the Downtown Eastside” (57); and a pole in Oppenheimer Park called Standing with Courage, Strength and Pride, which is a “Memorial Pole to our sisters and brothers who have died unnecessarily in the downtown eastside and to those who have survived” (78).
The first chapter of the book provides a narrative description of how each monument was conceived and created. In the second chapter, Burk discusses various ways in which such counter-hegemonic monuments can be understood from various theoretical perspectives. In the final chapter, Burk applies the theoretical approaches introduced in the second chapter to explaining how the specific monuments explored in this book were created by often marginalized communities, and how the monuments currently function to create “a politics of visibility” (178ff) that makes them truly counter-hegemonic.
I found two aspects of Speaking for a Long Time particularly strong. First, Burk provides a detailed narrative description of how the monuments were created in the 1980s and 1990s, based on archival sources and personal interviews with the people involved in each of the projects. This aspect of the book appeals to my habitual thought processes as a historian – descriptive narrative is foundational to my discipline. Second, her use of theoretical constructs as means of explaining historical, geographical and sociological phenomena was well crafted. She took both a broad, widely applicable approach in chapter two, and grounded it well in her specific examples in chapter three.
I will take two important ideas away from the theoretical discussion in this book. First, Burk argues “that public space exists in three domains,” which she enumerates as “the imaginative,” “the discursive,” and “the tangible, physical” domains (96-97). This might have some bearing on my upcoming thesis project on public space at World’s Fairs in Vancouver and Seattle. The second idea expressed in this book that will influence my thinking is that monuments can engage in a “politics of visibility,” that can run counter to the control of public space often wielded by powerful groups. The emancipatory effect of this counter-hegemonic possibility might have significance in Victoria, with its profusion of official monuments. I have already suggested on this blog one way in which monuments in Victoria can create such counter-narratives, in my discussion of the Signs of Lekwungen project.
There were a few minor problems with Speaking for a Long Time: Burk’s selection criteria for which monuments to investigate were not made as clear as I would have liked, she didn’t deal with contrary evidence or counter examples to her claims, and the use of citations was inconsistent throughout the book (both in-text and footnote style citations were used). All these problems are minor and forgivable in a book that is both empirically rich and analytically dense. I unreservedly recommend it to scholars working in fields related to public space, and to citizens who wish to understand how monuments function.