KMHS/ Team Cobra Update IX: Inauguration

Liz, Sam, Anneliese, and I attended the KMHS’s Inaugural Event tonight at the Lillian H. Smith Library. (In the basement, which is kind of like an underground cathedral – check it out sometime, it’s pretty cool.) It was really exciting and a full house – maybe 2 or 3 empty seats only! The speakers were really great and it just really inspired me to want to keep working on our project: getting photos for the website, fleshing out the history with details about groups, individuals, and events. It was a really great way to get more ideas for content. Listening to Jean Cochrane, author of one of the books we used (a lot), was just like reading her book. I really, really liked the second speaker, Rosemary Donegan, author of Spadina Avenue. She was a really good speaker and her talk was filled with really interesting anecdotes and micro-histories of buildings still standing today. For me, she  provided a sense of other avenues* we could explore in order to create a fuller, richer picture of the Kensington area over time and as a part of a larger Toronto. Liz and I spoke to her afterwards and she had a lot of good ideas about where to look for images for our website. It seems to me like we are going to have to talk to the KMHS about having a copyright budget for photos – they aren’t going to be free.

We also were introduce to Sasha Knight who is a post graduate student at Willowbank School of Restoration Arts who is doing a project on Kensington Market for a class but through the KMHS. I really liked talking to him (and his program sounds super cool) because a lot of what he is studying is about the balance between conservation, restoration, and modernization: allowing for change. This is a tension that really interests me (exhibit A: my blog from 2 weeks ago) in general and particularly in terms of thinking about Kensington Market. For public history initiatives, I think this balance is a really important problem to consider. How can we preserve places of historical value, like neighbourhoods or even particular buildings, without eliminating or restricting the living element which demands the ability for change?

Moral of the Story: I just want to pour all of my energy into this project. It feels so much more real than all the things I am doing for my other classes. It doesn’t even feel like work.

Reality: I have two fairly important papers I need to be writing for other classes… ugh.

* Literally? This is a pretty great pun if you choose to read it that way… unintended but acknowledged.

KMHS/ Team Cobra Update VII: In Which I Accidentally Write a Eulogy

Here are my thoughts on our project this week, in no particular order:

1. As Liz pointed out: Where did our lovely map disappear to? I had thought I would add some locations today  but it seems to be missing.

2. Woah! We have class this week, no class next week, and the following week our project is due to KMHS. That feels so soon. I’m not ready give up our darling. I think a team meeting or two, outside of class, in the next few weeks will be in order to get her in shipshape. (Are websites treated as female the way ships and countries are? Is there even a precedent?)

3. I have done one revision of my text but I haven’t sent it to Liz (to put in Word format since Pages doesn’t seem to upload footnotes) or put it online yet. Second revision is happening tonight, then to the internet it goes.

4. Kensington in the news! Liz just posted a recent article about Kensington which addresses the pressure of big businesses and corporations trying to come in to Kensington Market and rising rent threatening to drive small businesses out. Just last week, in line at the grocery store, I overheard a young woman talking to the cashier about what a shame and outrage it is that Loblaws is looking to move into Kensington Market. People are talking.

I’m a bit torn here. On one hand, I am the kind of person who recoils at the words “corporation” and “chain” instinctually. I’m also emotionally attached to my experience of Kensington Market: wayward and bohemian, colourful (in just about every sense of the word), and a bit rough at the edges. On the other hand, I can’t ignore that we have studied Kensington Market as a story of change and of shifting demographics. Surely there was some sadness and nostalgia at the disintegration of the Denison estate, the exit of first the Anglo population then the Jews and so forth, as the population of Kensington changed. Surely Kensington of today is a far cry from what those who can remember of the original Jewish Market. As cities grow, the demographics of neighbourhoods change. Despite its heritage as a poorer neighbourhood and home to immigrants, Kensington can’t escape its location at the heart of modern Toronto. Downtown Toronto is just too expensive to be a haven for Toronto’s poorer or immigrant populations. Accordingly, gentrification is, in a sense, inevitable.

I find it noteworthy that, in the article, Ossie Pavao, Kensington “native” and owner of Casa Acoreana café shrugs at the rent hikes, saying “If I was a businessman and the time came, I would probably do the same.” There is, I think, a notion that with age comes an attachment to the past and a resistance to change. We see this abundantly in stereotypes about new technology, even in attitudes about racism. However, I think this maybe slightly off mark. It seems to me that much of the resistance to change comes from us: this younger inter-generation torn between the past of our grandparents and the future of our children.

When I became interested in family history, it was my grandmother who was quick to caution me: you are not defined by your history, don’t let it steer your course. Whenever she gave us things, be they heirlooms and or just items with a certain history, she was always clear: don’t keep this only because of sentimental value. These things don’t need to be preserved, only keep them if you want them. When my grandmother sold her home, built by our family in 1908, last summer, my whole family – her children and grandchildren – was heartbroken. It was my grandmother, the oldest generation, who was, in a sense, the least sentimental about it. For her, the house had served its purpose; our memories of how it was would last forever but circumstances, and our family, had changed and these were changes we should embrace. I struggle a bit with this notion that change is inevitable and involves letting go of the past and I think that history often cultivates nostalgia, but I can’t ignore the wisdom of her position. And so I feel about these potential changes to Kensington Market: resistant, yet not convinced that my resistance is warranted.

(And, this reads sort of like an eulogy for Kensington Market. Sorry guys.)

KMHS/ Team Cobra Update V: Writing for the World

So, I seem to write these things every other week.

I didn’t end up writing this blog post on time because I was so engrossed in the actual writing of the content. I remember not wanting to break my focus in order to critique the experience.

Now that I’m not in the middle of it, I can say that I really enjoyed writing the content for our website. It is a very different exercise than writing an essay and I really felt a sense of power, but also of responsibility: I am in control of writing the narrative. On one hand, that was really liberating: I got to make the decision about how to tell the story and what elements to include. On the other hand, I felt worried about accidentally leaving out important details: I have a very full and detailed perspective on what I’m writing since I did the research but my audience will not. For much of the website’s audience, who have not and likely will not do research of their own or be critical of sources, what I write will be read as complete: the whole picture.

A big part of making this content accessible is the language. I am really interested in language and the nuances of word choice. Writing the content for the Kensington Market website, I found myself really focusing on trying to find the balance between sophisticated academic writing and a simpler style that is more accessible. As my degree has advanced, I think I’ve had the tendency to get much more complex in my writing style. I always strive to be as clear and concise as possible but I realize that I have come to use much longer sentences and complex sentence structures than I used to. Whenever I am writing something intended for a broad public audience outside of academia, I always think of this experience my roommate had a few years ago. Applying for a communications position through the government of Canada, part of the application process involved a short exercise where she had to rewrite a short informative paragraph in simpler language to ensure that as many Canadians as possible could read it. Afterwards, she received a little pamphlet with a list of complex words and a simpler alternative to be used instead. My roommate was shocked that a lot of words that she would have used to be simple were in the complex column. This practice, of course, is related to levels of illiteracy or low literacy which seem surprisingly high for those of us submerged in academia. On one hand, I think a history website is going to attract a relatively educated, literate audience but I don’t think we should expect or limit ourselves to only that. I certainly did not feel like I was trying to “dumb down” my content or be condescendingly simplistic but I do think that is important to remember that we are part of a very select demographic bubble. The audience for our websites will likely include a considerable proportion of people outside of the academic, university experience. This bubble experience certainly affects the way we express ourselves and being aware of that helps me remember to “open” my use of language to invite wider participation.

KMHS/ Team Cobra Update III: Diving into Research

This week I was tasked with starting the initial research; my time period is the “pre-Kensington” period in a sense, from the late 19th century through to 1910 or 1920 (I don’t actually remember the cut-off we agreed on…). First off, research is going to be really time consuming. Not so much that it is more work than any other project, although is IS difficult to find such local sources since we are excluding oral ones, but more that there is a lot of time spent in order to do the research. For example, the handful of about 10 books that I wanted to read are spread out across at least 5 different libraries, which means a lot of to-ing and fro-ing: it feels like I do more tramping around campus than actual reading of sources which can be frustrating. Furthermore, a lot of the data is going to have to come from pouring through Toronto Archives and online article databases. Tomorrow I’m planning on heading down to Kensington itself to check out rumours of resources at St Stephen’s community center.

Today I finally feel like I got some actual content down – I spent a few hours with a really good resource in the ROM library. The book, though I didn’t finish the entire section on Kensington before the library closed (you can’t take the books out…), gave me a much better handle on the early history; it provided a very extensive portrait of the Denison family (wealthy, Protestant, conservative loyalist, military men by the accounts I’ve read). It’s interesting though; the author, Doug Taylor, focuses mainly on the significance of individual buildings – looking at their architecture, history, and records of who lived there – and less on telling a narrative of the market as a whole. It felt more like reading a compendium of statistical primary sources than a secondary source.

Reading today made me wonder about the content and narrative of our project. On one hand, we need to write essays for this class. The idea is that our essays will be content for the website, but I feel like in order to write a good paper with a thesis, our papers will need to be a lot more specific than I imagine the narrative that needs to be constructed for the website being. In one of my classes last semester we talked about the difference between writing say, a monograph and a textbook; I feel like to write a good essay is more along the lines of writing a monograph but, perhaps, writing the narrative structure of this website is more akin to writing a textbook. Furthermore, the specific nature of Doug Taylor’s history made me question the best way to explore Kensington’s history. My initial reaction was that his data was too precise for us; he focused too much on individual houses and who lived in and rented them when etcetera while we are trying to draft a larger narrative that reflects the flow of Kensington’s atmosphere over time. However, on the other hand, Kensington market IS in the details and maybe to write an overarching history erases its vital essence.

KMHS/ Team Cobra Update II: Divide and Conquer

So, this post should have been last week but it’s happening now.

We met up last week to talk about our project and finish putting together the proposal. Liz had drawn up the  mock-ups of the designs that she, Sam, and I talked about after class the previous week. It’s interesting because once we were talking as a group and looking at them, our ideas about what we want, considering the logistics of using (and creating!) the website, really changed. I think that the model is going to keep evolving as we go further into the project and, in order to succeed, we will need to remain flexible and not get too fixated on certain aspects. For example, we had initially imagined a map for every time period, with different markers on it, possibly changing with a slider on a timeline. In the end, we have decided that this is not only very technically challenging, but also something that we wanted in the project, not the KMHS. In the end we have decided to just have one page with one map with markers which can act as the inventory of building that the KMHS talked about wanting to create. To use the words of William Faulkner, I think it is going to important to be able to “kill [our] darlings” when necessary.

In terms of the timeline, it seems like we are going back to the idea of dividing time numerically, in say 20 or 30 year brackets, rather than by waves of immigration. It seems as though waves of immigration would create problematic, in the sense of being arbitrary or even artificial, breaks that restrict telling a narrative that embraces the flow of Kensington’s history. This week, while Liz and Sam focus on visual, Sarah, Anneliese, and I are doing initial research which we will compile in order to create the basic timeline and decide how best to break of the periods. The basic chronology that I’ve sketched out, from Marion Kane’s article, A Kensington Century, goes like this:

1880s: Denison family estate which was divided into lots and sold to, predominantly, Anglo-Saxon families
~1910: first waves of Jewish immigrants moving into the Kensington area from The Ward
1920s-1930s: ~80% of Toronto’s Jewish population lived in Kensington Market
1910-1940s: various waves of Jewish, Italian, Ukrainian, and “Black” immigrants
1960s: Jews started to move out, and Portuguese started to move in
late 1960s: Caribbean commercial presence in the market (though they did not live there)
… followed by latin Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, up until today’s eclectic mix.

Clearly, there is a lot of overlap and, I would say, it would be problematic to label time periods according to ethnicity.

Blog X: Playing with the Past

First off, I just want to say, how fun is it to read about contemporary research, considered ‘ground-breaking’ for a particular field, going on in Canada? So fun, right?

Okay, now that’s off my chest, I can delve into my actual topical thoughts about “Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming.” As with many of the other readings we have done for this course, this week deals, yet again, with this notion of bridging the gap between good academic history practiced by professional historians and the rest of the world who may want, or be required in the case of students, to engage with historical material (forget computers, secretly, this is the real theme of this course). This brings us back to our million dollar question: how can we make use of interest-building strategies without compromising the integrity of our historical content or method? Gaming, in that sense, is no different from open source history, public history, GIS, or oral history – it’s merely another avenue to engagement.

What comes up over and over again, is “historians’ obsession with text;” this idea that, for whatever reason, be it habit, fear of compromising of rigour, or simply historical precedent, historians are reluctant to relinquish academic texts as their primary mode of disseminating information. Furthermore, as with public and open source history, in order to successfully marry gaming and historical study, professional historians have to renounce some of their control over the final product, which, as we have seen in other cases, historians are often not wont to do.

In my opinion, the usefulness of games in teaching history, though not to be ignored, depends on the desired outcome. There is no denying that games and play are fundamental to the way people learn, starting at the earliest of ages; however, what can be learned depends on the nature of the game. In terms of the role playing type games discussed in “Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming,” I have a hard time wrapping my head around how students can learn specific historical content, such as the actual chronology and specifics of how historical events unfolded. I do not think it is possible to accurately map real historical events into a game where the chronology or flow of narrative is not fixed but rather shaped by the player’s actions because I do not think it is possible to isolate an event from its particular cause and effect. That said, what students can learn from such games is a larger understanding of the historical landscape, including social, technological, and geographic historical contexts and how cause and effect interacted within this context, more generally. Furthermore, it can help them develop their ability to formulate and consider historical questions. These skills, I would argue, are just as valuable to the history student as precise, factual content.