Astrom, Anna-Maria, Pirjo Korkiakangas and Pia Olsson (eds.): Memories of My Town: The Identities of Town Dwellers and Their Places in Three Finnish Towns.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Evenden, L.J.
Pub Date: 06/22/2006
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Summer, 2006 Source Volume: 15 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Memories of My Town: The Identities of Town Dwellers and Their Places in Three Finnish Towns (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Astrom, Anna-Maria; Korkiakangas, Pirjo; Olsson, Pia
Accession Number: 155783071
Full Text: Astrom, Anna-Maria, Pirjo Korkiakangas and Pia Olsson (eds.) Memories of My Town: The Identities of Town Dwellers and Their Places in Three Finnish Towns Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society. Studia Fennica: Ethnologica 8, 2005 ISBN 951-746-433-9 249 pp.

This volume of eleven studies, in translation, explores questions of identity in urban settings. Editor Astrom contributes one essay and co-authors the introduction, while five authors, including the additional editors, contribute two articles each. Five of the studies are based in central Helsinki or its suburbs, four in Jyvaskyla, a principal town of the central interior, and two in the Karelian town of Vyborg, now in Russia, in a region disputed over the centuries among Sweden, Russia and Finland. The separate case studies in this volume are all part of a major study sponsored by the Finnish Academy, called "Town Dwellers and their Places" and rely upon what might be called 'memory-events', recorded through substantive surveys of varying form and scope, as well as archival sources (1).

The editors start from the position that "[u]rban culture, the urban way of life, exists in different milieus" (p. 8), implying that the selection of these three towns illustrates such differences, although no principle of selection is developed beyond the briefest indications. Jyvaskyla is a relatively recent town, having been incorporated in the 1830s as a lake port that emerged as a significant language and educational centre for the interior and, one assumes, for the development of self-conscious Finnish identity. In contrast, the shifting boundary between Finland and Russia lies at the heart of Vyborg's identity. In 1944 the Karelian Isthmus, anchored by Vyborg at its northwestern end, was ceded to the Soviet Union, resulting in the displacement of over four hundred thousand people.

The methodologies employed in the book, and the interpretations made concerning identity, based as they are upon memories, must surely be influenced by such varying local histories, set within national development. However, information contained in and abstracted from the record of memory is not examined in relation to state history (2). The wider context of the state is assumed and emphasis is placed upon the temporal, upon the unfolding of the story. Apart from thumb-nail historical sketches, any significance accorded conventional calendar chronologies is secondary.

Certain tensions attend such enquiry. Here the reader is asked to consider the problem of creating an urban image in narrative terms--in other words, the evidence of interviews, archival inspection, and survey instruments that require the presentation of life stories dredged up from the varying depths of memory. What is not clear is whether the intent of the project, taken as a whole, is to focus at the level of the individual, where the evidence is sought, and where the result might be an understanding valid only for the individual. Or is the intent to achieve social or societal understanding, in a generalization analogous to the conventional spatial models? Or is it to strive for an articulation that admits of no such analogy? In the end, there is a lingering impression that the constructed 'image' is the result as much of the telling of the stories, and the language used, as of any objectively verifiable points that might have been pointed out in the stories themselves. Is the image thus self-justifying?

By definition, social science must aim to understand the human condition at a level beyond individual experience, to identify something of what it means for the collective to exist and what it means to exist in the collective. It must also seek to identify the rules by which such experience can be expressed in patterned, orderly and meaningful ways. Yet, the evidence for such enquiry inevitably depends upon individual experience, and on the experiences of individuals in relation to others. And the evidence must be more than an exercise in additive description. Having placed emphasis upon this issue here, I note that the studies in this volume handle it with skill and thoughtful discussion.

Unusually good archival sources were important in the research conducted, especially in the case of Vyborg. In addition, the authors conducted probing surveys among the living, concerning their memories of places. Perhaps inevitably, in a project seeking to discover or to construct identity from memory, the end result places emphasis upon the uniqueness of the communities rather than what is 'general' about them--that is, what they might hold in common. Such results, however, lay the groundwork for comparative research that might move towards a more general characterization. While space does not permit separate reviews of individual studies, the papers as a group are sophisticated in how they handle the general research issues raised above. Individually, the papers evoke different responses from the reader and offer many refreshing insights.

Meaning in central Helsinki is seen as changing understandings of the "City as Living Room". In turn, this contextualizes the study of local identity among urban workers, the relations of local identity to district formation, and the exploration of local identity formation and neighbourhood changes. The study of Helsinki explores the question of how the narrative image may fit and serve current issues of development.

Jyvakyla is portrayed as a contemporary and perhaps ambitious town. Themes of central area urbanity versus suburban rusticity are introduced, and different views of planners and citizens are drawn out. The conventional opinion emerges that citizens' narratives can contribute to better planning by 'informing' the 'objectively based' planning process. This harks back to the editors' early statement that "[p]ersonally experienced time is the missing point in many town planning strategies" (p. 8), for which insight they acknowledge the Finnish scholar Joel Lehtonen. Specific focus upon the development of educational institutions and planning elements of the Jyvaskyla townscape lead to a consideration of the uses of "nostalgia as strategy" (p. 167).

Respondents' stories from Vyborg were uncommonly nostalgic and longing in tone, owing to the displacement experience--that is, the enforced loss of place. Stahls-Hindsberg, who authored the two studies on Vyborg, sought out former residents of the city to probe their recollections in order to engage with, and to (re?)create the sense of identity they may harbour for their former home. Given the significance of Vyborg's shifting language patterns, as the city has been moved from one dominant state to another, the focus upon linguistic groups (Swedish, Finnish, German and Russian) provides an important framework for analysis. A basic structure of geographical position, social markers, and urban spaces and buildings is employed with reference to these language groups. Vyborg's political history is drawn into the studies of its surviving and now fleeting imagery. This justifies the focus upon "memories and symbols" (p.80) in which the author notes that "[i]t is difficult to define where the border between individual memories and collective memory lies ... (or)... to tell what the individuals themselves find it important to remember" (p. 81), to say nothing, we might add, about the difficulty in knowing what "collective memory" means.

Yet the book contends that, in the case of Jyvaiskyla at least, "... the collective reminiscence has proved valuable in serving as a strategy for defending a variety of old places in the town, and in joining the town dwellers of different ages in making common cause" (p. 196). Common cause includes concern for the environmental impacts of urban development, especially the care of forest, lake and other natural elements. Indeed, the theme of common cause is pursued by more than one author, and is given specific focus in the last two chapters. There the memory narrative is drawn upon to consider how to influence Helsinki's contemporary development.

This volume demonstrates that narratives of memory hold potential for the understanding of past communities, for the stability of the present, and for 'informing' future developments. It would be a useful touchstone for others seeking to explore the issues of identity formation in urban settings. The temporal focus implies the need for such work to be ongoing, as the urban image continues to evolve.

(1) This reviewer earlier proposed the term "memory-event" in an attempt to create the "mindscape" of a former 'community' of Japanese-Canadian civilian internees, in an internment camp during World War II. At the end of hostilities, the camp was razed, but three decades later still existed in memory and emotional space, q-he analogy is to the experience of the displaced citizens of Finland, especially Vyborg, after the boundary with Russia was re-drawn in 1944. The research methodology is also analogous. See Evenden, L.J. and I.D. Anderson. 1972. "The Presence of a Past Community: Tashme, British Columbia," Chapter 3 in Peoples of the Living Land: Geography of Cultural Diversity in British Columbia, edited by Julian V. Minghi. B.C. Geographical Series, No. 15, 242 pp.

(2) Individual and family experiences of wartime displacement, and hence of personal experience with state issues, may be found in Eksteins, Modris. 1999. Walking since Daybreak: A story of Eastern Europe, Warm War II, and the Heart of our Century. Toronto: Key Porter Books. The case study is of Latvia. For a discussion of the dynamics of the Finno-Russian border, including the Vyborg area, see Paasi, Anssi. 1999. "Boundaries as Social Practice and Discourse: The Finnish-Russian Border," Regional Studies, 33, No. 7, pp. 669-80. This article also treats the issue of personal and local experience in relation to the larger state.

L.J. Evenden, Professor

Master's Program in Urban Studies and

Department of Geography

Simon Fraser University
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