Last Saturday, the Architectural Heritage Center hosted an Oregon Humanities Conversation Project entitled Marking Our Territory: How to Read Local Landscapes. Led by Lewis and Clark College professor Reiko Hillyer, about 40 people or so engaged in a lively discussion about the physical manifestations of how humans lay claim to space. Fortified by powerful visuals and small-group discussions, Hillyer drew attention to such things as segregation noting how, in many instances, Whites and African Americans would be side by side – essentially using the same facility – yet clearly separated. An example of this was an image of two water fountains one labeled “White,” the other “Colored.” The two fountains were side by side, the water probably coming from the same source, and Hillyer noted how if there were people drinking from each fountain at the same time, their faces would be only inches apart. In this instance, it was less about segregation and more about one group of people exerting their power over another.

Other powerful imagery came in the form of an abandoned Wal-Mart. In this instance, the building became a scar on the landscape – not only physically because it was huge, but also psychologically to the nearby community, whose small businesses withered and died when the retailer moved in. When Wal-Mart relocated to another larger facility after only a few years, the affected town was economically decimated. Now the abandoned building serves as a constant reminder to area residents of the power a large business can hold over a small community.

So how does the concept of marking our territory apply to historic preservation? In some ways all one has to do is consider the past impacts of urban renewal or current day re-development projects. In many instances, one person or group “marks” its territory by changing the landscape to fit their interests and not those of residents or neighbors. One could also make the argument that a group fighting to preserve a building or neighborhood through historic designation or restoration/renovation is – in a way – also exerting power over others and therefore ”marking” territory. In these scenarios there is a direct link to personal and economic values where neighborhood character can get pitted against design aesthetics or economic opportunity.

There will probably always be some form of “marking” when it comes to the built landscapes in our society. If so, then it is important that there also be equal and open dialogue on such issues. If this program is ever presented in the Portland area again, don’t miss it!

For another review of Hillyer’s Marking Our Territory program, check out this site.