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My New Book!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

September 10, 2014: More Cville Stories: Barracks Road

[Back in March, I featured a week’s worth of Charlottesville stories in anticipation of a book talk there. Well, Cville is just an AmericanStudier’s kind of town, because during my August visit with the boys I found myself thinking about another handful of local histories and stories from this Central Virginia city. So here they are!]
On the elided but still evocative histories all around us.
In this post AmericanStudying cities to which I’ve had the chance to travel, I mentioned how impressed I was by the presence and intimacy of Rome’s histories, the way in which you could turn any corner and find yourself confronted by the Colosseum, the Forum, or any number of less famous but equally historic sites. To my mind, that element contrasts noticeably with our tendency in America to separate the historic sites from the present cities around them, to demarcate their existence as an area to be visited (or, saliently, to which to take tourists and other visitors to our city, but probably not venture ourselves) but not a part of the place’s ongoing life and identity. Such separations and demarcations are far better than not remembering or maintaining the histories at all, of course—and that has been an option in America far too often, so I’m always happier to see the maintained sites in whatever form—but it nonetheless makes it easier to treat the past as a foreign country, rather than as integral to and interconnected with ours.
Moreover, there are reminders of those histories all around us, if we know where and how to look for them. Throughout my life I have frequented the area of Charlottesville known as Barracks Road: the shopping center was home to the Shoney’s (aka Bob’s Big Boy) that was a favorite childhood restaurant, the Baskin Robbins that was a favorite dessert site, and the toy store that was, well, just a favorite spot, as well as to the Barnes & Noble where I worked for eight months between college and grad school; Barracks Road itself was close enough to my high school that my bus and car routes often included it, and a longtime high school girlfriend lived just off the road; and so on. Yet I had virtually no sense of the history comprised by that name: that a group of more than 3000 British and German prisoners of war were housed at a site along the road for nearly two years during the Revolutionary War (after the Continental Army’s 1777 victory at the Battle of Saratoga), in what came to be known as the Albemarle Barracks (the site itself is just outside of the city limits, in Albemarle County). Like the name, the shopping center’s sign obliquely gestures at that history, featuring a Revolutionary-era horseman.
So the reminders, like the “Indian Names” on the landscape about which Lydia Sigourney wrote so beautifully, remain. On the one hand, those slight echoes might make the overall elision of the past more frustrating: Barracks Road was for a time one of the South’s most significant Revolutionary War sites, and now I would wager that most Charlottesville residents know it solely (as I did for all those years) for the shopping center. But on the other hand, the echoes represent a continued presence, indeed an illustration of the influence the past has in creating the present—and as such as they also offer an opportunity to begin to connect with and learn about those histories, as long as we recognize and follow their clues. Which is to say, Sigourney was wrong to mourn the vanishing past in her poem, not only because Native Americans didn’t vanish (although that too to be sure), but also because the past never goes anywhere. It’s always there, quietly but crucially constituting our world, waiting to be discovered and better understood.
Next Cville story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories from your town(s) you'd share?

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