This project has been made possible by a grant from the Creative Arts Council of Brown University.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A slice of time?

In an intentional set up, I ended my last post with the phrase:
in the temporal cross-section, or slice, of the year 1876.
The idea of a cross-section, or slice, of time is an attractive visual conception-- it fulfills our desire to see the unseen, conjuring up images that range from a scientific dissection revealing the knowledge of a body's insides to a delicious slice of pie, which again involves a view onto the gooey, sugary inside and gaining an understanding of how it is put together. But it can suggest that this slice exists independently of other times. In other words, in reinforces the idea of linear time, where past, present and future exist in a progressive and independent relationship to one another. This concept functions well enough for some purposes, but is not adequate in understanding the way that we experience the world. Our experience of the world, particularly in this case of place, is one where time is cyclical and interwoven; our memory function constantly challenges linear time by bringing pasts into presents, old buildings stand next to new (as Laurent Olivier reminds us, although the Arcade might have been built in the nineteenth century it is also a 21st century building by virtue of its existence in the present), and my experience of the building is defined by the interdependence of the present and the past as I delve into archives and seek out memories.

These theoretical reflections stem from when my first interviewee, Marianne, was recalling the types of shops that defined the Arcade and the surrounding area to her. This was very soon after I had been looking at and thinking about the advertisements from the Hand-Book. It was a strong reminder of exactly the way in which  I am caught up in a complex interplay between the pasts and presents of the building (futures too if you consider the hopes or thoughts on the possibilities for the Arcade's next phase of life or my plans for the development of this project).

Marianne's engagements with and memories of the building were primarily in the 1970s and 1980s when she was a student at RISD. It was a place she would go to treat herself to a coffee and a snack, and she recalls the first floor being dominated by places that served food ("they had the best cookies at the Arcade...that was what I used to go for...the gigantic chocolate chip...that was a treat.") with a different feel to the upper levels. In the period before the mall, downtown was the place to do your shopping, and Marianne recalled that "it was almost as if you had Thayer Street in one building" but more "like a well rounded marketplace". She also described the specific character of the Arcade shops:

One of the first things that came up in our conversation was the impression that the space made on her:

Marianne made a comment similar to the observation I made in a previous post about the Arcade being dwarfed by the buildings that have grown up around it. But despite her description of a "canyon", she feels that the Arcade retains it's grandeur upon entering- humans are still dwarfed by its scale, but not so much so that it is overwhelming.

This observation about the difference between Weybosset and Westminster streets is something I notice still. When I was there on the same day that I talked to Marianne, I had noted down that Westminster street always seems a little more populated than Weybosset. Marianne commented that this reflects the sight lines from the intersection at the Turk's Head; from here, there is a straight vista down Westminster Street, but the Arcade is invisible on the Weybosset side because of the way the road bends.

One of the most interesting things to hear from Marianne was that she remembered there being stories about the columns of the Arcade. Later in our conversation she specifically recalled reading aProJo (Providence Journal) article about the breaking of one column. Turns out that this article is by none other than Brown University's own Robert P. Emlen, University Curator and senior lecturer in the AmCiv department-- one of the people I have been intending to get in touch with about this project. Marianne's knowledge of this story and the article indicate that there continues to be interest in the stories surrounding the Arcade that have been associated with it in the secondary archival sources I have come across.

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