What is a Site?

Inscription on vandalized Ferguson QuikTrip signage: "QT PEOPLE'S PARK" | "LIBERATED 8/10/14".  Photo by Tara Pham.

Morgan Brooks, Heidi Kolk on March 23, 2017

One of the key aspects of the MWMS project involves the practice of site-based study.  But what exactly is a ‘site’?  In this post we explore some of the characteristics of a site that differentiate it from objects (or that might lead to different questions).  We also describe why a consideration of sites might be important to an understanding of the broader spatial, political and social dynamics of modern segregation.

First and foremost, it is a ‘sense of place’ that distinguishes a site from an object. In her book The Power of Place, urban historian Dolores Hayden describes some of the factors contributing to a sense of place, which is integral to the definition of a site:

 “The vernacular landscape...carries cultural geography and architecture straight toward urban social history. At the intersection of these fields lies the history of the cultural landscape, the production of space, human patterns impressed upon the contours of the natural environment.”[1]

A sense of place derives from the many actions and decisions––and hundreds of variables of daily life––that leave an imprint upon the landscape.  Studying this imprint allows us to consider how a given site impacts those who encounter it (and how their values, ideas, assumptions, practices, etc. continue to shape and define it).  It is to treat a given locale as a “cultural landscape” of meanings and uses, and to uncover its impacts past and the present.

A ‘site’ consists not only of material features but also its surroundings: the multiple spatial, legal, economic, social and cultural domains in which it has been produced and defined.  Most sites have a complex history of uses and lived experiences, and many frames of reference may be required to engage that history.  We see sites as dynamic and multi-layered, with differing, even competing, narratives and meanings, especially as regards issues of segregation.

MWMS engages with the domain of the material to uncover daily realities and frames of reference and to explore how both are related to the processes and structures of segregation, which in the modern city are preserved by and expressive of what George Lipsitz calls ‘racialized space.’  Lipsitz has argued that the “national spatial imaginary is racially marked, and that segregation serves as a crucible for creating emphasis on exclusion.” [2]  Segregation in the modern city has been preserved by politicized physical spaces. By examining how space interacts with race, site-based scholarship can uncover the structures of race hidden in everyday places. Exploring boundaries, control, competing claims over a given site, and its racialized uses and meanings can help us to understand how segregation is produced and reproduced.  It can also provide deeper insights into the material realities of segregation. 

Read more: Two of our contributors, Heidi Kolk and Michael Allen, have written a series of mini-essays exploring the Ferguson QuikTrip as a material site of segregation.  Their essays, which were written not long after the protests surrounding the death of Michael Brown, provide an example of site-based study as we understand it, and some of the approaches that might be relevant to such research.  They are can be accessed here.

[1] Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes As Public History. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1995.

[2] Lipsitz, George. "The racialization of space and the spatialization of race theorizing the hidden architecture of landscape." Landscape Journal 26.1 (2007): 10-23.

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