Public History Journal Part 7: Conclusion

by tigermanifesto

Screenshot 2015-09-06 17.05.37

Save for a possible third round of edits, my summer public history project is now complete. As I’ve been working remotely for more than a month, I’m unfortunately not able to share in the joys of finishing a good endeavour with my collaborators, but I want to take this moment to extend my thanks for their encouragement, editorial oversight, and general commitment to the project. Everyone carried out their work professionally and I believe the work benefited.

I’ll attempt to use this post to express final reactions to the project and use that as a base to ask questions about the role walking tours can serve in the area. Inevitably, shortcomings will arise alongside discussion of our accomplishments, but I hope that my previous words will indicate that the general weight of my feelings is in a positive direction.

The Bad News: I Start With a List of My and Our Failures and Limitations

As noted in the last post in this series, one of the core stories about the neighbourhood was also the most difficult to research and write about. Unfortunately, the breadth and depth of sources about the Latin@ population in the neighbourhood proved difficult to probe. What I did not say in the last post was that part of the reason for that was my lack of any personal contacts in the area itself. Since most of the Latin@ population in the area is a generation or two old, personal stories collected from oral interviews would have greatly fortified that part of the project. Partly because of the divide between academia and the rest of society, partly because of my own shyness and discomfort with knocking on doors or approaching strangers––and my lack of secondary connections to the people there––I was not able to conduct any in-depth interviews with locals who might be able to illuminate the recent past of the area.

Of course, in the process of combing the archives, I did unearth a series of oral interviews with Grand Rapids Latin@ people, but this happened so late in the summer that I lacked the time to sift through the audio or transcripts for something that might be relevant to the walking tour. Had I realized the existence of this oral history archive earlier, there may have been one or two stories to add to the mix. Instead, I had to restrict my investigation to general trends. It highlights the importance of thoroughly assessing the available resources before doing any work, because after beginning a task in earnest the minutiae in front of you can narrow your vision to an unacceptable degree, leaving a broad swathe of helpful sources obscured.

My Preparatory Work: An Evaluation

On the topic of preparation, I should note that I did try to do a comprehensive inventory of the academic and personal resources at my disposal. Accounting for both internal and external sources of energy and insight, I included personal skills, relevant friends and acquaintances, library archives, mapping software, census reports, and more. The resulting document was forbiddingly long, however, and I did not consult it as often as I originally planned. Again, the narrowness of each individual task has to be put into a broader context, and it wasn’t until the writing and editing stage that those considerations arose in my mind.

When researching the ecology of the neighbourhood, for example, there were no obvious links to the history of the rest of the neighbourhood––sadly reflected in the final written script, I’m afraid––but it was imperative to include the ecological aspect regardless of that difficulty. It remains and unsolved problem, largely because ecology had been written out of the more obvious histories of the region. Presenting it in a more natural and integrated fashion would have require making the watershed and its local impacts not only more visible but also reconnected to the body of the neighbourhood in a way that was unprecedented. Previous histories of the area, including other walking tours, have focused on the built environment without looking at what it was built on top of, or what was thereby obscured. At the very least, I hope that my tour will provoke some other enterprising commenters to continue the work I started and left largely incomplete.

Writing a History for the Residents

Most of the “readymade” secondary sources about the neighbourhood were heroic stories about prime citizens and wealthy patrons. These stories, being somewhat novelistic or even reminiscent of the tall tales that sprang up around Founding Fathers, make for both dry reading and bad history despite their initial usefulness. My hope was to get closer to writing a history of the neighbourhood that its own residents would both recognize and be able to learn from. It would 1.) affirm residents’ own status as part of the area in past and present and 2.) challenge the assumptions of both insiders and outsiders. Part of the first aspect is the physical work of the walking tour itself. What I mean is that the walking tour, unlike a book, is site-specific. It’s theoretically possible to listen to the walking tour on your audio player and ingest the entire text without being present in the area, but much of the text relies on links to locations and other sensory information, mostly visual.

Residents and visitors who participate in a walking tour therefore have to be present at a specific site in order for the text to convey the appropriate information. Every artwork or writing is, as Raymond Williams likes to say, a notation from a social process rather than a fixed “text” or artifact, but the process aspect of the historical walking tour is palpable in that it involves exercising muscles other than optical orbits and brow furrowing––maybe smiling?––to comprehend.

The tour is a force, in that those who consent to the rules that it lays down move from location to location not according to their own whims but according to specific directions laid out in the script. Ideally, this breaks down barriers of ignorance or indifference that wall off specific paths in the neighbourhood like invisible walls in a video game. It takes the neighbourhood and layers or codes a certain path into it, one that is both always present and always leading the listener into the near or remote past. Every tangible sight has a representational purpose, serving as a symbol or a relic of the events described in the script.

Sometimes this connection is fairly direct, as with a large park and nature centre. Other times, the stop is a street corner, and the directions ask the walker to contemplate the history of an entire group while seeing the built environment as a product of those peoples’ unique agency. The walking tour is an aid for sight as well as a good way to get out on a weekend and exercise.

All of this leads to the following conclusion: residents who are literally walking their own streets with the aid that I’ve written should be able to recognize themselves within the story, to understand themselves as rooted, at least partly, in this history. Does knowing that a particular bespectacled grandfatherly notable donated a strip of land for the park you visit with your children enhance that sense of connection? Or does it sound like another soundbite embedded in a plaque you never cared to look at? I felt and still feel that the history of a neighbourhood’s development through history as a history of people moving, settling, fearing, desiring, and rising up as a collective or assembly of different collectives is much more immediate and understandable to a resident. Who reads the donation plaques on museum walls except those who need a jolt of self-satisfaction?

“Great hero” narratives can work in history books for popular audiences because they are able to imbue subjects with mythical qualities, Promethean abilities. A walking tour, however, undercuts all of this because it exposes the limited and human scale of that person and their accomplishments. At least, in this neighbourhood it does. I feel no compulsion to perpetuate myths about first citizens. If there must be myths, and maybe they sprout like cobwebs in the corners of all histories, they should at least be made useful for bending the participant’s vision and helping to ground them in a particular place and time.

Finally, the second aspect of the walking tour is to take the person who feels like a part of the neighbourhood and daring to challenge them to some extent. Challenging the person at the onset of a walking tour might be dangerous because at that point there is no milieu or ground rules established for the area. Orientate first, then disorient. I’m not sure I accomplished this, but on reflection it seems like a good rule for the general structure of a walking tour.

Final Words:

As I put the walking tour behind me and look forward to a new set of historical challenges and projects, there is a sense that this experience was more informative, in aggregate, than many other more academic projects I took on. Unhitched from the usual schedule of papers and exams, it managed to bring a sense of history as a project for the wider world rather than a concentrated elite. That is not to say that the walking tour is not thoroughly stamped with the spirit of the academy and a sprinkling of its elitism. Nevertheless, in guiding people down a particular physical path it can bring about a more informed and more historically attuned listener. I would recommend that all historians try to engage in public history at least once if it’s at all relevant to their interests and hope that residents and visitors to the neighbourhood can glean some benefits from my work.