Demolition & Amnesia


Once when visiting New Haven, Connecticut, my grandmother looked out the car window and asked if the expanse of patchy grass outside was the New Haven Green. At first, her assumption was humorous – the field she was looking at was almost nothing like the tree-shaded, centrally-located Green critical to New Haven history. Rather, we were driving by the unbuilt stretch of the Oak Street Connector, a piece of land formerly home to a dense low-income neighborhood that ran from the center of New Haven out to the city’s western fringe. Within the history of Providence, Roger Williams National memorial has a similar backstory, though a different end. The National Parks Service-operated 4.5-acre park devoted to the advocate for religious freedom who founded Rhode Island sits on land that had also once been a dense neighborhood – first the African American communities of Hard Scrabble and Snow Town and later, a mixed residential and commercial core that ran long North Main Street. The memorial is more accessible than the Oak Street expanse, but it hides a similar history. Likewise, as was apparent in New Haven, dominant city narratives – whether they be of tolerance or of communal green space, can mask the contradictory histories around them.

Both absences are rooted in demolition, a total erasure of existing infrastructure. When a building is no longer useful, its owners have two options – to demolish or to adapt. To choose to demolish a structure signifies that it not only has no use in its current state, but that nothing can be done to make it useful again. To reference Paul Ricouer’s epilogue to Memory, History, Forgetting, entitled “Difficult Forgiveness,” to demolish a neighborhood is to deny it this forgiveness. Ricoeur writes that to forgive is to separate an actor from its actions, and to see it as capable of actions beyond its faults. Further, for the actor to be forgiven is for it to be be “restored to its capacity for acting, and action restored to its capacity for continuing.”[1] To demolish a building, is to end this capacity for acting. In the tearing down of buildings in Hard Scrabble and Snow Town and in the clearance undertaken in the East Side urban renewal campaign, this decision has been made multiple times in the city of Providence.

Interpreting demolition through Ricoeur frames it as a value-based decision, subject to ideological influence. In Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, Francesca Russello Ammon defines this wider social climate as a “culture of clearance,” of which the bulldozer is at the center.[2] Ammon winds through twentieth century popular culture, citing bulldozer characters in children’s literature that frame demolition as heroic, as well as the bulldozer’s adoption as a tool of art by land artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Walter de Maria. However, between highway construction and urban clearance, demolition via bulldozer has disproportionately displaced minority and low-income communities. Finding a target for demolition becomes an issue of identifying difference.

Though the riots in Hard Scrabble and Snow Town occurred long before the development of the bulldozer, the cruder method of tearing down homes one-by-one follows a similar ethos to urban renewal-based clearance in identifying a population no longer deserving of a home, or of a life on that particular site. Justifying demolition of difference becomes a Levinasian issue of being unable to see the face of the other. In “Violence and the Vulnerable Face of the Other: The Vision of Emmanuel Levinas on Moral Evil and Our Responsibility,” Roger Burggraeve notes that the face is not an appearance, but rather “what in the countenance of the other escapes our gaze when turned toward us.”[3] This inability to see the face of the other exposes it to danger.

This difference also echoes Slawomir Kapralski’s distinction between constructions of Eastern and Western Europe in which West invents East as its complementary, barbaric, and backward half in “Ain’t Nothing Special.”[4] This construction has long-term impacts, affecting the development of history and memory in the mind of the Eastern other. Kapralski references Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of the differential deprivation of history, in which developing one’s own history can potentially deprive the other of “the right or possibility to ‘demonstrate the lasting visibility of their own past.’”[5] In the case of the Roger Williams National Memorial, the memory of Roger Williams endangers the accurate retelling of contradictory histories on the site, including the narrative told by the Snow Town memorial plaque that sits within its bounds.

This ease of missing the Snow Town memorial also parallels work by traffic scholars Mai-Britt Herslund and Niels Jørgensen concerning looked-but-failed-to see errors in driver-cyclist perception.[6] The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society has devoted time, raised funds, and reflected on how best to memorialize Hard Scrabble and Snow Town. Yet, the resulting memorials are still very easy to miss. In parallel to the observations of the traffic studies scientists, the plaques to histories other than Williams’ own are not what visitors to the site expect to find. In turn, they are pushed to the literal and metaphorical periphery, with the viewer’s eye unaware of the extra memorial.

Ultimately, this encapsulates some of Steven Lubar’s argument in “Museums are Places to Forget.” The movement of an object into a museum can facilitate its own loss of significance – turning religious objects into art, tools and artifacts into aestheticized compositions.[7] In the gratitude-laden context of the Roger Williams National Memorial, the context for the Snow Town riot gets lost. On a site devoted to tolerance, the concept that a group of people were targeted based on their difference just across the street is hard to understand, and the Snow Town memorial gets no opportunity to alter this context.  No matter its intention of its creators, the Snow Town memorial went to the Roger Williams National Memorial to be forgotten.

The intervening role of Demolition and Amnesia: Investigating Roger Williams National Memorial, is a difficult one then. In choosing between a public art-style intervention and a digital exhibit, the latter afforded more time for consideration as to how a physical work should exist on the site and what information it should draw from. Shimon Attie had the benefit of a trove of historical reference photos, that due to time and context, do not exist for Hard Scrabble and Snow Town, and very little of which were created of the North Main Street neighborhood before it was bulldozed.[8] While Attie is self-critical of his mediating influence over his audience’s relationship with the past, this tangible historical resource felt more honest and beneficial than any rendering or public artwork I could make with the information I had gained thus far.[9] Therefore, the exhibit seeks to focus more on the historical narrative, and also function as a work in progress. It’s open commenting structure allows for greater input from other contributors while its potentially public-facing nature allows for a wider reach than a traditional archive.

Demolition and Amnesia and any project that grows from it can not resurrect the long-dead neighborhoods. A culture of clearance is irreversible, as any return to the site will be different than the communities that existed beforehand. However, in the open concept of a digital exhibit and the possibility to be used as a resource for future work, this project aims to allow a return to demolition’s opposite, adaptive reuse – a restoration of the site’s capacity for acting. Demolition and Amnesia asks its audience to consider the complexities of the memorial site beyond what is visible at its surface, and as a didactic tool, hopes that its audiences uses this information to guide future decisions on the fate of neighborhoods of the other.


[1] Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 493.

[2] Francesca Russello Ammon, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 7-8.

[3] Roger Burggraeve, “Violence and the Vulnerable Face of the Other: The Vision of Emmanuel Levinas on Moral Evil and Our Responsibility,” Journal of Social Philosophy 30, no. 1 (1999): 29.

[4] Slawomir Kapralski, “Ain’t Nothing Special,” in Memory and Change in Europe, ed. Malgorzata Pakier and Joanna Wawrzyniak (New York: Berghahn), 88.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mai-Britt Herslund and Niels O. Jørgensen, “Looked-but-failed-to-see-errors in traffic,” Accident Analysis & Prevention 35, no. 6 (2003): 890, doi:10.1016/s0001-4575(02)00095-7.

[7] Steven Lubar, “Museums are places to forget – Steven Lubar – Medium,” Medium, April 30, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2017,

[8] James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press), 65.

[9] Ibid, 89.

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