Shady Heritage: Root or remedy to social polarization in port cities?

Saskia Tideman

The stories we tell about past events are unavoidably biased. Political or ideological agendas drive the selection process determining which stories are immortalised in history books and archives, and which are disregarded. This also goes for heritagisation – which is the process of designating, preserving and curating heritage buildings – as it creates a hierarchy within the built environment of historically ‘important’ buildings versus ‘insignificant’ ones. This heritage-driven hierarchy has far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, it freezes buildings that support the hegemonic history in both time and place, while on the other hand, it leaves out sites whose heritage value is contested. This increases the perceived importance of a chosen past and simultaneously fuels the loss of non-hegemonic memories that cannot endure the test of time without ‘built evidence’.

Social cohesion is reliant on a balanced and multifaceted representation of the past, which acknowledges multiple influences rather than a few selected ones (Ricoeur, 2000). The loss of built evidence prevents diverging social groups from empathising with each other, as they lose the ability to understand the origin of their differences. There is therefore a need to acknowledge the historical ‘greyscale’ and find ways of portraying co-existing readings of the past in the built environment. Doing so requires the reconsideration of the ‘contested heritage’ which reflects social conflict and clashing value systems (Historic England, 2021). However, the terminology of ‘contested heritage’ is troublesome. This label focuses on the contested-ness of objects and the social and political conflicts they conjure, rather than on their social value and their potential role within the city.

With the term ‘Shady Heritage’, I seek to reframe discourse relating to the divisive heritage, in order to address the root cause of their contestation and unfold their potential. My use of the word ‘Shady’ encompasses both its literal sense - meaning ‘located in or causing shade’, or ‘out of sight’- and in its figurative sense, meaning ‘sneaky’, ‘suspect’, or ‘of doubtful honesty or legality’. The meaning of the word ‘heritage’ is broadened, understood as both the debts as well as the riches we inherit from past generations. Shady Heritage is characterised by the ambivalence it evokes: the same Shady Heritage site may evoke to some pride, and to others shame, or injury. These sites materialise the friction in value systems of different social groups in time, and stand as material witnesses to the ubiquity of Shady narratives. These locations manifest either through the presence or absence of urban testimony of Shady narratives related to exploitation, violence, injustice and so on. These physical sites, which relate to non-normative memories, get overwritten due to their lacking legitimacy when claiming historical value – they are merely from the past and intended to remain there, an example of which might be Hull's St Andrew’s fishing dock whose contested heritage value has led to redevelopment deadlock and dereliction. Indeed, as observed in Hull, such developmental logics have led to the redaction of buildings associated with inconvenient and undesirable memories.

Port cities and specifically the liminal spaces between urban and industrial-maritime land provide an interesting context within which to test the architect’s agency in architectural historiographies and refine the concept of Shady Heritage. Indeed, the transport of goods, people and ideas brought about the good, the bad and the Shady, all of which played a role in socio-economic development as well as local identity. However, the second half of the 20th-century brought about significant changes in port infrastructure and economy, causing new ports to appear far from the urban nuclei while historic port facilities needed to ‘totally reform themselves’ (Moretti, 2020). Moretti writes that it had become common understanding that ‘it was essential to replace and/or remove the port’ to transform urban spaces near the port, with the former changing beyond recognition. Similarly, Atkinson, Cooke and Spooner write about the ‘sanitisation’ process post-industrial areas undergo before they are reintegrated into the urban fabric and accommodate new uses, whereby uncomfortable aspects of the local pasts are elided (2002). The significant urban readjustment of the port provided infinite opportunities for the industrial past to be reshaped in the lens of a de-industrial city and its service-based economy. This transformation however poses a significant threat of urban and social amnesia, relating not only to port activity but also to the people, goods and ideas that entered the city through the port. 

Port cities have an abundance of Shady Heritage, which at times reflects social class division, racial discrimination tied to colonialism and slavery or social injustice related to environmental pollution. So long as port-city leadership does not engage with the historical complexities of their unique heritage and continue to curate an image that leaves out undesirable pasts, Shady Heritage sites are fated to crumble, reducing society’s ability to reflect on the past. This silence and censorship threaten to sow further division. However, if evaluated closely, these places have the potential to create cohesion. Indeed, social consensus can be nurtured both during early-stage stakeholder consultation, and, at a later stage, in the new spaces created from Shady Heritage sites once the past is acknowledged and reflected upon. The key is to neither ignore, nor censor, nor romanticise local history to allow exchange within the most diverse possible stakeholder group. The Black Lives Matter movement demonstrated the need to reassess previously ignored narratives, leading to the questions: Who should we commemorate? What can’t we afford to forget? Can we acknowledge whose heritage we are talking about or perhaps, query which values are behind endowing a certain building heritage status? In the summer of 2020, we witnessed Black Lives Matter’s attempts to change the city in places where dominant historical narratives had been frozen in place through heritagisation, statues and memorial plaques, actions which were driven by the desire for the city to reflect a changing relationship with the past. 

Indeed, while heritagisation presents a bias towards heritage that often conforms with hegemonic histories, the built environment can also push back shunned narratives into consciousness. Given the increasingly divided society we live in, it is not only those whose stories have been repressed that have something to gain from this, but all of us. A growing body of literature and current events point to the treats political and social polarisation pose to Western democracies (El-Erian, 2015). Part of the solution may lie in providing opportunities for citizen engagement and democratic exchange by broadening heritage discourse. Until we can come to terms with the underlying shadiness, we will remain unable to remedy its lingering (negative) impacts. Shady Heritage sites present themselves as a priceless urban asset that is able to manifest alternative historic readings, thus contributing to the diversity and inclusivity of Port Cities. Furthermore, one could foresee such heritage might, if handled well, provide a unique tourism asset in a globalizing environment (Atkinson, Cooke and Spooner, 2002). Nurturing a mindset able to accommodate Shady Heritage is therefore of utmost social and economic value to 21st-century port cities. 

This blog was written in the context of a work-in-progress Masters’ Architecture thesis ‘From Shady Heritage toward an Architecture of Frictional Empathy’ at TU Delft by Saskia Tideman under the supervision of Carola Hein and Stefano Milani. Furthermore, it was reviewed in discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding the relationships among port city actors. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Asma Mehan, Paul van de Laar, Hilde Sennema and Carola Hein.

Cover Illustration
‘Who knows what may lie in your local palimpsest.’ Collage illustration by Saskia Tideman, 2021.

Original historic maps from the following sources:

U.S. Army. “Town plan of Marseille.” 1943. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. “Marseille.” 1840. Accessed October 15, 2020.
Bellin, J. N. “Plan de Marseille et ses environs.” 1764. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Campen, L. “Plan Routier de la ville.”1792. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Razaud, J. “Plan geometral de la ville citadelles port et arcenaux de Marseille.”1743. Accessed October 15, 2020.

Fer, N. “Marseille, France.” 1702. Accessed October 15, 2020.,-France-

Atkinson, David, Steven Cooke and Derek Spooner. “Tales from the Riverbank: Place-Marketing and Maritime Heritages.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 8, no. 1 (2002): 25-40.

El-Erian, M. A. “How political polarisation is crippling Western democracies.” (accessed February 20, 2021).

Historic England. “Contested Heritage.” (accessed February 20, 2021).

Moretti, Beatrice. Beyond the Port City: The Condition of Portuality and the Threshold Concept. Jovis Verlag GmbH. 2020: 29 -149

Ricoeur, Paul. La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli. Paris: Seuil, 2000.