Public History Journal Part 3: Motion Tracking and Stories of Struggles
After doing some initial drafting in the morning, I took an extended walk through the neighborhood my project is covering. I had already taken a preparatory look with a walk through a local wooded preserve and park, but I knew that I would have to test out the routes I was planning. Getting beyond the abstraction of mapping software, statistics, and Google Streetview, despite the usefulness of these tools, is essential for creating a worthwhile walking tour. After all, the proof of whether it’s a good script or a good route is in reading while walking.
Other than taking note of landmarks that hadn’t shown up in my research before, re-applying sunscreen, and noting routes that are especially desirable or unworkable, I spent the three hours reflecting on the project and letting my mind wander. Hopefully this post will grant some insight and concreteness to these thoughts.
1. Historical walking tours are much more sensitive than academic papers to the intersection between time and space. Ideally, stops on the tour are places where time is more condensed and visible than in others. What I mean is that these places are able to embody the processes of change that have transformed the local area through time. A local park contains a closed swimming pool, a lodge housing the neighborhood association HQ, and the gravestone of a local notable. These are significant visual cues for researchers and people who are taking the tour, either because they are artifacts of a remote period or because they provoke a historical question. Why is the pool closed? When and why did this neighborhood association come into being? Why are most of the churches to the west of the park Spanish-speaking while most of the ones to the east are English-speaking?
Of course, these are only preliminary questions. One round of research will allow you to take what you known and reconsider the way the question is posed and what possible answers present themselves. For example, we know that the local pool was closed because of a municipal budget crisis and that there is a colossal private aquatic center just to the south of the park. We can now start digging into the layers, asking why the balance of social forces permitted such a closing and why the for-pay athletic center looks a great deal more opulent than the park in its current state. Wider conditions obviously contributed to the crisis in such a small city, opening a road to a whole branching tree of questions and tangents waiting to be tapped. Not every single one can be accounted for in a small walking tour, but the important point is that the contradictions and forces present in the area always both local and more global.
2. Finally, a question: how can the historian convey the political and class-struggle character of a given neighborhood through historical bits attached to existing “significant” points? The nature of the built environment is that it appears permanent and unchanging except during extraordinary times. Breaking the stasis of the environment, opening people’s eyes to the collective struggles that shape the neighborhood and its ecology, are just as important tasks as getting all the facts checked and verified. It’s difficult, but I think a walking tour, with its strange and wandering character, can assist in shaking off some of the complacency associated with such recreation if it nudges in the right way. How to do this is still a mystery to me.