Memory of the City

“Versos al paso” intervention on pedestrian crossings in Madrid, by the Boa Mistura group and Madrid City Council. Photograph: Carolina Castañeda (2020).

When I visit my ninety-year-old grandmother, I hugely enjoy the trips we take back to mid-20th century Gijón thanks to her memories. Still as lucid as ever, her detailed descriptions and her sometimes biased recollections allow me to understand the atmospheres, spaces and heartbeat of a city that’s no longer the same as it was when I was a child or a teenager, and has certainly nothing left in common with the expanding industrial metropolis she once knew.

The power of memory lets us travel, either ourselves or through the eyes of others, through time and space, savouring little experiences that connect us with the intangible dimension of the city, the heritage which, due to its very immateriality, seems to fade away very easily. Indeed, that disintegration over time is comparable to that of the bisemic phrases the Boa Mistura group painted on the pedestrian crossings of Madrid, which in their day went viral on the social media and are now gradually beginning to fade. In physical terms, they are fragile, ephemeral traces, but emotionally they are indelible.

The narrative of our cities is not complete without reference to those things that have been lost with the passage of time, or even without the rhythms, the atmospheres – in short, the living, sociocultural experience – of activities past and present. In this regard, the city becomes a kind of palimpsest in which these crucial, identitary, but also intermittent, aspects constitute the mass of its memory, a heritage made up of a collage of scenes: workers leaving the factories in industrial zones now reconverted into residential estates, fishing activity in harbours that are now marinas, trains chugging into stations that are now museums or shopping malls, the flea market in the square now occupied by influencers, the old pharmacy now transformed into a designer bar.

In these times of strange seclusion, self-imposed tranquillity, and urban scenes reminiscent of a disaster movie, the essence of each city seems not to have disappeared. It’s as if an echo of normal life lives on like some ghostly appendage. The everyday activity of the street, of social life, has now moved into people’s homes, spontaneously bursting forth from time to time from windows, balconies and roof terraces – which are precisely the thresholds separating our private domain from the street. So is it the city that shapes our character and experiences over time, or is it the essence that lies at the heart of each individual which gives urban space its meaning?

Postscript: I first had the idea of writing this article a few weeks ago, when I was thinking of my grandmother up in Asturias. Given the circumstances, my meditations have taken on a whole new significance. It’s funny how provisional situations seem to give meaning to earlier preoccupations. This is therefore no longer just a text about my grandmother and urban recollections.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
(Gijón, 1984) Doctora Arquitecta formada en la Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, la Universidade da Coruña y la Università degli Studi di Ferrara, desarrolla su actividad como investigadora en la ETSAM-UPM en el ámbito del patrimonio cultural. Colaboradora habitual y miembro de INCUNA y TICCIH-España, su actividad más relevante se centra en el estudio y difusión del patrimonio industrial arquitectónico.

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