The Cartography of Memory

mapping personal history on the streets of Providence

by by Margo Irvin

I have only general impressions, now, of the first time I saw Providence: the stark outline of the Bank of America building coming into view as we drove north on I-95, then the narrow one-way streets and brick facades along the canal. These things have had time to become familiar to me, and I've been acquiring stories about them along the way--a personal mythology of the city as I know it, at least as much of it as I know. The Providence other people know is different from mine, constructed out of their own experiences with these same city streets.

Tim Devin, a conceptual artist and writer from Boston, likes "to compare how different people relate to the same public space." His art/book project "The Last Time I Saw..." draws together the experiences of about twenty Providence residents, gathering personal stories and mapping them onto the points in the city where they took place. "Public spaces have secret meaning for people," says the website for "The Last Time I Saw...." "Most of these associations are positive or neutral; others are decidedly negative." The map that Devin makes of Providence articulates the less cheerful memories: the points on the map indicate the last place the stories' writers saw someone who was important to them, someone they no longer speak to. Devin describes the project as both a forum and a memorial for these experiences, a cathartic space for sharing the feelings of loss that our geography won't let us forget.

Lost and gone forever
Devin's own "Last Time I Saw..." experiences inspired the project. Devin told me about a night last year when, by chance, he ran into two "former life-long friends." Although they've since gotten back in touch, for a long time afterwards, those places where he had seen them were painful reminders of how much things had changed. "The Last Time I Saw..." started as a conversation among Devin and his friends about people they were no longer in touch with and the places they associated with them. "In talking to other friends about it, I realized that everyone has had a similar experience. Only, no one talks about them. So it was therapeutic for [us] to be able to talk about our experiences."

Devin decided to expand the project and reach out to more people--to turn it into a public forum for people to share their stories and hear about others' experiences "so they could realize they weren't alone." His own friends and friends-of-friends were reluctant to contribute to the project, perhaps because they didn't want to share highly personal experiences with someone they knew. Devin put up flyers, posted on Craigslist and made a MySpace page to solicit "Last Time I Saw..." stories. "This is where most of the stories came from, from people I'd never met before." The anonymity of it was appealing--the freedom to put stories out into the world without ever having to admit to writing them. Out of the twenty-odd stories currently on the website, eight are anonymous and many more are signed with only a first name or initials. Devin said some of the writers told him that it was the first time they had shared these secrets with anyone. His project had become a confessional as well as a forum.

But "The Last Time I Saw..." is also a tribute to the past, memorializing the people who have fallen out of the writers' lives. These are painful memories, of ex-lovers, estranged family members, and the occasional tragedy: "The last time I saw him, he was a few weeks away from overdosing on heroin, in a room by himself" (an anonymous contributor).
The majority of the stories, though, deal with the simple inevitability of lives diverging as people grow up, move away and move on. "Either they pretended that they didn't know us, or they really didn't remember who we were. But I think that they did, and maybe just felt really awkward. But it was kind of an awkward moment because I was excited to see them and gave them a big hug and they didn't really have the same response. So I just kinda said, 'Well, it was good to see you,' and walked away" (anonymous). It becomes evident in Devin's project that sometimes people don't mean to lose touch, but when it is too much work to maintain an acquaintance it falls by the wayside--and that is its own certain kind of tragedy.

"The Last Time I Saw..." doesn't judge or qualify the writers' experiences in any way; each location is marked on Devin's map of Providence with an unassuming red arrow linking to the story. That the stories are pinned to points in space as well as in the writers' emotional landscapes makes the project a compelling artistic and urban experiment, not just a PostSecret knockoff.

X marks the spot
I couldn't stop reading the stories on Devin's website because I had been there, I had been to the Whole Foods on North Main Street and the Avon Cinema. These pieces made me think about the secret significance of the rest of the city that I live in, and the ways that people experience and imagine it. Devin told me he hoped "that mapping these stories would make people not involved in the project realize that public space has special meaning for everyone around them." Any square of sidewalk could be important to one of the hundreds of people who step on it every day.
A city is never just infrastructure and architecture; it is a repository of memories, and Devin's project articulates just one facet of this complicated relationship between people and their surroundings. The stories are anchored to real places on the map, itself a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional space and the complex reality it recollects. A traditional map is a static, geometrically accurate depiction of space, though it need not adhere to those limitations. Some maps, called cartograms, substitute another thematic variable such as travel time or population density for area, resulting in a distortion of space that expresses such information; subway maps often show the relative positions of stations rather than their geographically correct locations. Even familiar, spatially accurate maps often express abstract ideas: what is a border or the name of a mountaintop if not made up, somehow artificial?

Still, a traditional map is hardly the definitive representation of a city, even if it is probably the most useful for getting around. I know the map of my imagined Providence is hardly to scale; anyone else who might use it would get hopelessly lost. Perhaps the stories in "The Last Time I Saw..." constitute a map that is every bit as valid as a geographically accurate chart--a narrative, emotional map, rather than a visual and spatial one. And by linking and layering this kind of map with the traditional kind, "The Last Time I Saw..." approximates the lived reality of Providence much more closely than a page in an atlas ever could. Devin's attempt to give expression to the emotional side of a city is an ambitious undertaking, but one of the reasons he chose to base the project in Providence rather than Boston, where he lives, was a matter of scale: "partly it was because Providence is smaller than Boston, and I hoped I could map a larger percentage of the city, and make the project more complete in that way."

"The Last Time I Saw..." consists of more than the interactive online map. The final version of the project involved the distribution of a free book of the stories and accompanying maps that Devin handed out to passerby and left around Providence last summer, as well as a walking tour. Devin led the tour as part of Provflux 2007, the annual conference of the Providence Initiative for Psychogeographic Studies (PIPS). After reading the first few stories aloud at their corresponding locations, Devin invited others to take his place. "Since they were all first-person stories, I like to think it made the stories more universal, and helped the volunteers step into other people's shoes, and experience the stories that way," he said.

Beneath Kennedy Plaza, the beach!
The walking tour allowed people to assume, momentarily, another perspective of their city--someone else's impression of Providence. This direct engagement with the stories and the surface of the city on which they are inscribed was an appropriately psychogeographic undertaking for Provflux. Guy Debord, a founding member of the Situationist International and a leading theorist of psychogeography, defined the term as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." A map is clearly a "conscious" way of giving order to the environment; Devin's project evokes a psychological landscape, exploring the way that the physical features of a city act as emotional cues.

But psychogeography is also about finding the productive link between the concrete and abstract in urban space and making positive changes in the social fabric of a city. Devin's project tries to effect such a change by asking people to consider how interpersonal relationships are mediated through public space. Devin "hoped that maybe ["The Last Time I Saw..."] would inspire some people (both storytellers and readers) to get back in touch with people they no longer spoke to." He told me about one woman who had started to write a story about the last time she had seen her cousin "but then ended up calling him up, and now they are back in touch." In the end, "The Last Time I Saw..." isn't about last times so much as it is an attempt to humanize the built environment: Devin's project is driven by the optimistic belief that through shared experience, urban alienation can be overcome.
The project is online at If you have a "Last Time I Saw" experience to share, email Tim Devin at [email protected]

The last time I saw MARGO IRVIN B'10 I think she pretended not to see me.

"The last time I saw him, he was standing on the kickball field, holding a Narragansett tallboy and smoking a cigarette, like always." -Ballfield at the corner of Broadway & Barton, by Anonymous

"The last time I saw her, she wasn't crying or anything, but you could tell that she wasn't the same fun-loving person--so they really put a scar on her heart, which is an awful thing. And I haven't seen her since then." -Jerky's, 71 Richmond St., by Anonymous

"When we parted, we hugged, and as we were walking away from each other, "Bill" yelled to me, "I love you." I yelled back, "I love you, too." I never saw him again. I moved out of Providence. A friend called to tell me he had died." -Smith Hill Tap, 465 Smith Hill Road, by Mary Lynch

"I keep expecting to run into him at Whole Foods, though. It's as though he left his ghost there." -University Heights Whole Foods, 601 N. Main St., by TL

"I say: "Oh, so where's my bike?" and he tells me that my friend thought I'd changed the password to his email account, so he trashed my bike when he was drunk. Now I'm pissed. I haven't seen him--I just found out today, and I can't wait to see him." -Corner of Charles St. & Paul St, by Anonymous