Street Note

Street Note:
Mapping Memories
by Mary Ebeling

Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Notes from invited artists and community members consider place via the street, sound, food, trees, and other portals. 

Mary Ebeling takes us back to her hometown Arlington, VA to expand on the notion of "emotional mapping,"  a point of departure for a workshop she will be leading as a part of Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia.


As a transplant to Philadelphia, having made the city my home for nearly eight years now, I often wonder about what memories residents hold in their hearts about the redeveloped spaces of Philadelphia.

This relationship is something I call “emotional mapping,” or the ways that we “map on” our personal memories, emotional lives, and images we hold in our hearts, to a place that has radically changed.

An empty lot where a cherished playground once stood; a new, prefab building in the same spot as that favorite roller rink your 13-year-old self went to every Friday night; an old church that your family used to worship is now rehabbed luxury condos. We can both be looking at the same building but “see” very different things.

Since Philadelphia is my “new” home, I have a different relationship to this space than some residents who have lived here all their lives. My emotional map is shallow and still forming. When you see these places reformed, these new buildings that now sit in the spaces of your memories, how do you re-place your emotional map of Philadelphia onto this transformed city?  What does your emotional map look like, layered on top of a city that may no longer be recognizable to you? Can you draw it, describe it, dance it, walk it?

Where my emotional map was formed….

Recently, I was down in Virginia for work, and it so happened that I was near my grandmother’s home, where I had spent so much of my childhood and life as a young adult. My grandparents moved to that part of Arlington, Virginia, back in the 1950s, when a lot of Italian immigrants were moving from D.C., to the promises of postwar suburban prosperity of the sparsely populated neighborhoods just over the Potomac. That’s how my grandmother came to live in Arlington as well as all of my aunts, uncle, cousins, and my mom. My grandmother’s house was on North Frederick Street, between Wilson Boulevard to the south and Washington Boulevard to the north. It’s not there anymore; it was lost to the McMansionization tsunami of 2012, an upsurge that had been sweeping through Northern Virginia at an alarming rate since the early 2000s. Many homes, and many more memories, have been washed out by the aspirational real estate wave, where now those memories are left to reside in our bodies, in our minds, in the stories we tell, in the landscapes of our dreams.


Mary's Grandmothers home. (Google Streetview, 2015)


The property after renovation. (Google Streetview, 2015)


Down Wilson Boulevard from my grandmother’s house is Ballston Common, or what used to be Ballston Common. Now it is just Ballston. When I was young, my mother would take my brother and I to have our portrait taken in the photo studio at Hecht’s. Another site of emotional mapping, this commercial area is not far from Nanny’s house. Here, my brother and I would be hit with a brush to make us sit and smile for the camera. I hate those photographs. Years later, after being reunited with my birth mother, she told me that before I was born she had gone to that very same Hecht’s to have her portrait taken, which was a common thing for young women to do in the late 60s. The photographer was so pleased with her portrait (my birth mom was a striking beauty back then—still is), that he asked if the studio could use it in their advertising. So all through the 70s, every year that my mom dragged me and my brother to the Hecht’s studio, I would see my birth mother’s beautiful face, blown up and hanging in the window, all the while, through my tears, all I could see was the face of a stranger. 


(Photo courtesy of the Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development and reprinted in Arlington Magazine 2013)


You must know that I have several reoccurring dreams and when I wake up, I always recount such a dream in my mind more carefully than other dreams, since I know that deep in the cells of my brain, my body is telling me something about my synaptic-emotional landscape—especially of trauma, violation and loss—that I need to be more attentive to. One of the reoccurring dream images is an emotional map of the path from my childhood home—a house of violence and terror—to my grandmother’s home, often a house of tears as well, but for me, a temporary refuge. I dream about this map very often…the view from the backseat of my mother’s Buick Skylark of Wilson Boulevard, turning onto Harrison, then onto 10th Street, passing St. Anne’s where every Christmas Eve we would all go to Midnight Mass, turning the corner, and seeing the front of my grandmother’s house. Two windows appear as eyes; the door as a mouth for me to enter the face of the house. This is the recurring dream potent with preverbal, emotional significance.

Back in Arlington, I try to retrace that map to my grandmother’s house. I download Google Maps walking directions to my phone and walk from the Ballston Metro stop towards what I think should be Wilson Boulevard. Where Hecht’s used to be is now a prefab-mall monstrosity. I stopped a young woman entering into the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant on the corner of Wilson and Glebe to ask, “Is there a way for pedestrians to walk under the Route 66 overpass to get to George Mason Drive?” She apologizes that she isn’t sure, and says she only knows the route from her condo across the street to the Metro stop that I came from. Looking more closely both at the map on my phone and at the street in front of me, I see it, the pedestrian walkway that I remember from long ago. As I walk the path, I smell the lushness of the Virginia woods, tufts of trees that have not been bulldozed for the highway. I get onto 10th Street and turn the corner, and this is what I see: 


(Google Streetview, 2015)


As I take photos of what remains of my grandmother’s house, I overlay my emotional map upon this strange box of a house. I can still see the face of my grandmother’s house, the face of my birth mother hanging in the window, through the images in my heart.

For some context of the changes to my grandmother’s neighborhood, this article articulates some of it:


Mary Ebeling is an associate professor of sociology and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Drexel University. Mary is an ethnographic sociologist who researches the intersections of marketing, health, science and digital life. She also collaborates with artists and urban farmers to reimagine cities. 

Her workshop, open to all who are interested, will take place at the Paul Robeson House on August 29th. Follow this link for more information.

Street Notes
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