By Verónica Gerber Bicecci and Kathleen Rooney

“I Used to Live Here” is a collaborative essay and set of images about cities and how they can and cannot be archived or preserved by Mexican artist and writer Veronica Gerber Bicceci and American writer Kathleen Rooney, comprised of interview answers and photographs provided by residents of both Chicago and Mexico City. We began our collaboration by discussing with each other over email what an archive is and what it might mean to attempt to archive a city. As we did this, we decided that we would ask a selection of people in our respective cities three questions to begin to build such an archive: what smell, what object, and what image would they include for their city to create such a record? We also asked them to provide photographs to illustrate each of their answers. Once we received all this raw material, we shaped it, adding in our own meditations on archiving, as well as passages that spoke to the organizing idea that had begun to emerge: the inherently doomed yet irresistible act of calling “dibs” on both abstract and concrete things in the place where one lives. The creation of the essay was supported by the MacArthur Foundation in the form of a grant that facilitated an inter-city cultural exchange between Chicago and Mexico City (the idea being there is so much economic exchange between the two places, there should be some artistic conversation as well). Writers and artists from each city teamed up to produce original collaborative work based on the theme of “archive.” The Mexico City artists traveled to Chicago this year to present the results at a live literary magazine event in the Bridgeport neighborhood, and in February 2015 the U.S. artists will travel to Mexico to present the work there.

KR: A city is itself an archive of a city. All that city broadly means is a relatively large and permanent human settlement. What defines an archive is not what’s in it, but the perspective from which that material is approached, and the way in which it’s put to use.

[blocktext align=”right”]…walking a city is like going through the traces of an archive of the present.[/blocktext]VGB: Michel de Certeau says that we can think of the city from above, as some kind of landscape; or from below, walking over smells, thoughts, images, objects, sounds, signs, conversations. If you choose below, walking a city is like going through the traces of an archive of the present.

KR: In Chicago neighborhoods, they have an informal system in the winter and they call it dibs: digging out a parking place after a snowstorm and placing an object — a chair, a garbage can, a cat carrier, a Virgin Mary statue — in it to save it for future use. The act of dibsing is not unlike archiving — both are about a desire to save, specifically to save a place. But both acts, dibsing and archiving, are always already temporary. Because if the person making the gesture had confidence in permanence, they would not have to try to save something in the first place.

VGB: In Mexico City dibs are constructed not to save a place, but to rule it indefinitely. With a bucket filled with cement and a metal pole in the center, for example, but there are many variations of that formula. We also have franeleros (flannels), our dibs guardians and parking instructors who make a living from dibsing. Dibsing here is violent, a symptom of need: to grab a place more than to save one. It comes from the ultimate desire of the self: surviving.

KurtImageKR: What Kurt Chiang said: “long stretches of street, parallel to graveyards: I used to have a superstition that whenever I drove past a graveyard, I had to hold my breath. That particular neurosis has been extinguished since I moved here, because I would have suffocated. Graveyards are everywhere. The majority of them are in full view to the public. I can imagine hundreds of Chicagoans, shouting from their patches of dirt, ‘Hey! I used to live here, too!’”

VGB: What Eva María Merino Sánchez said: “Recently, I took a picture of a footbridge near my uncle’s house that you can say is part of my personal archive of Mexico City. I’ve realized that defeños can change a landscape with the words they stamp on it. I found this a very poetic intervention: you don’t cross over a big avenue but over the ocean. Or you should see water instead of cement.”

KR: All archives are archives of a present — the record of a person or institution going about daily business with an eye toward functionality, not posterity. The material that’s contained in an archive was not created to be placed in an archive. Archival material is not history; it’s evidence.

KR: In all seasons, in both cities, people appropriate the city for themselves: sleeping in a doorway, pushing on the subway.

ZaraSmellKR: What Zara Abed, who is 9, said when asked what smell she’d like in her Chicago archive: “Is this kind of like a game show? You want the fastest or the right? Neither? Okay, chocolate, because I live near a chocolate factory in Chicago. Blommer’s. Saturday and Monday I can smell it the most.” What N’Kyenge Ayanna, in her 30s, said: “I grew up in the northern suburb of Waukegan and when we would drive into Chicago, most often we would exit on Ohio Street. Windows up or windows down, the smell of chocolate would permeate the car.” What Bob Drinan, in his 60s said: “When the wind is blowing out of the west the smell of chocolate envelops downtown, like someone is baking brownies next door.  I read that somebody complained to the EPA about it and that the EPA was considering taking action.  I bet this was the same person who complained that there was too much oxygen in the air. I am hoping that the EPA files this complaint and loses it and that the Blommer Company never goes out of business.”

VGB: The evidence shapes a collection of mirrors and the archive unfolds their reflections.

VGB: In both cities, dibsing or appropriations change the function of public space unexpectedly. Graffiti, sticker art, or stencils, for example, transform a simple wall into a kind of blackboard. And the imprinted text is often encrypted—at least for people outside the code.

Jorge AbrahamVGB: What Jorge Abraham Calderón Pimienta said: “This city is a like a lottery ticket. You need luck to get where you want at the hour you need. The possibilities are very low, but you always keep some faith in it. I’m a driver from Estado de México. An image that I really like is as follows: in the middle of the traffic a rainbow appears far away. Actually, I took that photograph with my cellphone the other day after it rained. Of course, it’s not common to see rainbows in Mexico City, but it happens, sometimes. It’s an exception, like wining a reintegro (the amount of the cost of the lottery ticket). To survive this city you’re always looking forward to exceptions.”

VGB: What my sister-in-law said: “It is an acid smell, most perceptible in the morning. Mexico City smells like the elixir that trash produces. Much more since the government moved the dump behind the airport. Now the currents bring that putrid smell into the city.”

KR: The word “archive” comes from the Greek for “public record” so what is the relationship of the public and the private when it comes to an archive? Should archives be democratic?

VGB: Who is the authority of this ephemeral archive? Who is the guardian or archon?

KR: This morning, the Pope tweeted: “When one lives attached to money, pride or power, it is impossible to be truly happy.” Joyce Carol Oates, the American author, tweeted back: “Such a conviction is a luxury in a world of poverty, starvation, & warfare. For a woman, disadvantage [is] greater.” They both speak to the way that for many people, it’s a necessity to behave in a dibsing way — trying to guard or protect what little one has — but how even that instinct may itself be a trap.

VGB: Maybe there’s a relation between dibsing and traps: If you fail the system, the system traps you. Or better: if the system fails you, you end up dibsing to survive the system.

BethObjectKR: What Beth Rooney said: “My object is a dandelion growing in a former Chicago Public Housing lot. The dandelions are like a place holder until someone decides to put some people there again.”

KR: What Eric Plattner said: “Weeds: Despised by all who adore order (landscapers, suburbanites). Unstoppable by human barriers (brick, steel, concrete). Both healing (chicory, hemlock) & toxic (chicory, hemlock). Born from human disturbance. Ghost of our past (hopes/dreams), harbinger of our future (failure/decay). Human enterprise gone awry. Cousin of rubble, enemy of lawns. Disobedient. The ultimate survivor, endlessly hunted. Unprized, unloved (a bouquet of weeds). Sign of the trodden & the untrodden. Reliably unexpected, like death & love. The Other, beautiful in its ugliness. Endlessly blossoming in the cracks of sidewalks, vacant lots, abandoned train tracks, the sides of highways, entwined in fences.

VGB: What Ángela Hernández said: “I remember an art piece by Eduardo Abaroa that was like a Stonehenge of Pay Toilets on the rooftop parking garage of a big building on Reforma Avenue. I think the title was Sanitary Stonehenge. It is very accurate and describes perfectly this city: primitive, stinky, and messy.”

HéctorVGB: What Héctor Martín Nápoles said:Mexico City is like a small grocery store: disorganized and full, and you never know what are you going to find inside. But I think best part of this city is going out of it. Yes. Everybody wants to take a few days off from here. My name is Héctor Martín Nápoles, I don’t live here, but I visit often. Work demands it. I’m the Secretary of Economic Development and Tourism in Ixmiquilpan. Have you been in Ixmiquilpan? No? Please, take my business card. Ixmiquilpan is the right place to escape; you will never regret a trip there. We have hot springs, nice hotels, an old temple and convent with ancient paintings or Tonantongo caves if you want to swim. If you ever come don’t hesitate to call me. Really. I can arrange something special for you and your family, trust me. This is my stop. Nice to meet you. Bye!”

KR: If nothing is really “permanent” then what is the point of an archive, and how long can and should it be preserved? The interesting thing about an archive is not so much what it contains, but who accesses it and for what purpose. The subject of an archive as opposed to the content of an archive is always us. Any given archive won’t be, but should be, preserved forever. Our effort to dispose of archives is itself a thing that can be archived. Archives can become oppressive and prevent us from remaking ourselves, but we always have the option to just not access them.

VGB: Both dibsing and archiving begin and end with an assumption of failure: I want this thing, and desire to keep it, but I probably can’t. Perhaps this inbuilt inevitability of loss and failure is what makes cities so beautiful and also so sad. Even when they are new, they are on their way to ruin.

KR: Are dibs encrypted messages? What do they tell us?

KatiaImageKR: What Katia Mitova, originally from Bulgaria, said: “Frames – imaginary or real – define my life in Chicago. Frames do not divide; they underscore already existing boundaries. Frames are unobtrusive. Except one. Every morning, I look at the Myanmar temple window frame that surrounds my image in the mirror. Mid-nineteenth century, I am told. I have not been to Myanmar. The frame was exported some time before the civil wars in that country. An entrepreneurial antique shop owner replaced the window glass with a mirror. The carved wooden frame, painted red and yellow, distracts me from both the reflection of my own face and the familiar surroundings of the room. I meditate on the frame’s complexity, on the crack in its middle. This frame is the best representation of my space in Chicago: between the internal and the external, between my old country and the new one.”

VGB: If an archive is a time bubble, an anachronistic space, then what should an archive of a city look like?

BrotherVGB: What my brother said: “The pyramids of huacales outside the Central de Abastos say a lot about this city. The huacal (crate) is a container, but also a metaphor of construction and urban chaos: huacales seem like small buildings invading every corner, adding structures and growing absurdly. Also, the smell of the rain defines this city: its history and reality. The history of a drained lake that insists on becoming a lake again. The history of a city constructed in spite of water, even against it. Mexico City is thirsty and year-by-year suffers the pounding of the rain remembering its origin. On the other side, there is something specific in the scent of this city that feels liberating: rain fades the smell of exhaust and that of “garnachas” (the oil where animal entrails are fried for tacos). Rain is the smell of the hurry of others, of the seeking for a refuge. Something in that smell makes me feel that things can be different here.”

Verónica Gerber Bicecci is a Mexico City-based writer and visual artist. Follow her @ambliopia or visit her at
Kathleen Rooney is a Chicago-based writer. Follow her @KathleenMRooney or visit her at

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