by Guest Blogger Christina Inge
Recently, I visited the legendary Boston club ManRay, a stalwart of the avante-garde music scene of the 1980s and '90s, recently re-opened. The evening was one of nostalgia, as 80s New Wave fired up a crowd that started out as mostly GenXers, then swelled with younger patrons dressed up to celebrate a decade that for them was historical.
It was curious to know that the era of my childhood is now history, or at least, the subject of nostalgia. ManRay is also host, once again, to new music, but on Saturday evening, it was the history of the place that brought patrons out to reminisce about - or, in the case of younger attendees, experience for the first time - a specific time in the history of music. What was once au courant was now a trip down memory lane, the nightclub equivalent, in a good way, of the historical houses that dot the New England landscape, offering a faithful reproduction of an experience of the past.
Those who had been to the club in its heyday reminisced about their own personal memories of shows, activism, and community built by the goth, punk, alternative, and LGBTQ+ communities of the time. History may have been embodied in the walls of ManRay, but it truly lived in the stories of those for whom it and other Boston clubs of the era had been perhaps the first place that felt like home, or the place where they shaped their identities, or discovered their talents in arts or activism. Those stories were the living history of the place.
The oral history of place is complex. Spaces can have architectural significance, of course, or they may just be another boxy space in a part of Cambridge, MA or countless other towns. The cultural and social significance of a space is not always apparent from carefully-restored woodwork or meticulously-sourced vintage images on walls.
But, with the right questions and appreciation for personal stories, it can be unearthed - because that's what makes a space truly come alive. That Saturday night at ManRay was evidence of this; a place now primarily kept in collective memory had suddenly come to life through stories that painted a multifaceted picture of its importance in Boston culture of the past few decades. That oral history, shared informally among friends and family, however, needs to be preserved to truly communicate the importance of a place to the broader community. How many oral histories of place are ephemeral, shared over coffee or shouted over music, only to disappear with the dawn?
How can we capture the oral histories of place, preserving the stories told and experiences shared in a way that can be passed on to future generations? To do this, we need dedicated community historians and activists, who can conduct interviews and document publicly available information while also seeking out often-unheard voices.
We also need technology tools that enable us to share our personal stories and capture the oral histories of place, serving as a shared repository for communities to preserve their collective memories. Only then will our places come alive with more than just architectural history - they’ll become repositories of shared experience, community-driven narratives that we can pass on to future generations. ManRay is only one example of this; it’s up to us to ensure that the stories and experiences of all places, not just historical sites or special cultural landmarks, are preserved. Only then can we truly understand the importance of a place in our collective history, and continue its legacy for future generations. That's what we are so proud to do at Memria; preserving the stories and experiences of communities, places, and people. We are here to help you preserve the oral histories of your place. What's your story?