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Jeff Cohen, The History of Location

Day 3, Science and a Sense of Place 2007

(Jeff Cohen, Growth and Structure of Cities)



The History of Location

Places in Time:
Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia

map3 jeffmap1

Anne's notes from Jeff's talk:

  • our environment is more defined by what human have done, than by nature
  • place is an artifact of what humans create
  • there is a "toy store" of resources for figuring out the stories of places
  • think of a place as a "palimpsest," with layers of meaning poking through from different parts of history
  • civic spaces are palimpsests, assemblies of different human interventions through time
  • "imagine that you are a mole": what would you see if you stuck your head up every 100 years in the same place?
  • "this is not the pattern you would see in science: humans are more wilful than molecules are
  • "a really attentive mole" would notice that people are going in different directions these days: there is more work on the periphery, and so more commuting from periphery to periphery, into areas not served by public transportion
  • community is "less centrifugal"
  • "transportion can be a social filter"
  • make a mental map of the Philadelphia region, then place yourself in it: what are its organizing features?
  • "beyond development is where philanthropy happens"
  • "maps are our friends"
  • "photography usually comes with a motive"
  • "how resounding the decisions of developers can be"
  • "wonder with me: how did the places you are in take the shape they did? who were the agents of these changes? what were their motives?"
  • "think about the reliability of each of the resources you are using: why was it made? to what degree can you trust it? did it have a particular agenda? filter your understanding through those original purposes...."


Patricia Mundy's picture


I have always enjoyed looking at history visually and listening to oral experiences of family,friends, strangers and colleagues.I have lived in my present neighborhood since the 1950',with the exception of seven years. I'm not usually interested in maps, but I enjoyed comparing the neighborhood changes from a different perspective.
Diane OFee-Powers's picture

Location, Location, Location

I think this would be a great activity for our students to research in the classroom. They could research where there families lived, where the school is located, or possibly use it as a part of an environmental project. I should warn you, I have strong feelings about people destroying the places that we live in. I agree with Wil's comment about driving & increasing the CO2 levels. Unfortunately, I am not as good as Jack to recycle everyone's bottles, again thank you Jack! ok, back to the topic at hand. My school is in Roxborough and some of our students live in Manyunk. This would be a great project for the kids to learn about the history of manufactering in Manyunk because of it's location near the canal. I would like to develop a project that the kids use the maps, research what the area looked like 50-100 year ago, how the area developed, and how humans have impacted the environment either in a positive or a negative manner.
Anonymous's picture

History of Location - Mary Ellen McGinnity

The discussions today were fascinating for a number of reasons. I love going back to locations that have special memories (former homes, neighborhoods, schools I attended, places I've worked, etc.), and I'm very interested in learning about architecture because my children are working in/studying the fields of graphic design and architecture. It's stimulating to have a variety of new lenses through which we can look at where we are and how we've come to be there.
In first grade, I try to integrate the use of maps into everything we do because I feel it's very important for children to have some understanding/perspective about where we are (school in Bryn Mawr) in relation to the places we're reading about or discussing. The mole poking up through a particular space periodically is a clever way to hone our observation skills, something that children today need help in doing. Taking time to notice the effects that people have had on the environment, then engaging in critical thinking and conversations about how and why something was done will have ramifications for our world as we know it now and hope it will be in the future.
Jeff's enthusiasm for his field came across very clearly. By the end of the morning, I began to intertwine the previous days' discussions with today's and now have a much clearer idea of the curriculum plan I'll be submitting.

RecycleJack Marine's picture

My, how the world has changed

When I was a little boy growing up in Springfield, in Eastern Montgomery County, I knew that a neighbor built our house and most of the others in our neighborhood. Today, if you drive into that neighborhood, the houses look almost the same, only the people have changed inside. But looking at the large tracts of land that were in parts of Philadelphia over 100 years ago, I note that this was what a neighborhood looked like before it became one(a neighborhood). I have always been fascinated by photographs from long ago. Some show areas that I recognize as part of my community today. Without these photos, and it's good to know that without the old maps, we might not have an accurate idea of what was here before we set down our roots. I had no idea about the types of homes bulit in Center City and that there were reasons why some are so much smaller than others. I also had no idea until today why my mother's childhood home on Roosevelt Boulevard, had a back staircase. I missed Jeff's lecture once before, so thanks for all of this interesting historical stuff.
Rosemary Krygowski's picture

"It was a great trip but a too long adventure."

When my daughter was 3 years old we took her to Liberty Science Center. As we got back into the car after a very long day she said "it was a great trip but a too long adventure". These words really describe my feelings today. I thoroughly enjoyed everything from the mapping activity and discussions of the forces changing the demography of the city to the story of the attentive mole but I really felt the need to do something.(Am I changing into my students?) As I was driving home today on West Chester Pike I thought of the trolley tracks of my childhood that once lined the middle of this road. They were gone with no traces remaining.In 50 years from now when our mole pops out again, what will our neighborhoods look like? Will technology be the driving force of place. Today our X-rays are read in Australia,manufactured goods come from China and our tech advise from India , where will the jobs be tomorrow? It is thought provoking to ponder about the forces that shape our place but as teachers isn't it even more important to  prepare our students to adapt to the changing landscape of their future. 
Wil Franklin's picture

On constraining willfulness and understanding limits.

I am more than a little in doubt that our environment is more defined by what human have done, than by nature.

From adolescent scatter-brains to the patternless structure of cities I am beginning to suspect that things are not always what they seem. “I don’t understand why my students act so crazy.” “I don’t see any predictable patterns in the structure of Philadelphia.” Does this mean these phenomena are unknowable? What could possibly explain the observations? What we see today may not have an obvious explanation based on today’s observations, but with the right perspective those explanations are not beyond our discovery.

Take for example, one of the first activities of the institute when we looked for patterns in human settlements and we identified several influences of population density. We recognized that not many people live in deserts. People need water – predictable. Then we recognized that the majority of human populations are located on coasts and large waterways – makes sense. Then we wondered about Las Vegas – not predictable. What else is at play? Considering what we have learned from Jeff Cohen one might say humans once were constrained by nature and geography, but since the steam engine and subsequent libratory technologies humans are now less driven by nature and more influenced by other human forces – enterprise, greed or perhaps philanthropy – human nature?. So, driving forces change over time, but the range of possibilities is constrained by nature.

What about patterns of behavior in the children we teach? Why, as Kim Kassidy put it, does a child one day turn from a competent angel to a “pseudo-stupid” alien? Again, change over time. Can we know the driving forces? From the point of view of the teacher it may seem that our students have dubious motives for their actions. But how does nature/cognitive development inform us about adolescent behavior? Elkind’s theory would lead us to re-examine assumptions about our students’ motives. Where a teacher once saw a randomly acting alien, there now is a very confused inchoate adult mind trying to emerge. Students are not necessarily acting out of spite or questionable motives, but may just be confused as they are trying out new ways of thinking abstractly. Again we see nature constraining or limiting the range of explanations.

So, the environment may be an artifact of humans but it is constrained by nature, not to say anything about human nature.

Rita Stevens's picture

Day 3 Location

We have watched areas, communities, cities, etc. change drastically over the years and have seen through history books how they have changed over decades. But I never paid any attention to why the changes were occurring where they were taking place. It will be tedious but I think fun and worthwhile to investigate the changes that have taken place where we live or we work at currently. I am looking forward to using and researching more the information that I have obtained thus far over the past three days. Not just to use it in the classroom but also to help me to learn more about myself. You are never to old learn and I'll probably still be learning something as God takes me home to be with Him.
joycetheriot's picture


My husband can visit fields of old cannons and get excited about the history emanating out of the grass. I'm not so interested. Is this a male thing? I could see that Jeff was very engaged with the historical perspectives and he spoke very well of his research. I enjoyed the map activity especially since I don't do well with spatial reasoning. I was interested in the lecture for about an hour which speaks of Jeff's excellent ability considering my lack of concern about all things to do with history. I grew up in a farmhouse built in the 1700's and my parents collected antiques which I inherited. I think just the word "historical" sends me off to the coffee machine. I know it's good for me to hear and thanks for trying! 


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