Street Smarts

This week’s reading from Nearby History was all about cultural landscapes. Walking down the street and observing your surroundings gives the adept local historian insight into the history of a community. Stages of growth, community values, and details about the lives of the people in the community can often be discerned by paying attention. This chapter, like previous ones, listed many practical questions to help historians tease out facts and observations about nearby history. It was one of the most interesting chapters because it deals with the everyday, mundane sights that are often overlooked as rich sources of historical information. Roads, signs, construction materials, and architectural styles can all be used to draw conclusions about the community. Understanding that “people and buildings exist in an organic relationship” is important for the nearby historian. (183)


Looking east on Riverside Street in early Spokane. Source: Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library

One of the best questions posed by Kyvig and Marty is how “natural features, a river for example, shape a city? How did a railway reshape it? And how did an interstate highway or airport reshape it again?” (181) Spokane is the perfect city to examine using this set of questions. Obviously the Spokane River was a key factor in determining the location of Spokane and its first urban development. Railroads also became extremely important to Spokane’s growing industries and economy, and they were established very early in the history of Spokane. That makes sense looking at the layout of the city because the railroad lines are fairly close to Spokane’s source of vitality at the time—the river. When I-90 was built years later, it was set back a bit from where the river and rails were. Spokane was no longer dependent on transporting lumber that had been milled near the river, so the transportation corridor didn’t need to be so close to the water. The airport was built a few miles outside of Spokane’s downtown area, which drew businesses and people to the western reaches of the city. Using questions like this to critically analyze my hometown over the past week has been an interesting exercise, and made me realize how much information is all around me.

This week we also read an example of somebody going out to analyze a town and putting questions like these into practice. Lucy Salmon simply walked down the main street of Apokeepsing with a keen eye and was able to conclude an unbelievable amount of information. Some of her most interesting conclusions had to do with the evolution of Apokeepsing business, the names of streets, and picking up on the ancient and medieval customs that could still be seen in the modern day. She also had a lot to say about the roots of words like those displayed on “the signs of chiropodists, dentists, manicurists,” and other places. Salmon asserts that Main Street would be a “void” if all of the signs were “removed that bear words of Greek or Latin origin.” (2) Salmon points out that we cannot necessarily “reconstruct the history of Main Street in its entirety” with methods like this, but we can certainly “reconstruct its changing and successive interests” and get to know the “mind and spirit of Main Street.” (5)



  1. Josh Van Veldhuizen · May 23, 2017

    I liked your application of this weeks Nearby History chapter to Spokane. This town really is an ideal example because of it’s position to the river. Bringing up the airport made me think of the Air Force base and it’s connection to Airway Heights.


  2. lachku0130 · May 24, 2017

    First off, I LOVE YOUR TITLE! It definitely got a chuckle out of me!! Also, I too, liked how you made a connection to Spokane in your post, and I mean, isn’t that what “Nearby History” is trying to do? To make us think about our own towns? Great job Katie!
    -Lauren K


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