How can music and dance revitalise notorious and neglected public space?
Research project, 2016-2020
Together with Fernando Gutiérrez Hernández
This is a study of how a small square in the historic centre of the Port of Veracruz in Mexico was revitalised with music and dance events after a period of neglect and notoriety. We investigated the everyday events, actions and habits in the square, its history and memories of it. An exhibition of the study increased awareness of the urban heritage of Veracruz. Our research revealed why music and dance events proved successful strategies of revitalisation. Furthermore, we discussed the relevance of systematic, map-based observations for understanding urban heritage.
‘Infra-ordinario. Una descripción del espacio público en el tiempo’ in Bitácora Arquirectura by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Upcoming: ‘Observing Attachment: Observational Methods in the Understanding of Urban Heritage and Spatial Culture in the Port of Veracruz, Mexico’ in Methodologies for Exploring Emotional Attachments to Historic Urban Places by Routledge.
The case of the Plazuela de la Campana square
La Plazuela de la Campana was originally a patio of a monastery and an integral part of the Port of Veracruz, one of the oldest colonial port-cities in the continental Americas. It later turned into a public neighbourhood square. Along with the deterioration of the historic centre in the 20th century, the Plazuela square became neglected and dangerous. Civic initiative brought attention back to the square over time transformed it its image. It became a place of music and dance.
Our study of the square, La Plazuela de la Campana, began with an exhibition to visualise the life of the square, tell about its history and future possibilities. The exhibition called Infraordinario in Casa Principal in Veracruz showed how the square transforms from a tranquil noon to a busy dance night. It demonstrated how urban life emerges from everyday events, actions and habits, some so ordinary that they are nearly unnoticeable, hence the title infraordinario, infra-ordinary. Talks about the conservation of public space followed the exhibition. We also described these initial written and mapped observations of the life in the Plazuela square in Bitácora Arquirectura.
The exhibition gave rise to questions that we embarked on researching:
How does the shape and location of the square affect activities there?
Why were dance events in particular successful in urban revitalisation?
What can observation methods tell about urban heritage?
We then expanded the study in a paper in the Urban renewal and resilience conference organized by the European Association of Urban History in Rome in 2018. We continued interviews, went through the archives of Miguel Ángel García Cortés, the primus motor of the events, and asked about people’s memories of the square and their social contacts there. What emerged was a portrayal of how music and dance became a new tradition that nurtures a collective attachment to the Plazuela and contributes to it being regarded as heritage. This new perception of the square overpowered its past notoriety. Dance and music, besides creating pleasant associations, effectively built a network of friendships that engages people in the square and through which the history of the place becomes remembered. All these effects deepen the meaningfulness of the Plazuela. Ultimately, we propose, they translate into a general appreciation—a lesson to be learned for emerging urban planning practices. Read more in the article ‘Urban revitalisation with music and dance in the Port of Veracruz, Mexico’ in Urban Design International.
In the course of the study, we understood that time-serial observations on everyday life recorded on a map have relevance to understanding intangible cultural heritage, which is typically little considered in the conservation of historic public spaces. We discuss in an upcoming book chapter how observational methods help to understand embodied experience and the rise of social networks. In this way, they may illuminate the heritage values of a place.