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Researcher: Urban explorers “more interested in aesthetics than history”

Steven High

The blast furnaces that remain as part of the South Bethlehem landscape may be an eyesore to some, but to many, they are entryways into our industrialized past.

Manmade structures, such as those left by Bethlehem Steel, have become the subject of considerable curiosity among a growing crop of “urban explorers,” thousands of people who document their investigations of these typically off-limit places.

These urban explorers were the focus of the most recent talk in the ongoing lecture series “New Bethlehem: Urban Utopias, Dystopias and Transformations” hosted by the Humanities Center as well as the South Side Initiative.

Steven High, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia University in Montreal, presented a lecture entitled “North American Post-Industrial Sublime: A Comparative Study” on March 11 at Linderman Library. He spoke from his recent book Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization.

“Steven High is prolific and active in the effort to give voice and history to industrial workers,” said John Pettegrew, associate professor of history, and co-director of the South Side Initiative, along with associate professor of English Seth Moglen. Pettegrew added that High can help Lehigh and the Bethlehem community better understand how to make the present and the future valuable and productive.

“A reminder of what was”

Urban exploration has become a hobby for mostly white, middle-class teens and 20-somethings. Working under an ethical code of “Take only pictures and leave only footprints,” these urban explorers diligently document their photos and narratives online on sites such as infiltration.org.

“Explorers are drawn to sites of loss and nostalgia,” High said. “They are motivated by larger historical and philosophical concerns.”

Many see their work as having a higher purpose—to record abandoned buildings and structures before they’re demolished or converted.

But High’s lecture critically examined the urban explorers’ narratives as well as the imagery associated with industrial decline. Many urban explorers fail to evoke personal or familial histories in their narratives, and they say little about the history and function of the mills, High said.

“They’re more interested in aesthetics than history,” said High, adding that these explorers fail to have a serious engagement with the past. “Industrial ruins act as a reminder of what was. We need to confirm notions of progress rather than subvert them.”

At Concordia, High also serves as the co-director of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. He put forward the idea of creating oral histories to capture those stories of the past.

He also spoke with members of the Lehigh and Bethlehem communities in a follow-up discussion on Wednesday, citing many examples of cities throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe that—like Bethlehem—are using these tools to preserve their history while trying to envision a future for a de-industrialized past.

“When you redevelop this place, make sure it’s also for people here, and for people who have a connection to this place,” High told the audience. “What was there will never be there again.”

Moglen said the lectures are bringing the Bethlehem community together in an important way.

“I was delighted to see former steelworkers, South Side residents, school teachers, as well as representatives of the National Museum of Industrial History, the Steelworkers Archive, Touchstone Theater, the Lehigh Valley Industrial Heritage Coalition, and other local colleges and institutions, coming together with Lehigh students, staff and faculty to talk about strategies for interpreting the rich history of the Steel and of South Bethlehem,” Moglen said. “Fostering this kind of collaboration is central to the mission of the South Side Initiative.”

Other lectures in the New Bethlehem series have included Cathy Stanton on “Lessons from Lowell,” David Harvey on “The Urban Process Under Capitalism,” and Kristin Shrader-Frechette who spoke on the topic of environmental justice.

The next visitor in the series will be the distinguished poet Daniel Tobin, who has written poems that address, among other things, the transformation of the urban community in which he was raised.

--Tricia Long

Posted on Thursday, March 20, 2008

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