Five questions for Ken Foote

Geography professor studies how tragic events are memorialized
community memorial

One of several community memorials for the victims of the July 20 shooting at the Century 16 Theater in Aurora. This photo, taken on the afternoon of July 21, shows some of the mementos being left at the site, though not how quickly it was growing. Often memorials like this are created right at the death site, but this memorial, just across from the theater along South Sable Boulevard, was as close to the guarded theater as mourners were permitted. Photo courtesy of Ken Foote

Ken Fotte

Ken Foote

In Western civilization, memorials honoring soldiers and heroes have been traced to Roman and Greek times, and the tradition remains relevant today. But in the past 20 to 30 years, communities also have commemorated a wider range of heroes, victims and events, such as the recent shooting in Aurora. Ken Foote, a geography professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has studied the trend and described his research in a book, “Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy.” He spent more than 10 years visiting about 200 sites before he felt he had enough comparative information to write the book, which focuses on the United States and how communities have chosen to deal with turmoil and disastrous events.

Foote came to CU in 2000, after spending 17 years at the University of Texas at Austin. Along with researching cultural and historical geography, Foote’s interests include geographic information science, which examines systems that use geographic information for decision making. Foote also is dedicated to improving development programs for early career faculty, department leaders and people moving into careers in geography so they will be able to respond to challenges in the discipline.

“Even though people are getting exceptional training in their doctoral programs, there are a whole range of issues not so well covered in graduate school that are important to success,” he says. These include course and curriculum design, active pedagogy, advising strategies and time management. “The broader issue is that unless people have this kind of background, which is necessary for professional success, they won’t be ready to face the challenges coming along.”

1. How did you begin researching the way tragedy affected landscapes and what have you found?

For 25 years I have studied sites that have been affected by violence and tragedy, largely in the United States, but I’ve also done comparative work in Western Europe, including Hungary, Germany, the United Kingdom and other countries. I’ve focused on a wide range of events, from individual homicides and assassinations to wartime losses and battlefields, to things like the recent tragedy in Aurora and other incidents of mass violence.

One summer in the 1980s, I was traveling and thinking about “sense of place” and the strong emotional bonds people develop with homes and the places they like and enjoy. There had just been a horrible mass murder in San Ysidro, Calif., at a McDonald’s restaurant, and I had just visited Salem, Mass. In those days, there was no commemoration of the people killed during the witch trials, and I became interested in the way some events elicited a negative side to the emotional bonds of places.

There are some general patterns I found after researching so many sites. I see the responses as ranging along a continuum. At one end is the response I term “sanctification,” where people see some real moral value or lesson epitomized by tragedy. Gettysburg or shrines to prominent leaders like John F. Kennedy are examples. Also, when communities experience loss, they often want to honor the victims and families who lost loved ones. At the other end of continuum is “obliteration.”  After events like Aurora, which are shocking or shameful, or involve taboo subjects like child abuse, people tend to obliterate or remove the evidence of the crime in efforts to downplay the event and create some distance. In between sanctification and obliteration are “rectification” and “designation.” With rectification, people fix up and reuse sites, perhaps after a fire or accident. People know why it happened and they’re saying, “Let’s get on with life.” The last area on the continuum is “designation.” People put up a sign indicating that the place is significant. Someday, it might be sanctified, but it isn’t quite at that stage yet.

Some sites move along the continuum as they are reinterpreted over time, attaining new meaning or fading from view. Some sites also become rallying points for protest and resistance as, for instance, happened at the Little Bighorn battlefield in regard to recognizing the Native Americans who fought there. Now there’s a Native American memorial there as well as the cavalry memorial honoring Custer’s troops.

Sometimes memorials are removed, including the recent removal of Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State. There was a debate about moving the statue, but it was such a bad instance of child abuse, they decided to remove it. It also has happened in areas of political change. In Hungary, the Czech Republic and East Germany, when the communist governments fell, the memorials were moved out of public sight and new statutes were erected.

Sometimes when we visit memorials today, we don’t see the controversies lying behind their creation.  The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument are two of the most popular tourist sites in Washington, D.C., yet they took decades to complete. Lincoln today is viewed as a hero, but in his time he was a despised and divisive figure. It took decades to gain the support needed to create the memorial, dedicated in 1922. Washington’s monument was started in 1848 (almost 50 years after his death) and not completed until 1884. The Civil War certainly slowed progress, but there was resistance for years to having a memorial to a president that was as grand as a king’s. Sometimes people’s ideas change in a positive way, but sometimes feelings move in a negative way, like in Paterno’s case.

2. It seems that early in American history, we predominantly memorialized presidents, but now we are just as likely to commemorate other people or tragic events. What has changed?

A plaque honors Elaura Jaquette

A plaque on a stone honors Elaura Jaquette, a CU student brutally murdered by a custodian in Macky Auditorium in 1966. Dedicated in 2006, the memorial was donated by friends and family and is located on the bank of the creek running between the Guggenheim Geography Building and Hale Science. Jaquette had been studying there immediately before her death. Families and friends often hesitate to mark crimes like this one, or delay for many years, because they do not wish to have loved ones remembered as murder victims. Photo courtesy of Ken Foote

Probably over the last generation, there has been an increase in the types of events that might be memorialized and commemorated. The struggle over commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. is a good representation of how the pantheon of American heroes has been expanded to include a far broader range of voices. Up until the MLK debate, very few African Americans were commemorated; now we can find more. There’s a much greater sense that everyone – Native Americans, Japanese Americans – represent our past and should be recognized.

Up until 20 or 30 years ago, events like the shooting in Aurora would probably not have led to memorials. They were a rarity, but nowadays, people are talking about putting up community memorials within days of a shooting or bombing. There are situations with similar events in the past in which communities tried to efface all evidence of the crimes; they didn’t want to be reminded. But now people sense that something needs to be done for the victims.

This may also be related to a revival of interest in the spontaneous memorials that spring up at the sites of accidents. Many more cities and states will allow them and, for instance, allow families to pay a certain amount to erect a memorial. A generation ago, when people died and the body was buried, tribute was attached to physical remains at the gravesite. People now are much more connected to the last place that their loved one was alive, which represents a spiritual connection to the loved one. This seems to be a gradual shift in attitude toward death and dying.

3. Has anything about your research surprised you?

I often revisit sites and am often taken aback by the care and attention these sites receive a hundred or more years after a tragedy. Sometimes it takes by breath away to see that the site still resonates with people generations later. A couple of years ago, I attended an Armistice Day ceremony in Belgium. Ypres was the site of some of the worst fighting in World War I and more than a half-million soldiers were killed there. When I was there, thousands of British and Commonwealth visitors – families – were trying to find the names of those they had lost.

4. You mentioned the struggle surrounding the MLK memorial. In what other ways are landscapes racialized?

These days, people are much more open to acknowledging the broader array of ethnic and racial groups that have contributed to American history, but much of the legacy of these groups has been obliterated from the landscape. For example, Chinese American and Japanese American landscapes have not been seen, until very recently, as significant to conserve or worth remembering. Landscapes are highly segregated by race and ethnicity. In one of my classes, I was trying to get students to look at the way travel is racialized. Between 1936 and 1964, Victor Green published the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide to navigating America in the Jim Crow era. It lists places where African Americans could safely buy gas or find a room for the night. I had my students map out the sites so they could see how limited opportunities were. In Colorado, for instance, the options were limited to the Five Points neighborhood in Denver and just a few other places.

5. Do you have a favorite memento from your travels to memorialized sites?

I do have artifacts from some of these sites. It’s usually debris from the side of the road: ashes or bricks and barbed wire. For survivors and me, it is the tangibility of the site that makes a connection. It’s the reason why these sites are so powerful.

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