Talking about small government at the Jefferson Memorial
Beautiful day in Washington, DC, today! A little blustery–most of the cherry blossoms have blown off and collected in petal clusters along the paths–but the sun kept us all warm and the climate was otherwise quite accommodating. A great day to use historical examples to talk about civics and government!
FDR Memorial: big government, big memorial... also, a long presidency
I had an awesome day with my students. Our workshop has students from Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota. 24 strong and mostly self-identifying as conservatives or “depends-on-the-issue” with a few genuine “I-don’t-knows.” I’ve had to play a little liberal devil’s advocate to represent the “other side.”
Different backgrounds, different states, evaluating the "depressing facts" of the Great Depression and the government's responses.
We hit the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK memorials, today. We discussed the merits and demerits of small and big government. Then we discussed the role of the citizen–naturally, not restricted to government of one size or another. Particularly, we discussed the methods of King in response to injustices entrenched in government policy, comparing and contrasting those with others, such as Malcolm X.
Entering the MLK Memorial and his quotes, evaluating citizen-responses to government injustice.
After we hit these memorials, our bus had lunch at the National History Museum. Students had time to eat and explore before checking out the Hall of Evolution and how the concept is portrayed by public institutions–in other words, should it acknowledge debates–while drawing some parallels with public museums and public education.
Close Up participants get to be students and tourists while on program.
We finished up our Smithsonian visit and headed up to the Carnegie Institute for a seminar with Politico’s Senior White House Writer, who talked with students about media, driven by their questions. Subjects covered the viral news stories, finding reliable reporting, following politics in today’s media world versus the pre-internet world, his belief in investigative journalism which he feels is on the decline, and the merits of major news outlets that are clear about the side of the aisle they stand on. A useful seminar to follow the earlier issues raised in active citizenship as information is key to citizen response.
My workshop had another engagement covering federalism and the criteria students have for whether national or state governments should be in charge of specific responsibilities. Then I was off for the evening, but I am looking forward to hearing about the domestic issues debate between DC insiders Barry Piatt (liberal) and Ken Insley (conservative), debating the issues the students introduced, tomorrow morning!
A short post written during the Opening Day week of the current MLB season, this has been a surprisingly popular post, for what is essentially a missive supporting the inclusion of sports–specifically baseball–in our understanding of history. It is also a panegyric for baseball’s history, the only American sport with such old roots.
One of my favorite posts! In this post, I explored the Anglo-Saxon experience through literature, both modern and Anglo-Saxon. By following the link, down the page, to the Norton Anthology you can listen to Seanus Heaney read excerpts from his edition of Beowulf; before you start the recording, cue up the video of the fire to recreate the Anglo-Saxon experience.
Another of my favorite posts, this was written up as a review of a Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. It is literally a history of the color red and it’s development in the days when one paid extra for dye–sometimes quite a bit extra! The history hinges on the discovery of a South American species of insect that produces the color scarlet red. It is fascinating!
In reading The Ball is Round, A global history of Soccer, I stopped to ask whether the author’s claim that soccer, or football, belonged on the modern world history stage was really a necessity. In the end, while I found different points in his argument compelling, I am not sure that it is quite the requisite he claims it to be. Still, demonstrating a point by using real events in sports can often make it more memorable and accessible to students. I think it certainly bears consideration and one should at least take the investigation under advisement and explore the argument and its evidence.
This was the opening post in a series I wrote up about Washington DC based on the Washington Historical Society’s 2010 conference. The workshops I attended set up a nice program considering some different themes surrounding the capital city. In this first post, I introduce that program for the week of blogs that follow, including Washington DC’s spaces and places.
I was stimulated to write by an article for photojournalists and others who establish article and photo-editing. (Good advice for a blogger, too.) It spurned me to think of a number of ideas about how to adopt pictures into a more coherent and deliberate teaching strategy. This post is the result.
This post really took off in one day when it was StumbledUpon. Highlighting a brilliant enterprise of collaboration: IT geniuses came together to recreated a historical 3-D representation of Washington DC throughout its eras. Watch the flick and read about the creation process.
This week’s features include art, neo-Nazis (and old Nazis), space shuttles, Neandertals, the British and more! Read on!
Alexander Calder’s 113th birthday today
Calder! It is Alexander Calder’s birthday! Google noticed, as you can see from the above Google doodle courtesy of the Calder Foundation which has a website devoted to his life and artwork. The modern artist, famous for his mobiles, would be 113 today. He is well-represented in Washington DC, with pieces in both sculpture gardens on the National Mall (the Hirschorn’s and the National Gallery of Art’s), in the foyer of the National Galler of Art’s modern East Wing and in one of the Senate office buildings (Hart). Visit the Calder website and peruse the life and work of one of my favorite modern artists!
How Twitter Was Nearly Called Twitch: Twitter Co-Founder Jack Dorsey on Coming Up with a Name
This is a fun little interview transcript about the naming of Twitter. With .coms we have come even further from the days of the “Dutch-India Company” when it comes to naming businesses, but in many respects the concerns remain the same.
NASA’s Space Shuttle by the Numbers: 30 Years of a Spaceflight Icon
As we remembered the Apollo moon landing on July 20th earlier this week, we also saw the end of an era with the final landing of the space shuttle. This article from Scientific America details the 30 year career of the Space Shuttle by the numbers. So long old friend!
Town Removes Grave of Hitler Deputy Hess
The German news outlet Spiegel published this article and photo gallery on its English news site yesterday (I found it via an NPR News tweet). Hess was one of the few Nazi officers convicted to actually serve out his life sentence, committing suicide and being buried in a Bavarian town. Weary of the town being a neo-Nazi pilgrimage site on account of the grave, the church took steps to remove it. Fascinating read with a rather chilling photo album–expecially the photographs taken in our own day.
BREAKING 1776 NEWS: First British Report of America’s Declaration of Independence
Amazing Historical Photos Of Washington D.C. Recreated Today
Washington DC buffs and photography-lovers have got check this photo album out! This is one of the coolest things I have ever seen! Someone did something similiar a while back with post-WWII photos of Germany, comparing them to today’s pictures, but this is especially neat because DC was still evolving from farmland to capital city when photography first arrived on the scene. 53 incredible juxtaposed pictures of the old and the current!
Ahead of Their Time: Neandertals and the First Grandparents
This Scientific America article (and the one linked in it) suggest that the survival of grandparents may have aided evolution and the increased sophistication of Neandertals:
Having grandparents around in large numbers would have significantly increased population size, thus fostering innovation and self-expression, and it would have facilitated the transfer of valuable knowledge and cultural traditions to the next generation.
This is a pretty fascinating pre-history piece reinforcing the importance of our grandparents and the heritage of our past being passed onto the next generation.
Above is a trailer, if you will, for an extraordinary masterpiece in historical imaging technology. University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Imaging Research Center (IRC) has existed since 1987 with the goal of exploring and expanding the possibilities imaging technology. In a multi-disciplinarian collaboration with historians, geographers and cartographers, and thousands of IRC man-hours produced a program that allows one to view the fledgling Capital City and surrounding horizons for the first time with accurate topography and approximate buildings and farm lands, based on available sources, circa 1814. For those of you a little rusty on your American History, this means we get a view of the city as the British would have seen Washington DC when they set fire to the capital and the White House during the War of 1812.
This is the exciting kind of collaborative project perfect for the university community, but possible even if to a lesser extent at other stages of education. Not only does it offer students the opportunity to model professional collaboration–indeed, sometimes to participate in professional collaboration–it expands minds to what is possible in a multi-disciplinary approach. In other words, it is good for academic fields, professionals, students and institutions!
Tuesday (May 3rd), I postponed a lecture on the 12th Century Renaissance and replaced it with a period devoted to reflection in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. This was at least partially selfish, or maybe it was just closure. I was a junior in Washington DC, living on campus during 9/11. When the first of the Twin Towers were hit I was actually in the Basilica on campus in Northeast DC. By the time I had made it back to my place, the second tower was hit, and then the Pentagon. Classes were cancelled. The phone lines were swamped. Planes were grounded. First campus, and then the city shut down. One of the strongest memories I have is of sitting alone on a picnic table in the courtyard and listening to . . . nothing! All of the city’s normal background rumbles and grumbles were stilled. There was no car noise. Occasionally, you would hear the fighter jets soaring overhead, but you never saw them.
In classes, once they resumed, we naturally talked about the events. In one class, we were discussing the argument against 1) a God, 2) a benevolent God or 3) an all-powerful God based on the existence of evil in the world. He had assigned us Elie Wiesel’s Night, because in his experience, modern youth–at least, up to that point–had lost belief of evil in the world. 9/11 fit right in. In another class, an introduction to archaeology, we tabled the day’s intended course material to talk about what happened and why. While I was a fairly plugged in youth, I confess that I had never heard of Osama bin Laden before 9/11. We had a lot of questions about why anyone would want to do this. I find it interesting that many college students today have the same questions, today, as we did then.
Most of my students who are properly college-aged, 17, 18, 19, 20, recall having a difficult time processing all of it. I asked them if they related to the images–if they even seemed real or like Hollywood reproductions. The majority admitted they did not unless they had a personal connection to the catastrophe, such as a missing family member. Even those on military bases could not really understand what others around them were feeling. One student candidly confessed that she and her brother were pulled out of school, watched the images on TV at home, but mostly remember playing outside all day while all the grownups were occupied.
I next asked them when bin Laden and 9/11 became events that they understood as real catastrophes and not just global events. Many could not relate until they were in high school and looked back on the events on their own. For some, it is clear, they never really became anything more than a background tapestry of distant world events. To be fair, this is pretty normal for young people. Most children in tween and young teen years would be very upset if they were told that their parents had accidentally hit an animal with the family car, but relating to the tragic events in Haiti a couple years back, more recently in Japan and even the tornadoes here in the U.S. are too distant and wide to grasp by young minds that have not personally lost someone or something or witnessed the terror firsthand.
The result of this is that many were relatively unmoved by Osama bin Laden’s death, or at minimum less moved then people my age and older. A student in a colleague’s class was angry about all the attention it was getting–my colleague incidentally was working in the financial district of New York City during the attack and has strong personal connections to the attacks. That student was far more concerned about a local murder in Baltimore, which my colleague acknowledged was valid, but did not make bin Laden’s death any less relevant. On the contrary, my colleague argued, bin Ladendoes matter. Many of our students clearly felt he had ceased to be relevant by this point.
This is one of the magazines I purchased after the attacks.
What bin Laden’s death did for some in this younger generation was reawaken questions that had existed, perhaps all along, and not yet been answered for them. Students who followed current events or who had personal attachments to the events, i.e. people in DC or NY, or serving in the military, were clearly more effected and interested. Perhaps, this reveals a certain failure on everyone else’s part to explain current events.
For me, this class time was closure–almost more so then the actual news about bin Laden’s death. Or, maybe it is better described as the conclusion of the story arc. Granted, I was still pretty young then, but 9/11 left me off-balance. It dominated my thinking for days and I was almost too stunned to be angry. My memories of 9/11 are inextricably tied to those two classes and professors. Perhaps it is because I have an academic turn of mind, more likely because it was simply the setting in which I experienced the attacks, but in discussing bin Laden and 9/11 memories with my class I personally put something profound in my life to rest.
It is also sobering to think about how quickly time moves on. A handful of students saw the second plane hit live and remembered that, while others only remembered the replayed scenes and the pictures in every newspaper and magazine the days after. Young minds cannot really cope with global events in the same way that they will when they experience similar events as they are older. I wonder what it would have been like for my students to have written down a journal entry about 9/11 the week it had happened, and then to have sat down and read it this week. I wonder how many people did exactly that this week.
In Section 8 of Article I in the U.S. Constitution, there is a long list of the Congress’s powers which more or less concludes with the following lines:
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Building . . .
This establishment of a “District” to serve as the place for the Congress to meet–with limited dimensions–is unusual. To understand how this comes about, one has to begin by considering the fear of certain state delegates and elected officials had of central government on the one hand and the strong sense of regionalism and state loyalty that had already developed by this time, on the other hand. The geographic position was itself the result of compromise. Given these strong territorial attitudes, there was a great concern that any capital would be under undue influence of the state that hosted it. Thus, obvious cities such as Philadelphia and New York, for which there was a great deal of precedent in housing U.S. affairs up to that point, were off the table for the southern states who were already rankled over discussions surrounding populations and voting due to the high population of slaves (should slaves be counted as part of the population if they are not voting?). In the end, the North conciliated the South when it was decided that the city should be established along the Potomac and take land from both Maryland and Virginia–both “southern” states in many important features despite Maryland’s more northernly location.
The cities of Georgetown, Alexandria and Washington of the District of Columbia.
Over the course of George Washington’s young presidential career, the city was dug and hammered out, both legally and literally, though he would never live or work there. The boundaries of the “Territory of Columbia” would be established by 1791, including the Maryland and Virginia portions and already existing corporations of Georgetown, MD and Alexandria, VA. By 1796, the name, District of Columbia, would be officially christened and the existing cities would become Georgetown and Alexandria, DC. From 1791-1801, Georgetown and Alexandria ran their respective city governments within their pre-established jurisdictions and three presidential appointees, the Commissioners, were assigned the task of establishing Washington City, selling plots to private owners and constructing public buildings.
Georgetown, DC in Washington County.
The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 called for the establishment of two counties: Washington County to the east of the Potomac (formerly Maryland) and Alexandria County to the west of it (formerly Virginia). This organizational amendment did not effect the established cities of Georgetown and Alexandria. Presidentially appointed justices of the peace and other county magistrates would shortly be formed into boards of commissioners, which resembled the County courts of Virginia and the Levy courts of Maryland, thus the Levy Court of Washington County and the County Court of Alexandria County. On May 3, 1802, the Federal City transitioned from the system of Commissioners to the city government with the incorporation of the City of Washington DC. It would remain in this configuration until 1846 when Alexandria would be returned at its request to Virginia. (http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/351.html#351.1)
The District of Columbia Alexandria County has been returned to Virginia.
At the historical conference, John Gorney presented on Washington’s obsession with the development of the Federal City. His contemporaries and detractors accused him both of being distracted and of furthering his own private interests given the city’s proximity to his estate in Mount Vernon. The president’s three appointed Commissioners were tasked with seeing development of the capital city and the capitol building. Pierre L’Enfant would design the city after Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker mapped it out. L’Enfant would eventually be fired for failing to present the city plan in time for land sales–for his part he did not believe the site was ready to besold to private interest–and Ellicott was put in charge and recreated the L’Enfant plan from memory. This plan remained the principle guiding vision for the city’s development until the McMillan Plan in 1901-2 sought to reinvigorate the open ceremonial spaces included by L’Enfant, but largely unrealized in the city.
Gorney argues that Washington intended DC to be a vibrant, economically successful city like Philadelphia and New York, and pointed to his plans to establish a national university in the city to foster learning in the arts and sciences (especially his own love, botany). L’Enfant was clearly inspired by the design of the great European cities that he had seen. But, DC develops slowly and uncouthly. It’s awkward charter and it’s peculiar attachment to Congress make for an odd and often ponderous evolution.
Washington DC, not far from its roots as farm land, in 1852 looking past the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The next post will take a brief look at the locals’ space in the city–the residential area–and the challenges of this concept in a city that is technically run at the will of the committees in Congress.
Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, site of the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference, Nov. 5-6, 2010
The Program for this week.
In honor of and inspired by the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference held this past weekend in Washington DC at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, this week is devoted to the investigation of the city from the perspective of places and spaces. This taps into an old love of mine–Washington DC history–and takes me back to my first career path out of college as a tour guide for Bike the Sites and a Program Instructor for the Close Up Foundation. For the first few years after graduating from The Catholic University of America, Washington DC was my classroom, my stage and my playground.
The conference this past weekend was in all honesty indulgent! Sadly, my teaching schedule and my family engagements prevented me from attending the entire conference, but I really enjoyed what I was able to attend. It was great to discuss both the academic and methodology questions with professional historians.
What follows in this post is an introduction to the overarching theme I am following this week in a series of posts dedicated to Washington DC, its places and spaces. DC is not like most other cities in the United States, nor other capitals in the Western World from which it was born. The many unique circumstances and situations were both intended and accidental. It is essential when discussing the history of the city to understand its at times conflicting roles which create challenging concepts of space in this city and capital.
The Place . . .
First and foremost in the minds of most Americans is the fact that Washington DC is the capital of the country. As such it is the primary workplace and hub for the federal government. For many people, the concept of the city begins and ends with this idea. Like other big cities, people are drawn to it for career reasons that often revolve around our federal workings and mechanizations. I know many people who have worked in the city for multiple decades but have no other connection to it. When people use the expression “inside the Beltway”, they often refer narrowly to the offices from which the federal government is run, highly misleading if one were to look at a map and conceive of the space that actually sits “inside the Beltway”. The “Beltway” is the 495 loop which encloses not only the District of Columbia but parts of northern Virginia and counties of southern Maryland–multiple jurisdictions, in fact!
Where Federal employees go to work: the National Mall and Federal Triangle.
Secondly, people in this country think of the great marble edifices that dot the Washington landscape. While this includes sites such as the White House and the Capital, they are seen not so much as office buildings, but as monumental shrines along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. These are symbols to be visited, photographed and cataloged in the family records (often on hot and humid summer days or in eighth grade school groups!) and are part of the DC civic pilgrimage that often further includes the Smithsonian Museums or the National Gallery of Art. What’s more these are all free of charge (unless you pay for a transportation or guide service), making them further highly desirable because they make for a cheaper vacation in many respects than other family vacations as families can stay further out and use Metro to get into the city. This is the “visited DC” as opposed to the one people come to for a job or even a mission–although, there is certainly room for overlap!
Some of the marble shrines of Washington DC: the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Finally, there is the awkwardly forgotten residential DC which is frequently only remembered by the people who actually live in or near the city. It is entirely possible to visit the District of Columbia and completely avoid the residential portions!! In fact, other than passing through the city jurisdiction on Metro you can spend an entire week in DC and pretty much avoid the city’s actual jurisdiction altogether–hotel in southern Maryland or northern Virginia, Metro to Smithsonian Station on the Mall and spend the entire vacation either at the Mall’s monuments or the Smithsonian museums, Metro back out of the city from the Smithsonian station and back to the hotel. When you think about that, it is pretty astonishing. But, in fact, people do live in DC and some of DC’s best cultural niches, stores, cafes and restaurants are in these residential neighborhoods. (Besides, how much time can you really spend looking at museums and monuments before you just start to go a little numb in the brain?)
U St. Neighborhood in DC and Ben's Chili Bowl--best half-smokes anywhere!
. . . And, thus, the Spaces.
So, this small plot of land, under 70 square miles, is geographically a cacophony of uses, experiences and jurisdictions–you wouldn’t believe how many police forces exist in that small plot of land–DCPD, FBI, Amtrak Police, National Park Service Police, Capitol Police, etc… There are many claims on this land and people experience this city differently: sometimes because of race or economics, sometimes because of politics or personal quests, sometimes because of greater or lesser understanding about how our country functions.
The health and maintenance of the city as well as the capital is difficult to achieve at times because there are often competing ends. The city does not have full autonomy to self-govern, nor does the Congress necessarily have vested interest in cooperating with city’s requests. City government is always difficult, but far more so if one has to involve Congress–and this has been the rub in DC’s history from the very beginning. Solving its problems and accommodating its growth and residents has been an ongoing tug of war on top of the social issues that affected our country from its beginnings to the present.*
The week ahead.
In conclusion, DC is unique. Whether you are talking about mayoral races or greater issues such as segregation, DC has always been a special case. Again, with the inspiration of this past week’s conference presentations, I am going to run a 4-post a series looking at the unique space of the District of Columbia. These will include a look at the city’s inception and the original conception of the Federal City, tomorrow; the locals’ space in the city, Wednesday, versus the locals’ space in the capital, Thursday; and finally, the city as it is a democratic stage and shrine on Friday.
In these posts I will cite some of the historians I listened to this past week. Their ideas along with the many I have cultivated in the course of a handful of years studying and presenting on the city (both for entertainment and education) will be a brief introduction into the complexities that few people outside of the DC metropolitan area regard or consider, presented both with an eye to the past and the present.
*Note: There exists a much more sophisticated discussion about spatial relations in sociology and social justice. I am not sufficiently well-versed or well-read to open an extensive discourse along those lines but they feature prominently in debates centered around urban-planning and spatial claims of social justice, in particular, and broader areas considering the lived environment in the U.S., including rural, urban and suburban living. Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Edward Soja treat these ideas specifically in their works–the application of which on the case of DC is a particularly intriguing question (one that George Washington University doctoral student, Greg Borchadt, is researching and presented on in “Democracy’s Stage as Contested Terrain: The Spatial Politics of Washington’s Early Civil Rights Movement, 1939-1954″ at this conference).
37th Annual Conference on Washington DC Historical Studies
Today and tomorrow the Historical Society of Washington DC is holding its 37th annual conference on DC history! The conference is being held in the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, a site that is on the historical preservation list.
The conference covers a wide array of topics, from the early civil rights movement in D.C. to the division of space in a city that is both federal and local, monumental and residential. Today’s portion of the conference was fascinating:
Friday November 5
9:00–6:00 – Registration
9:30–11:15 – Session 1 Plenary Session: DC’s Built Environment
11:30-1:30 – History Network/Lunch
Noon–1:00 – Session 2 Brown Bag Lunch: Greetings from Hometown Washington, DC” – Jerry McCoy
1:45-3:15 – Concurrent Sessions
Session 3 – African-American Activism in DC
Session 4 – The History of DC Newspapers from 1800 to Today
Session 5 – Education, Social Services and Reform
3:30-5:00 – Concurrent Sessions
Session 6 – Teaching DC’s Civil War History to K-12 Students
Session 7 – The Plight of DC Records: An Update
5:15-6:30 – Session 8a: Opening Reception
6:45 – Session 8b: Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Lecture
Blair Ruble, author of Washington’s U Street: A Bibliography
Tomorrow’s portion of the conference includes both the workshop format and walking tours of the Park View neighborhood. If you are in the area and your Saturday has some openings, admission is only $15, $10 for students.
Here is the schedule for tomorrow’s portion of the conference:
Saturday November 6
9:00 – 2:00 – Registration
9:30-11:00 – Concurrent Session
Session 9 – The National Mall and the Design of DC
Session 10 – Race, Identity, and Civil Rights in the District of Columbia, 1790-1900
Session 11 – Women and Social Organizations
11:15-12:45 – Concurrent Sessions
Session 12 – Historical Perspective on DC’s LGBT Religious and Spiritual Communities
Session 13 Donna Wells Memorial Session –
Approaches to Documentation: Prince George’s County and Washington, DC
12:45 – 1:30 –Lunch
1:30-3:00 – Tours/Open Houses
Session 14 – Park View Neighborhood Walking Tour
Session 15 – Park View Neighborhood Walking Tour
1:30-3:30 – Workshop
Session 16 – Writing the Family Memoir Workshop
Visit the Society’s site for more information about the conference:
My first job out of college was as a tour guide for Bike the Sites, in Washington DC. I had just graduated with a history degree and was excited about using it! How naive! One of my managers thought my interest in history was an asset, but no one else really gave a rodent’s behind–tourism was all about entertainment. Laughing customers usually meant customers who would recommend us and tip well. As we journeyed along the National Mall, visiting the monuments, with a tour designed to cover ground on the bikes and the monuments on foot there was plenty of opportunity to eavesdrop on other tours. It was often absurd, not always, but often! I vividly recall a discussion with a tour guide who was tagging along with us because her clients had added our bike tour for its novelty–I think they were European, actually. At the White House I pointed to the flag that flies on the rooftop,
“Now, many people will tell you that that flag on the White House roof only flies when the President is at home, but that isn’t true. The flag always flies there. The Secret Service is not particularly interested in signalling to incoming planes–’He’s here! Hit it, now!’ So, this is not any indication for his whereabouts.”
“Really?” said the D.C. licensed tour guide, “The flag doesn’t indicate that?”
“Have you ever come by and not seen that flag flying? Ever? Even once? Is he even home, now? Isn’t he at the ranch, right now?”
She was stunned! She had to pay a pile of money and take an exam, but that basic fact had alluded her–a fact that could be confirmed by one’s day-to-day experience and occasionally following the news! (I have an unsubstantiated theory that this myth came about from the flag at Buckingham Palace that supposedly only flies if the reigning monarch is at home.) At least, she was friendly. These umbrella-toting guides–part of the bona fide badge of honor to designate that you were a licensed guide, or that you thought it might rain later–were often extremely rude to anyone who was not in their horde and sometimes to folks who were paying them! Working with the Close Up Foundation, we often took students to the Mall and were continually amazed at the umbrella-tour guides because of their consistently unpleasant demeanor and the content of their spiels.
This blog post is motivated by a couple of articles I have read in the last couple of months. Both were published in the Washington Post, the most recent of the two was published earlier today (September 20, 2010) and is an editorial, entitled, “Tour de farce.” It opens in the following way:
The Lincoln Memorial, built in 1964 and designed by John Paul Stevens, commemorates the life and accomplishments of the 54th president of the United States.
The Lincoln Memorial, completed in 1922 and designed by Henry Bacon, commemorating the life of the 16th president of the United States.
As the editorial points out, the goal is a noble one, but as is so typical of D.C. bureaucratic solutions the overhaul of the current program, not revised since its inception in 1902, fails–miserably. While it usefully extirpated archaic rules requiring a doctor’s note to prove a prospective tour guide was not a drunkard, it also requires tour guides to speak “proficient English,” a rule that might be useful for the tourist from Iowa, but much less helpful for the tourist from Germany. Beyond passing the 100-question test required for the license, what actually tells the prospective client of a given tour guide that they are actually knowledgeable? The previous exam could not keep the White House flag-myth from seeping through, what will this exam prove?
To the cynic, this appears to be a means for increasing revenue through the tourism industry by trying to ensnare bus-drivers and segway tour operators. Bus drivers who speak to their passengers, even with an audio tour, about the city monuments are potentially required to be licensed if the vehicle is in motion–but not if it is stopped(?)–according to the characteristically unclear language of the law. New regulations also require guides that use “self-balancing personal transport vehicles,” segways, to obtain licenses. The owners of one such company, Segs in the City, is suing the city over the new law.
At the end of the reading, it is not clear to me what the city hopes to achieve with this law. As a historian, I see no reason to be excited.
So, what should one expect from a tour guide? Is it merely entertainment in a new city? My first tour guide mentor, Mark Farrell, always maintained that a tour was supposed to be factual in content, helpful in logistics and entertaining. I have given tours in two places: Washington D.C. and Scagway, AK. In the former case, the history is both inspiring and often moving. Not only does one visit monuments to famous and inspiring, yet often controversial, figures, one also visits locations that were the sites of famous and inspiring, yet often controversial, events. In the latter case, I worked for Sockeye Cycles at one of the important sites in the Alaska Gold Rush and the history is both fascinating and raucously entertaining. Accuracy was important to me. (Sockeye, as a business, valued historical accuracy more than Bike the Sites.) But, entertainment seemed to be the trend–I don’t know of any fellow guides in Scagway who were history majors! Financially, entertainment was key, most people tipped better if they had laughed and parted company with their guide in an enthusiastic and upbeat mood. Again, what do customers really want in this instance?
In Barcelona, last spring break, we took a Fat Tire Bike Tour and had a great time, getting to see some things that we probably would not have been able to fit in any other way, all in a couple of hours. Had we not done it, I don’t know how we would have managed to see La Sagrada Familia by Gaudi or the city park, but I am not going to lie: I really cringed inside when the guide explained that the Cathedral was a cathedral because it had a dead saint’s bones in it!
The church is a Cathedral because it is the bishop's church.
We all enjoyed the tour and the guide was entertaining, but it failed to sate my appetite for Barcelona’s history and I later visited one of the city’s museums–not far from the cathedral, actually–and, learned a great deal more about its origin in Roman times, its medieval history and its transition through the modern era. As it is, I am still trying to piece together Barcelona’s history.
This brings me to the second article about Williamsburg, currently running a boom business in the wake of the Tea Party’s current prominence. Amy Gardner reported in the Washington Post about “‘Tea party’ activists drawn to Williamsburg and its portrayal of Founding Fathers,“ on August 1, 2010. While I do not want to put too much emphasis on general representations based off of the quotations provided in Gardner’s article, I think there are a few that are enlightening about the current boom for revolutionary sites. At Williamsburg, men and women who have studied specific historical figures act them out in an interactive way for visitors. According to Gardner, many come to Williamsburg to interact with the Founding Fathers:
“General, when is it appropriate to resort to arms to fight for our liberty?” asked a tourist on a recent weekday during “A Conversation with George Washington,” a hugely popular dialogue between actor and audience in the shaded backyard of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.
Standing on a simple wooden stage before a crowd of about 100, the man portraying Washington replied: “Only when all peaceful remedies have been exhausted. Or if we are forced to do so in our own self-defense.”
The tourist, a self-described conservative activist named Ismael Nieves from Elmer, N.J., nodded thoughtfully. Afterward, he said this was his fifth visit to Colonial Williamsburg.
“We live in a very dangerous time,” Nieves said. “People are looking for leadership, looking for what to do. They’re looking to Washington, Jefferson, Madison.”
“I want to get to know our Founding Fathers,” he added. “I think we’ve forgotten them. It’s like we’ve almost erased them from history.”
Williamsburg, like other colonial sites with historical interpretors, is built entirely on the principle of educating the American public about the historical past. One of the appeals, it is hoped, is that this format is also entertaining–one of the things that makes these places attractive for families and school groups. Gardner’s article suggests that this newer waves of tourists comes seeking validation. Nieves sounds more like a pilgrim than a tourist in this account, coming to sit at the feet of founders. This puts an entirely different burden on the historical interpretors from any I ever encountered as a tour guide. But, it is not entirely out of step with the perception of our national heritage historically. Ft. McHenry, maintained by the National Park Service is referred to as a shrine: “Fort McHenry, National Monument and Historic Shrine,” NPS. The name existed before the “Tea Party.”
I wonder how often history really motivates Americans when we plan our vacations. Clearly, there are Civil War buffs who visit Civil War sites and the National Park Service maintains many historical sites, but buffs come already knowing something and I sense many other people just want a good story–one they will repeat, but not necessarily one they require to be perfectly accurate! Americans are really lucky to have a great number of wonderful places to visit, within our borders, that have little to do with history–visiting the Grand Canyon may actually remind us just how short a historian’s domain is in the earth’s grand story. So, does real history motivate many vacationers? I know more than a few tour guides who would bet that a good yarn is better than real history for most visitors and I think they may have the pulse of the average American tourist.
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