Space is neither simply natural geography nor an empty container filled by history. It is rather something that human beings produce over time. Spatial relations shift and change. Space is itself historical.
Drawing upon Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, Richard White provides this definition of space in What is Spatial History? and challenges historians to think about change over both time AND space as they practice history.
I am currently researching Center Market, Washington D.C.’s oldest and largest public marketplace. The market was located on Pennsylvania Avenue from 1801-1931 until it was demolished to make way for the National Archives Building. I am using representations of space such as maps and blueprints to try to recapture a sense of a place that no longer exists.
This ground plan shows the massive size of the market and even some of the diversity of activity, but it fails to capture the daily activities and use that really produced the market. Center Market was much more than a building. Although they were constrained by the built environment, people shaped the market space.
Photographs can give some sense of everyday life in the market; pictures capture the layout of the market, the goods that were sold, the people that shopped there and the clothes that they wore. Together these things inform us of the culture and experience of the past. When compared with representations of space such as maps or plans, they can also show surprising discrepancies. For instance, the official ground plan of Center Market only depicts the interior of the market. However, photographs show that Center Market’s exterior was just as bustling and crowded as its interior. Farmers’ wagons, trucks, and automobiles lined the curb outside of the market selling fresh country produce.
The very name ‘Center Market’ hints at the importance of space and movement. The market originally earned the name because it was easily accessed via the main roads and waterways of the city of Washington. Center Market was located in the ‘center’ of a very different Washington D.C. To get a better idea of the change, take a look at this map of the city of Washington D.C. in 1861 compared to 2014. The ‘center’ of Washington D.C. has changed from being a vibrant public marketplace to a monumental core of official government buildings.
It is worth repeating: space is, “something that human beings produce over time…Space is itself historical”