Walking and talking: What a walk around a neighborhood can teach us about history, memory and community
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Penn State arts educator Kimberly Powell talks about a “stroll down memory lane,” she means a real walk in a real place, and it’s the walk itself that prompts the memories.“I’m interested in the ways in which walking can be a form of inquiry into the world,” she says. “Walking as storytelling and place-making, how the simple movement of walking affects and produces people’s thinking about their experiences.”
Powell is intrigued by the ways artists use walking to explore the world and their creative responses to it, and also by the use of walks in the social sciences. Anthropologists, for instance, sometimes interview their study subjects while walking with them; the walking elicits different information than a formal, sitting-across-the-table-from-each-other-style interview.
In a project she calls “Storywalks,” Powell is investigating how walking through a neighborhood with a rich culture and often painful history influences how residents think of their community and their place in it.
A special neighborhood
Powell’s study area is the Japantown section of San Jose, California, one of just three Japantowns remaining in the U.S. Like other such neighborhoods, it was devastated in the 1940s by anti-Japanese hysteria. Japanese American residents were interned in camps throughout the country. Most lost their homes, jobs, and businesses. After the war, the community re-created itself, as residents returned and successfully re-started their lives. “But since then the town has, in part, become a kind of memorial site,” says Powell. “There’s a lot of public memorials dedicated to the evacuation and the internment experience.”
The neighborhood’s San Jose Nihonmachi Outreach Committee holds an annual Day of Remembrance to commemorate the internment of its citizens and celebrate its distinctive culture. The day’s events include a processional—a ritualized walk—and a performance by the musical group San Jose Taiko, whose insistent drumbeats provide a rhythmic structure for the walkers.
Powell, who is faculty adviser for the Penn State Taiko student club, is exploring the cultural significance of the processional and drumming, but the heart of her research is a series of walking tours she takes with local residents. More casual and personal than the ceremonial walks, her guided strolls through the neighborhood let her delve more deeply into the meaning of place for this community of those who were forced to give up, and then managed to reclaim, the place they call home.
Walk with me
In one set of walks, Powell toured Japantown with docents from the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. Although these guides may give dozens of tours a month, often highlighting many of the same places and stories—businesses that survived the war, what happened to the people who owned them before the war, public art built by townspeople—where they go and what they talk about each time varies depending on the interests of those who show up for the tour. With Powell, the guides were free to focus on what most interested them.
One guide did the entire tour within the Museum, and it was all about his internment experience. Jimi Yamaichi, a spry 91-year-old artist who grew up in Japantown and was interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, as a young man, took her to the Senior Center.
“Jimi is like the unofficial town historian that everyone knows and loves,” recalls Powell. “So we walk into the Senior Center, and he is a celebrity. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, Jimi!’ ”
Other walks were guided by any resident who offered, including younger residents who feel a strong connection with the neighborhood and its history. Powell would chat with people she encountered and ask them, “If you were to give me a tour of Japantown, where would you take me, and why?” And off they would go.
“It turns out that’s a really rich question,” she says. “Many people point to the same buildings, but their stories are all very different. And the interviews feel very much alive—and they don’t end!” Careful to not overstay her welcome, she usually stopped the tours after an hour.
During each walk, Powell videotaped her guide and their surroundings. A cell-phone app called Runkeeper recorded the path they took, their walking speed, and where they stopped and for how long.
“What’s really interesting is to see the zigging and zagging and the back-and-forths that they do,” says Powell. The entire Japantown neighborhood covers just 0.26 square miles—a few blocks in each direction—yet every tour was unique.
Powell is now comparing the various routes and the locations where her guides paused longest to tell their stories. She hopes to apply what she learns from her Japantown research to the creation of “sensory walks,” in which walkers anywhere are encouraged to focus on a particular aspect of their surroundings. For instance, they might be asked to collect the sounds they hear while strolling through a familiar area or a brand-new one.
“It’s a way to re-sensitize people to their experience of place,” she says. “It’s drawing deliberate attention to how we perceive our place and how we might think about place differently.”
That exercise could be especially interesting with people who are not accustomed to paying attention to their surroundings as they walk and who might thus begin to realize something important about their neighborhood and even their own identity.
“That’s a really good question about how your sense of place changes when you have something like a smartphone in your hand and you have a virtual world in front of you,” says Powell. “How do you consciously draw people’s attention and awareness to place? If we attend differently, perhaps we learn or construct a new way to think about that place.”
She’s already seen that happen with some of her guides in Japantown. “They told me, ‘Wow, thanks for letting me do this, I haven’t had an opportunity to really think about my town, and now I’m thinking about it differently,’ ” she says.
Powell’s project is part of a collaborative grant from the Canadian government that includes colleagues from Canada and Australia. She has also received support from the Arts and Design Research Incubator program in the College of Arts and Architecture—a small seed grant, lab space, and most helpful of all, opportunities to present and discuss her ideas with other members of the university community who work in fields ranging from visual arts to neuroscience.
“It’s interesting to me how walking as a method touches something very basic that’s really important to people,” she says. “Everyone’s got something to say about walking.”
Powell is associate professor of education and of arts education. Her Storywalks project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by Penn State’s Arts and Design Research Incubator.
By Cherie Winner, Research Communications (January 2016)