Last month I talked about how we negotiate airports. I tried to describe what we can perceive in the transnational staging posts of airports. I wanted to illustrate what even an elderly, myopic traveller can learn through observation. However minimal my insights, that exercise represented something that is critical in education abroad: seeking to understand unfamiliar environments in ways that teach us what these places have to say to us and how they can impact upon our own sense of being an effective actor, or otherwise, within the spaces we inhabit.
Photo: public domain
This resonates with one of the things we try to teach students: how to “read” the city as if it were some kind of text. We aspire to lead students towards observing, exploring and analysing the “language of signs” within concrete urban environments so as to discern the visual surface and also what is implicit and nuanced. What, in short, can we learn from meanings embedded in the streets of our villages, towns and cities?
There are some obvious signs if we are open to seeing them. There is, for example, hardly a town or village in England that does not contain a memorial to those killed in World War 1. This demonstrates that the scale of slaughter suffered in that cataclysmic conflict had an impact in all corners of the nation.
In Dublin, for further example, our students will certainly stroll along O'Connell Street, at the heart of the city. The street contains observable meaning. However, students would have to do a little research to discover that until 1924 O’Connell Street was called Sackville Street, named after an English aristocrat. The renaming of a key thoroughfare in the city after Daniel O'Connell (1775 -1847), also known as the Liberator or Emancipator, created a permanent memorial and signalled disconnection from British rule. The Post Office, halfway along, was the site of the 1916 uprising by Irish nationalists against British rule. It is a potent location as the site of a heroic but doomed rebellion.
William Butler Yeats commemorated the act and actors in the poem “Easter 1916”:
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Photo: public domain
The timing is also of significance: by 1922, after prolonged military struggles, the Irish Free State was established. The erection of O’Connell’s statue dates from 1882; the renaming in 1924. As well as offering an insight into the importance of post-colonial consciousness within Irish national identity, a significant timeline is indicated.
The naming of streets and areas may illuminate key moments in the development of national myths and histories: Trafalgar Square in London is an obvious example. It celebrates Horatio Nelson’s victory in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. It also offers a narrative of past glories that have lost potency in the present. Commemoration of British power was, but is no longer, at the center of national consciousness.
The wide-open space of Boulevard Haussmann in Paris is evidence of the redesign of the city by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809 – 1891). It is part of an urban improvement plan that, between 1853 and 1870, recognized Paris as a leading European city. It also represented a project to destroy those areas of the city in which narrow streets and alleys were congenial environments for criminals and subversives. The architecture was, in part at least, an attempt to control potential revolutionary acts.
Observing environments is not only a mechanism for understanding history. Our students in Shanghai, China will be aware of the development of the Pudong area as a center of international commerce. They can walk by the Shanghai Stock Exchange and the Shanghai World Financial Center, as well as a myriad of skyscrapers. Pudong embodies the ambiguous relationship of China with global capitalism. Commitment to communist ideologies coexists with a clear determination to become a major economic power in global markets: a reconciliation of apparent paradoxes built in concrete.
Research into the origins and meanings of names also potentially offers insights. This is not always the case of course. High Street or Main street are indicators of little other than a lack of imagination. Some cities are ostensibly less fertile sources for this kind of investigation.
Most of Manhattan in New York is built upon a grid system (numbered avenues going from north to south and streets east to west). Nevertheless, the logical grid system is not without discernible meaning. The grid design was part of the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, and was the work of John Randel, Jr. (1787–1865). Marguerite Holloway sees Randel as an individual genius with a vision that reflected the values of his time:
He was of the Enlightenment, born into a culture and a period in which reason and measured action were prized and dominion over the natural world…was celebrated. His was the era of laying lines on the land—lines for communication, for transportation of people and goods; lines for establishing nationhood, statehood, and individual ownership. Those are the lines, the geometry, that define much of the American landscape today. 
Even the grid system of New York has a meaning beyond simple geography.
There are, though, New York names with obvious significance, Columbus Circle needs no explanation: others in Manhattan are worth consideration: Irving Place (named for Washington Irving); other streets commemorate revolutionary heroes (Mercer, Horatio, Greene, Perry, Rutgers, Sullivan, Thompson), while others reflect key figures in the founding of the city and the nation (Houston, Jefferson, Madison, Vanderbilt, Stuyvesant).
Photo: public domain
Public monuments clearly offer signs that, as a minimum, indicate what is, or what was, important to national identity. The historical distinction is critical. The significance of any monument will change over time through indifference, ignorance, or ideological rejection. At the extreme end, the construction and destruction of statues will be indicative of political transformation. The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad (2003) is an obvious example of transformed values.
The current controversy regarding the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard in New Orleans is indicative of a contested history. Robert Edward Lee (1807–1870) commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Jefferson Davis (1808 –1889) was the President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. P. G. T. Beauregard (1818 –1893) was a prominent general in the Confederate Army.
The African-American jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis argued for the removal of these statues:
When one surveys the accomplishments of our local heroes across time …Andrew Jackson, from Mahalia Jackson, to Anne Rice and Fats Domino, from Wendell Pierce, to John Besh and Jonathan Batiste, what did Robert E. Lee do to merit his distinguished position? He fought for the enslavement of a people against our national army fighting for their freedom...In the heart of the most progressive and creative cultural city in America, why should we continue to commemorate this legacy. 
Marsalis, born in New Orleans 1961, offers an alternative history of the city through his choice of heroes. With the exception of Andrew Jackson (1767 – 1845), the other figures are broadly representative of the creative life of the city as expressed by singers (Jackson, Domino, Batiste), an actor (Pierce), a chef (Besh) and a novelist (Rice). Four of the people mentioned are also African Americans. Marsalis indicates that the significant histories of New Orleans are not told exclusively through white Confederates.
Photo: public domain
The controversy surrounding the removal and replacement of Lee’s statue reflects distinctive interpretations of what matters in defining the identity of place. This is a critical component of what students should learn of the cities in which they study. Memorials, like street names, signify a view of history, but whose history? Students of urban spaces walk through clues that can be deciphered to enrich learning experiences. They are metaphorically readers of multi-layered texts. Like good literary critics, they can learn to explore something akin to an iceberg: what may be seen and what lies beneath the surface. To employ another metaphor, they become archaeologists digging into the soil to unearth the past and, therefore, to understand the inter-relationship of that past with the observable present.
This is not a skill that is relevant exclusively to environments overseas. Instead of wandering through spaces with eyes half shut, we can all learn to discern layers of meaning and, thus, to become active researchers and seekers for understanding of where we are, and who we are, in complex spaces.
One of my recent journeys took me to the city of Boston where I sought to practice what we teach at CAPA. Next month I will describe what I was able to see. There are, for example, contrasting versions of courage offered by the proximity of memorials in Commonwealth Avenue. The streets themselves make statements of belief and articulate ethical propositions. I am far from being an urban geographer but through exploration, followed by some level of analysis, I was able to discern urban narratives that spoke not only to a specific city but also to the ways in which our consciousness may be shaped by things around us.
We are sent messages in the streets through which we pass; decoding those clues offers a mechanism to grasp meanings beyond the surface: to understand where we have been and where we are, empowering us to discern the spaces we occupy, that are shaped and reshaped in our curious consciousness.
 Marguerite Holloway, “How Manhattan Got Its Street Grid,” Scientific American, February 15, 2013.
Wynton Marsalis, "Why New Orleans should take down Robert E. Lee's statue," The Times-Picayune, December 15, 2015.