Skip to main content

Review: Kensington Remembers

A review of Kensington Remembers, a digital project on vernacular memory in a Philadelphia neighborhood, directed by Gordon Coonfield

Published onJun 24, 2024
Review: Kensington Remembers
·

Project
Kensington Remembers

Project Leads
Gordon Coonfield, Villanova University
Erica Hayes, Villanova University
James Parente, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
Cheyenne Zaremba, Penn State University

Project URL
https://kensingtonremembers.org

Project Reviewer
Melissa R. Meade, Seton Hall University


Project Overview

Gordon Coonfield, Erica Hayes, James Parente, and Cheyenne Zaremba

Kensington Remembers is a geospatial digital humanities project that seeks to find, document, study, and preserve vernacular memorial sites in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. In a city filled with official forms of collective memory — monumentalized in historic buildings, murals, museums, parks, and statuary — Kensington sustains a rich culture of vernacular memory (Kansteiner, 2002).  While official memory is conceived, created, and preserved from the top down by cultural, economic, political elites, vernacular memory is memory from below: produced by ordinary people using whatever skills, materials, and ritual knowledge they possess to engage in the public expression of private emotions.

Kensington Remembers was conceived as a multimodal, ethnographic project (Kress, 2011; Powell, 2010; Collins, Durington, and Harjant, 2019), one that employs urban walking as a key part of its methodology (Littleman, 2020), as embodied mobility is critical to urban communication research (Aiello and Dickinson, 2016). Kensington Remembers brings together the products of this approach to fieldwork by combining photography, informal interviews, geo-location data, and archival research to tell the stories of these memorials. All vernacular memorials for which research has been completed are included. 

To create the map, the project team imported location data into a CSV spreadsheet. The map was put together using Leaflet, a JavaScript Library for building interactive web maps. Clicking on the map’s location points takes users on a tour of memorial sites. It was conceived with several constraints. First, it needed to be easily edited and updated, since the fieldwork is ongoing. Second, the map needed to make the products of fieldwork accessible to the public — especially those who reside in Kensington. Third, it was important the project be open source and open access, and that all the elements were unencumbered by proprietary software or potential conflicts over copyright. 

To contextualize the map, we designed an accompanying site to share additional, ongoing work and explain the project’s significance to non-academic audiences. For example, a recent blog post tracked a memorial that appeared, disappeared, and reappeared in multiple locations throughout Kensington. While each location could be mapped, the blog enables us to highlight the unique practice of repeated reproduction. Both the map and website are linked across all pages on the website. In addition to contextualizing vernacular memory, the project seeks to preserve these volatile cultural works. Memorials in public spaces are subject not only to weather, but also to the caprice of property owners and neighbors, property developers, and city workers charged with cleaning the sites, as well as vandals and graffiti writers. The map also intervenes in public discourse about Kensington, which regularly makes national news as ground zero of the city’s opioid, poverty, homeless, and gun violence crises.  

The audience for Kensington Remembers includes current and former residents of Kensington, other residents of the city, as well as those interested in urban ethnography and collective memory. We hope teachers and scholars will find the site useful for engaging students of urban history, culture, and collective memory. For instance, students in one of our classes on the history of Philadelphia engaged the site to understand the economic and political factors that historically shaped the built environment and continue to impact the lives of Philadelphians. Younger students, too, might be introduced to the use of mapping and photography to tell stories and then utilize them to share their own experiences of the city.

Kensington Remembers was partially funded by a grant from the Office of the Provost and is supported by the technical staff of Falvey Library at Villanova University. With future funding, we hope to expand the project not only by continuing to add memorials to the site, but also by adding additional functionality to the map. This includes adding a temporal dimension that allows us to show changes over time as memorials appear, disappear, and give way to new developments in the built environment. We also hope to add an augmented reality (AR) component by embedding photographs and QR codes to engage with a smartphone-based, self-guided walking tour. This would enable future visitors to the neighborhood to glimpse the ways the built environment has altered the lived landscape of Kensington.

References

Collins, S.G., Durington, M. and Harjant, G. (2019). Multimodality: An invitation. American Anthropologist, 119(1), 142–153,

Kansteiner, Wulf (2002). Finding meaning in memory: A methodological critique of collective memory studies. History and Theory, 41, 179-197.

Kress, Gunther (2011). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. Routledge.

Littleman, William (2020). Walk this way: Reconsidering walking for the study of cultural landscapes. Buildings and Landscapes, 27(1), 3-16.

Powell, Kimberly (2010). Making sense of place: Mapping as a multisensory research method. Qualitative Inquiry 16(7), 539–555.


Project Review

Melissa R. Meade

The Kensington Remembers digital humanities project operates within a framework of vernacular memory; that is, it focuses on the study of memorial rhetoric created by “ordinary people” but considers private individual memorializing, the public forum in which these memorials are displayed, and the public audience’s reception. Its primary goal is to preserve, contextualize, and highlight cultural memory works of the Kensington section of Philadelphia and its residents. Therefore, this digital work makes an intervention in public and urban debates and in discourses specifically about the neighborhood of Kensington, which often makes local and national news as an exemplar of the opioid, gun violence, public health, homelessness, and safety crises affecting the City of Philadelphia and threaded throughout the greater United States. Hence, the project highlights underrepresented voices by interrogating how we remember, who is remembered, and whose life is shown in media as grievable.

This collection of digital scholarship includes a map, descriptions of vernacular memorial sites in the Kensington community, a gallery of photographs of the local memorial sites that include shrines, murals, graffiti, and artifacts, and a blog that offers detailed descriptions and essays about select memorials. To expand on the context documented in the blog, Kensington Remembers provides contextual materials around the social dynamics of local memorialization through a variety of sources comprised of items such as social media links, music, news articles, The Philadelphia Obituary Project (a site with a map that tells the stories of the lives of local homicide victims), and academic journal articles. One such entry, “Rest in Peace Chino,” ties a local memorial shrine dedicated to 19-year-old “Chino”/Kenny to the impact of gun violence in Philadelphia on youth and families and to the method the news media uses to portray homicides as statistics.  

To provide the location, context, and visual representation of the memorials in the project, Kensington Remembers provides a map that uses Leaflet, an open-source JavaScript library for interactive maps along with Google Sheets on a WordPress site. The user can go point by point through a marked and numbered street map of Kensington where project director Gordon Coonfield documented each vernacular memorial site. The distribution of the memorials on the map and the use of the technology are evocative of the non-linear research movement. When the user clicks on a number, the side scroll brings up a photo of the site along with a curated description. One such memorial includes Willis “Nomo” Humphrey, a prolific Philadelphia Mural Arts muralist whose work is described on the site as “notable for its vibrant and layered style, usually highlighting the history and lives of African Americans.” The memorial includes a full-color portrait of Humphrey, who passed away of a heart attack. To add context to the memorials featured in the photos, Kensington Remembers provides materials related to the social and historical backgrounds through items such as social media links, news articles, and additional photos that are in a gallery. The user can also scroll down the side of the photo collection of the memorials. With each scroll, the map accommodates the user’s perspective by auto-zooming in and out while the numbered marker on the map simultaneously changes color to match the featured image on the side.

Kensington Remembers challenges the boundaries between teaching, research, and service wherein the project director Gordon Coonfield worked with communications graduate student Cheyenne Zaremba. Likewise, the years of fieldwork committed to this project include time dedicated to community service in Kensington, at places ranging from soup kitchens to local parks. Lastly, it makes accessible to the public a range of curated memorials about everyday people, many of whom lost their lives suddenly and violently.

Future opportunities for additions include public ability to attach images of memorials with their textual narrative. There is currently the option for reaching out to the project to request inclusion, but there isn’t a place to attach digital artifacts.  

These memorials in the Kensington section of Philadelphia are infused with both lives lived and lost in an underrepresented, urban community. The collection of photos with their curations and their mapped locations constitutes a memorial of vernacular memorials preserved in multiple modalities to engage users from diverse publics. 

Comments
0
comment
No comments here
Why not start the discussion?