Re-Site: Sour Solvents
54 – 60 York Street | October 16-25
In the essay Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty defines “subaltern pasts” as pasts that evade historicization by eluding authorization by the so-called “rational” historian. This may be because a past does not produce enough evidence, or the right kind of evidence, to confirm the knowledge that it suggests. Chakrabarty compellingly engages a textile metaphor, describing subaltern pasts as knots in the fabric of history. Even as marginal histories do not become a part of mainstream history (i.e. the knot is separate from the fabric), the subaltern shows us the texture and logics of history.
Sour Solvents responds to the notion that there are multiplicities that exist within, beyond, and despite the histories and realities that we know. This piece does so, using sugar materially and metaphorically to engage the layers of pasts that are absorbed into our present. As Chakrabarty uses the “knot” to describe how we come to know the weaving of history, Sour Solvents plays with notions of dissolution to show the many histories that constitute the present, expanding and critiquing how the past remains, even as we may not always sense its presence.
A note on historical narratives
The histories that ground the Re-Site have been cultivated from primary and secondary sources, accessible with thanks to the on-going efforts of collecting organizations and libraries, community members, and historians. The stories that define people and place shift in the currents that pull our socio-cultural priorities: they ebb and flow. Our knowing is reliant on those who have preserved records and have previously woven those pieces together, but we must always be mindful of the records not archived, the voices obscured and silenced, and the perspectives we have neglected and forgotten. History is happening right now.
Site History: The Portland Sugar House
This site is the location of the Portland Sugar House, a sugar and molasses factory owned and operated by J.B. Brown & Company in the mid-nineteenth century. This factory was one of the largest refineries in the United States during this era, and perhaps not coincidentally, Portland also had the largest trade with the West Indies of any port on the Atlantic coast at this time. Maine’s statehood is tied to slavery because of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, but the connection between the state’s economy and slavery can also can be examined through the lens of its relationship with sugar plantations in the West Indies. The Sugar House also employed many Irish immigrants. In the mid-nineteenth century, the western Commercial Street area was home to many businesses that employed Irish and Irish-American workers; there were also several tenement buildings that housed Irish families. Today, this site falls just outside the boundaries of the City’s Portland Waterfront and West End Historic districts.
Portland Sugar House and J.B. Brown & Company
The Portland Sugar House, owned and operated by J.B. Brown & Company (later JB Brown & Sons), refined sugar from molasses imported from the West Indies. One of the largest refineries in the United States during the era, it was all but destroyed in the Great Fire of 1866. JB Brown & Sons quickly rebuilt the factory, but the business soon closed due to increased competition and obsolete refining methods.
“Brown was induced to undertake the manufacture of sugar by the favorable representations of a Scotchman who came from Cuba and who claimed to have a thorough understanding of the business, but it proved otherwise, for after the building had been erected it was found that the Scotchman had no practical knowledge of the matter and Mr. Brown was compelled to go to New York to get a man to operate the works. It proved a success, however, and for some time Mr. Brown realized handsomely on his venture. At one time he employed over two hundred hands in the sugar house. At the time he went into this enterprise there were only two other sugar houses in the country. The great fire of 1866 destroyed the sugar house, which during the year had been greatly enlarged from the original building, ruining in stock, machinery and building over five hundred thousand dollars worth of property.”
Irish Community in Portland
In the mid-nineteenth century, the western end of Commercial Street was home to a variety of businesses, and even some more tenement buildings that housed Irish families. Beginning at the foot of Clark Street, where the Portland Star Match Company was located, and stretching down to Cassidy Point, a large number of enterprises were housed which employed a great many Irish and Irish-American workers. The Portland Sugar House employed many Irish immigrants.
John Bundy Brown and Sugar House
“After the Great Fire of 1866, The JB Brown & Sons Sugar House,” photograph. Portland Press Herald. Accessible online: https://www.pressherald.com/media/gallery/great-fire-historic-photos-portland-maine/.
Billings, Randy. “Portland’s Premier Businessman Proves As Resilient as the City.” Portland Press Herald, Special Project. Accessible online: http://specialprojects.pressherald.com/portlands-great-fire/businessman.html
“J.B. Brown’s Portland Sugar House, York and Commercial Streets, Portland, Maine,” lithograph, circa 1860. Boston Athenaeum. Accessible online: https://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/digital/collection/p13110coll5/id/12/
“Portland’s links to slave trade require both study and action The city should acknowledge that it benefited from the labor of enslaved people elsewhere and enact protesters’ demands”. Portland Press Herald, 24 June 2020: A.1.
Trade, Maritime, Global Connections
Business Letters Describing the Financial Market in Cuba (J.B. Brown Company), finding aid and digital surrogates of letters. University of Florida Smathers Libraries. Accessible online: http://www.library.ufl.edu/spec/manuscript/guides/cubamarket.htm
Carey Jr., David. “Comumidad Escondida: Latin American Influences in Nineteenth – and Twentieth-Century Portland” in Creating Portland: History and Place in Northern New England. Durham, NH: UNH Press, 2005. (Available via local library)
Workforce and Immigrant Communities
Barker, Matthew Jude. The Irish of Portland, Maine:A History of Forest City Hibernians. History Press, 2014. (Available via local library)
Connolly, Michael C. Seated by the Sea: The Maritime History of Portland, Maine, and Its Irish Longshoremen. University Press of Florida, 2011. (Available via local library)
Eagan, Eileen. “Working Portland: women, class, and ethnicity in the nineteenth century” in Creating Portland: History and Place in Northern New England. Durham, NH: UNH Press, 2005. (Available via local library)
Kanes, Candace. “Working Women of the Old Port,” exhibit. Maine Memory Network. Accessible online: https://www.mainememory.net/sitebuilder/site/813/page/1223/display
Maine Irish Heritage Trail. Accessible online: http://www.maineirishheritagetrail.org/sites/
Asha Tamirisa [she/her/hers] works with sound, video, film, and researches media histories. Asha has performed at venues such as the ICA Boston, Bitforms Gallery (NYC), has given talks at the University of Michigan, Mount Holyoke College, Oberlin College, and Wheaton College, and held residencies at The Media Archeology Lab (Boulder, CO), Perte de Signal (Montreal, CA) and I-Park Foundation (East Haddam, CT). Asha’s work has been mentioned in the Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics and the 5th Edition of Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture (Routledge). Along with many colleagues, Asha co-founded OPENSIGNAL, a collective of artists concerned with the state of gender and race in electronic music and art practice. She now works with the organization TECHNE (technesound.org). Asha has taught courses at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, Girls Rock! Rhode Island, and Street Level Youth Media in Chicago. Asha holds a Ph.D. in Computer Music and Multimedia and an M.A. in Modern Culture and Media from Brown University, and is currently an Assistant Professor at Bates College.
54-60 York St. is owned by Unity College, known as America’s Environmental College. With locations all across Maine, the College partners with several regional businesses and organizations, and is a proud supporter of the arts.
Photo credits: Justin Levesque