On Susan Landers's 'Franklinstein': queer / neighborhood / preservation
It’s often the closing thoughts of critical works in and around urban history that show the author at their most utopian. Planning and landscape historian Dolores Hayden’s 1995 The Power of Place makes an argument for the importance of cultural landscape preservation that documents “ethnic and women’s history,” which she refers to as the “missing mainstream experience.” The book is premised on the idea that the preservation of great buildings retains only the cultural history of people and practices that had the influence and capital to commission or build those great buildings. The preservation of great buildings, she argues, often reproduces the invisibility of marginalized groups by privileging the dominant cultural context that produced the buildings over the sociocultural practices of groups excluded from access to shaping their built environment. In the book’s final moment, she makes a bid for the importance of these “mainstream” but nonnormative histories, noting that, “[g]rasping the contingent nature of the past can break the tyranny of the present.”
I understand Hayden to be using “contingent” in a way most represented by its second definition: “Liable to happen or not; of uncertain occurrence or incidence.” For Hayden, renarrating the past is useful in large part because it is a means of reshaping the container that holds dissonant histories within the present. It is the dissonances produced by competing claims to city’s built environment and its history, and how those claims conflict, that makes cultural preservation necessary. But Hayden’s use of “contingent” is more usefully in conversation with its first definition: “Touching each other, in contact; tangential.” Narratives of the past, as representative aggregations of former presents, are made up of things that touch. To be part of the past is to be touching some of its other parts. The work of cultural preservation is both to bring present bodies into contact with representations of and material from the past (Hayden is thinking largely about public art projects) and to note how bodies have come into contact (or have resisted coming into contact) with one another, and with their built environment. Representing the histories of people and groups with primary ties to rebuilt, disinvested, or gentrified built environments that occlude their participation requires other strategies that allow present and past to touch. Hayden points to nonbuilt forms of preservation as a primary means of recognizing the sociospatial histories of marginalized groups. Her main examples are public art, performances, and events. Work in contemporary documentary poetics extends and complicates these practices by offering a textual record of contingent pasts. These textual representations share with public art the ability to reshape the histories that are visible, legible and fragmented within their built environments.
Susan Landers’s 2016 collection of poems, Franklinstein, or the Making of a Modern Neighborhood, is a preservationist project that details where bodies have come into or avoided contact in shared presents and across time in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown. Landers’s collection is a work of documentary poetics in dialogue with texts like Brenda Coultas’s A Handmade Museum or Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down, each of which use field and archival research and interviews to recount, preserve, and trouble the history of a place or set of places, while resisting the formal linearity of telling a “story.” As Landers explains in the book’s prologue, Franklinstein began as a writing-through of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. While she undertook this process, the church she grew up in, in Germantown, was closing and she went back to visit. The visit raised the questions that became the arc of the book.
In the poems, Landers negotiates a set of competing and interrelated portraits of Germantown — as the precolonization home of the Lenni Lenape, as the site of Revolutionary War battles and encampments, as the context for nineteenth century textile factories, and as a place reshaped by the disinvestment caused by mid-twentieth century suburbanization and white flight, through which Landers’s white family was one of the very few white families that remained in the neighborhood. Against this background, Landers offers a contingent portrait of Germantown in the years she was researching the book (2012–2015) in an effort to preserve both elements of its cultural history and the fragmentation and dissonances within the available record. Franklinstein is a metapreservational project, concerned with the procedures, lapses and gaps of cultural preservation, while also invested in preserving.
It is also a book about the strangeness of living with a fragmentary history of a place that is part of living in and with and outside of its present. (It is important to the book that while Landers visited Germantown during the years she was writing the book, she had not lived there since childhood, and did not live there in the course of writing the poems.) The poem “It is with Considerable Difficulty that I Remember the Original Era of My Being” closes:
I’ve come a long way to come back again to the very
beginning — the beginning that is with us through all
of our living — the beginning that is a place or a site — a site
of linoleum and leaded glass — of remnants and transoms
and babies — a site where a phone rings.
From its title, the poem emphasizes its focus as one of era, of place-in-time. In the final stanza, time is sometimes a location; the “very beginning” to which the speaker comes “back again.” It is a past that is possible to visit in a poem, a beginning, as of a book, but also of a street. If you reread the book, or walk down the street more than once, returning to that beginning allows you to be contingent with the past, to be in the site of having been there before. Landers returns to Germantown as she visits, but also as she records its past events and object world (ringing phone, transoms, leaded glass). The “long way” that Landers travels is what the book records. The book is the record of her engagement with the intersecting and overlapping Germantowns of her past, which change as she takes them up as cultural preservation site and personal archive.
The poem “It Has a Place for Me as Living” follows the preface and the prologue and begins the large portion of the book that focuses on Germantown. It ends with these lines:
Where addicts stole drainpipes for copper for crack.
Where someone once told me I couldn’t be from.
A place of train tracks and plane trees and vacants and trolleys.
Where people make history and witness or forget —
or forget and re-write or make history.
Many of the poems in the collection document the objects that were part of the Germantown of Landers’s childhood (many of which continue to be part of its present): ringing phones and leaded glass, and train tracks, plane trees, vacants (buildings) and trolleys. She uses the objects to set her childhood memories against a broader (and also importantly fragmentary) framing of Germantown’s present and its competing pasts. But she also takes up the various forms of refusal that are involved, for her, in claiming Germantown. The poem’s title situates Landers in Germantown as a fact of her living, a fact that others have tried to deny, noting the neighborhood as a place: “[w]here someone once told me I couldn’t be from.” Because so much of the book thinks about place as the overlay of location and experience, being a place is bound up in having a place for the people who live there, or who have lived there in the past. The more time Landers spends thinking through Germantown, the more she understands it as contingent, as touching her.
The contingent touch of the past echoes medievalist and queer theorist Carolyn Dinshaw’s interest in the affectively charged asynchronicity of amateur historical practice, the sort of practice Landers undertakes. The present as Dinshaw describes it is an inherently dissonant experience, containing and sprawling into other time frames that are made contingent by the present’s materiality. Dinshaw reads the practices of amateur medievalists in the interest of understanding how a practice of turning toward the past that seeks to productively blur and crowd the present might help articulate the fissures in a shared present. Dinshaw describes that delightful and purposeful blurring as the seeking out of a queer behavior of time. That behavior is queer because it appears as a correction to the normative, and exceeds the formal behavior of a normative conception of past and present. (That the past might, for instance, stay firmly in the nonmaterial domain of things that have already happened, and the present in the material frame of what’s happening currently.) Dinshaw describes her interest in what she refers to as a “public, communicable present” and in other moments, as a “crowded now.” That crowded present offers “different time frames or temporal systems colliding in a single moment of now.” The now that interests Dinshaw is often the now of research and reading and the way that they touch the past. The possibility of a shared experience of the present requires an attention to these collisions.
The way the present lapses and swells in Landers’s contingent portrait of Germantown suggests that the queer crowding of historical practice is a behavior of urban space. The work of cultural preservation queers the present by asking it to expand and contain additional voices and experiences. The present of cities is always crowded. The cultural preservation for which Hayden advocates draws into that crowded present a subset of the marginalized narratives that have previously touched its built environment. Landers’s poems display how a queer experience of the selectively adhesive relationship between present and past is part of American cities and the practice of living in them. In Landers’s Germantown, doing the sort of cultural preservation that Hayden describes, a preservation focused on histories that are less visible in the built environment, is a process of looking for queer uses of space and time. If most urban cultural histories are not going to be preserved in the built environment, what Hayden advocates is in Dinshaw’s terms an eroding of the now, an expansion of the versions of the past that touch the present.
The subtitle of Franklinstein, “or, the Making of a Modern American Neighborhood,” echoes Stein’s The Making of Americans and suggests an accounting of how the neighborhood came to be, as it might inform narratives of the genesis of other neighborhoods. But there is no preserved record of all of the parts of that making, so Landers engages in the process of writing the book because it is the only context in which she can make her Germantowns touch. The poems are crucial to the preservation of those experiences and practices. But the book also offers a second sort of making — the creation or invention of Germantown from its lapsed and conflicting histories, a reparative Germantown that might reshape the version that exists in the present, and in the future. A central tenant of historic preservation is that “the urban past should be connected to the urban future.” For many urban pasts, the primary site of that connectivity must be in forms other than buildings — in murals, in monuments, in exhibitions, in performance, in poems. In Franklinstein’s archive of Germantown, Landers populates an urban past against a narrative of disinvestment, against the narrative that there is nothing (left) to preserve. As she does so, she frames the practice of turning toward a future that like its past must recognize its contingency, by leaning the poems against the possibility that it could be or become foreclosed.
3. “contingent, adj. and n.,” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017.