Public History Journal Entry 2: Sizing Up the Competition

by tigermanifesto


Other scholars and amateurs have already produced a number of historical walking tours for the area my own project will cover. Looking over my shoulder at them, I’m driven both by a fear of duplicating them and by a desire to compensate for their errors or oversights. Luckily, I can easily strip-mine these lists for relevant details while ignoring their assumptions and frameworks because none of them take a structural Marxist approach––or anything within that neighbourhood.

Instead, what we see in previous attempts at capturing the history of this little urban neck of the woods is a purely utilitarian and localist discussion. One of the old tours seems to have been made for what’s called a service-learning group based in a local college. Such groups exist to facilitate “charitable works” activities for students, drawing them off campus and into the surrounding area. Therefore, the tour focuses on local notables––the “founding fathers”––and some of the social problems that have arisen after the lifting of segregated housing laws in the late 1960s. It’s cursory, light on analysis, and shorn of any state or national context. Perhaps it served its purpose well, perhaps not. No doubt the leader of this tour elaborated on the written script I can read quite a bit.

Another tour, published by the city’s historical society, is more of an architectural photo tour than a historical work. Focusing on patrician housing in the area and its architectural evolution, it pains a story of the neighbourhood as being about maybe half a dozen wealthy landowners and the pretty houses they live in. It does highlight aesthetically pleasing structures that are worth noting, and supplies a potential list of attractive stops on my tour, but it leaves the user with, I would think, a minimal impression of what this area was like, especially those who couldn’t afford spacious housing.

Alongside a Marxist emphasis on context, struggle, and structural change, I hope to bring another positive value to my tour: narrative urgency. What is utterly lacking in previous tours is a sense of involvement or even an impressionistic attempt to evoke their setting. Given that my mandate is to produce something that is both history and physical recreation, I have no choice but to produce something people would actually want to read. For better and for worse, that’s a much more lax limitation on academic writing, whose purpose is to enlighten one’s peers rather than would-be “pedestrian historians.” As always, every use value is, well, valueless if it doesn’t have a use.

Part of the joy of these waking tours is discovering the art/science of writing a text with enough depth and breadth of context to be truly useful while appealing to the senses and engaging the bodies of those who want to learn something. In looking at the “competition” and my predecessors, I won’t have to work too hard to make vast improvements.