Saturday, August 01, 2009

Boston: A Physical Connection to the Past

-- a final response to the three days I spent in Boston and my duty as student ambassador to this city --
(I've been told that this is the best of the three...so if you only have time for one, go for this one.)

As the home of Paul Revere, the Boston Tea Party, and Ben Franklin’s American headquarters, I’ve always thought of Boston as the birthplace of America. In visiting the city, I observed that a chief component of Boston’s cultural identity is wrapped up in its history—the history of our nation’s conception and establishment. The Freedom Trail, a red line permanently painted or paved through parks, down sidewalks, and across crosswalks, is a constant reminder that something important happened along these very streets. It was impressive to walk into the Old State House and discover that it was from this very balcony that the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in Boston on July 8, 1776, to a crowd of exuberant new Americans who, after the reading, proceeded to tear down all traces of British insignia from the building. Even more impressive, the omnipresent reminders of our past are not just a tourist ploy; many of the people of Boston have embraced their identity as residents of an iconic historical city. Several of the people I met along the Freedom Trail were locals rediscovering the naissance of our nation for the fifth, sixth, seventh time. Instead of fighting the tourists the residents embraced us, eager to share their knowledge and opinion of each story presented on mostly conspicuous (but sometimes inconspicuous) plaques.

As we met for a class discussion under the eaves of Philadelphia’s magnificent City Hall, my fellow students and I began to draw parallels between the cities we had visited earlier in the week. Everyone agreed that we had a feeling of Boston being an “old city” as we walked its streets and alleyways. There was an ambiance strikingly different from that of New York City and Philadelphia, which are both also antique in comparison with many of the larger US cities, but have been “made new” (through contemporary architecture, a demographic change in population, commercialized industry, modern lifestyle, etc.) and now present themselves in a completely different manner. Boston, however, had retained its colonial air.

During the first two of our three days in Boston we covered most of the stops on the Freedom Trail. I was never quite sure what I was expecting to find as I made my way down the red-brick path, but I was surprised and somewhat embarrassed that I often mistook current residences or businesses for historical sites. At the same time, I passed up certain historical sites because they weren’t markedly older than or different from the surrounding buildings. The whole of Boston is a historical district. It is unique in that the narrow streets, colonial architecture, signage, centuries-old graveyards scattered throughout the city, and reverence of the passersby communicate not only history, but memory also. A main source of discussion during this trip has been the distinction between memory and history. While listening to a tour guide present an interesting version of Texas history at the Alamo, we met a history professor from South Carolina who was also out traveling the country this summer, doing research for an upcoming course focusing on how history is written and presented, and how it differs from memory. Our subsequent conversation with this professor spawned a dialogue that would last the entirety of our trip and become one of the prominent themes that I’ll take away from this journey. David Blight (2009), a prominent historian, author, and professor at Yale University, contrasts history and memory in a recent essay that was included in an anthology titled Slavery and Public History.

History is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory. History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, contingent on place, chronology, and scale. If history is shared and secular, memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community. Memory is often owned; history is interpreted. Memory is passed down through the generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience. In an essay about the slave trade and the problem of memory, Bernard Bailyn aptly stated memory’s appeal: “Its relation to the past is an embrace . . . ultimately emotional, not intellectual.” (Blight 2009)

Blight’s explanation plainly illustrates the distinction between history and memory and provided me with, for the first time, a full understanding of the two concepts. Looking back, I feel that several of the places we visited, unlike Boston, embodied only one perspective---either history or memory---and thus, for a visitor, was either lacking in scholarly authority or lacking in personal touch. Two examples come to mind. Our visit to Roswell, New Mexico consisted largely of exploring the town’s reputation for alien interaction; we spent most of the morning at the UFO Museum. I could find no indication of any scholarly authority there; it was as if none of the “curators” at the UFO Museum had any interest in making the museum a legitimate historical record. There were several newspaper clippings framed or pasted to the walls along one side of the museum, but the content of these articles, along with everything else, was largely based on speculation. Perhaps little historical fact exists in this area, but the Star Wars and horror movie posters haphazardly located throughout the exhibits certainly did not aid in giving the museum any academic clout. The UFO Museum exemplifies Blight’s concept of memory at its best. This museum is, as Blight puts it, “a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community” (2009). I think that galleries like this are important, both for the resident community and for visitors, and should be credited as a portrayal of the memory of Roswell.

Putting memory aside for a moment, I reflect on my visit to one of Fort Bliss’ military museums with a completely different mindset. I recall entering the building and walking through a large structure with low ceilings that held copious amounts of equipment---jeeps, aircraft, rockets, tanks, guns and rifles, survival kits---remarkable technology. Data charts, statistics, timelines, photo documentation, flow charts, graphs, and military insignia lined the walls. It all was enormously impressive, but it felt like pure fact. I stealthily trailed behind some of the soldiers guiding their families through the museum, hoping to pick up on something, just a few words, that would bring a personal touch and help me engage emotionally with the artifacts presented in the museum. I had no such luck. This museum was full of very precisely measured data, very carefully put together exhibits, but it didn’t communicate a story to me.

The dichotomy of history and memory was at the forefront of my mind as we left the Alamo and San Antonio, made our way up the West Coast, and started heading back east. By the time we got to the Northeast, a region overflowing with history, I was eager to explore the relationship between history---the facts, and memory---the story as it is told by people and their culture. Boston is, to me, a unique city because of the way history and memory are so closely intertwined. To learn the history of a place is to know it with your head, but to gain knowledge of the memory of a people that once occupied that place is to witness it with your heart. In this way my visit to Boston was a powerful experience because I was able to see the history and memory of individuals and events that I’ve read about for years in textbooks come together; I was able to discover the homes, churches, and graves of the men and women who were the doers of that history. In her blog, Emily talks about her experience in Boston and how it has helped her connect with our past.

Previous days in Boston were spent on the Freedom Trail of the American Revolution, now, sitting and gazing at the boats bobbing on the Charles, I thought back on each grave site we encountered during the long walk to Bunker Hill. The graves of a people who fought for a dream they could only envision. [The] struggle to achieve this dream seems more tangible after walking in Boston, a city preserved from the past allows me to transport back to it. Bostonian streets are cobbled while houses closely confined and similar in design. Commercialism and advertisement does not exceed the older atmosphere of a colonial city. Boston provides a physical connection to America’s past that made me proud my ancestors were rebels—dissenting from the British and organizing themselves to do so (Headrick).

I experienced a major “memory moment” while looking into a little glass box on the top floor of the Old State House and examining a 200-year-old pair of sea foam-green women’s high-heeled shoes. They were the shoes of one of the governors’ wives. Looking at this pair of shoes, I could imagine a first lady walking up the spiral staircase to the top of the Old State House, coming to deliver a message to her husband, the governor. That image generated a whole new cluster of thoughts and questions. What exactly would one’s responsibilities be as a governor’s wife in 17th century Boston?

Another memorable part of my time in Boston was the Fourth of July celebration on the banks of the Charles River. Pierce, Jenni, Emily, and I got up around 5:30 am to hike two miles to the bus stop so that we could get down to the esplanade before all of the wristbands were handed out for the Neil Diamond concert and fireworks show. Doing this made it impossible for me to get over to the Old State House in time to listen to the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I was disappointed that I missed the historic tradition, but I had been looking forward to, and was thoroughly enjoying, the company of my dear friends and fellow travelers as we set up our blankets and camped out all day on the riverbank—as a family would---in anticipation of the nightly show. Everyone missed family events in order to participate in this trip, and Independence Day is typically a big one for all four of us, so this time together in a familiar setting was especially important. However, looking back on my own decision to skip the morning reading of the Declaration of Independence from the balcony of the Old State House in order to get a good spot for the fireworks that night, I wondered if it doesn’t represent something bigger than just me. Over 100,000 people came out to see the fireworks and walk the esplanade on the evening of the Fourth, decked out in red, white and blue, treating their families to fried dough, ice cream, hot dogs, or something equally delicious from the vendors lined up and down the pedestrian greenway. One of the students from our group who was able to attend the reading estimated that only 500-800 people showed up --“closer to 500.” What does this say about our collective reverence and appreciation for history? I was counseled just today with the old adage, “History repeats itself—you have to look back and learn from it; or you’ll make the same mistakes as your ancestors.” It’s good advice, and my generation would do well to heed it. And although most of my interactions with the people of Boston supported my proposal that history plays a prominent role in the city’s cultural identity, I did have one experience that left me doubting. While visiting Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art I had the opportunity to speak with two young women, recent college graduates in their early twenties, who worked in the gallery. Neither of the girls were natives of Boston; both had attended college in the area and after graduation, had decided to stay. I was intrigued by their responses to my general questions about Boston—what are their favorite things are about living in Boston and what I should do with the limited time that I have here. When I asked what I should do during my three days in the city (one of them being the 4th of July), I got all kinds of advice about shopping boutiques and outlets, beauty salons, art galleries and museums, caf├ęs, and places to walk---as in exercise. So I tried to pull more out of them.

”I’m interested in learning about some of the history here---do you know of any hidden treasures?”

“No…not really. You could go on the Freedom Trail I guess.”

“I’ve heard that’s pretty long. If I only have time for a few stops, could you recommend one or two of your favorites?”

“Oh, no, I don’t know. I’ve never really done it.”

Never really done it? How can you live in Boston and have never seen anything on the Freedom Trail? These two young women’s perspectives were strikingly different from those of the locals I had met who visited at least one of the sites each month. But most of the people I had met on the trail were from an older generation. I should have guessed that the young adults of Boston were just as uninterested in history as the majority of youth elsewhere.

I sometimes see my generation as one of individuals living increasingly isolated lifestyles —always plugged into iPods and Blackberries, seldom learning the names, much less the stories, of the people living on the same floor of our own apartment building. Now I cannot help but wonder: has my generation lost touch with history as well? Will we have any memory to speak of when it’s time to pass our stories on to our children, or will they have only textbooks from which to learn their histories? My hope is that my peers and I will each find, in a place such as Boston, our own “physical connection to the past,” as Emily put it ---a place where history and memory merge; where we are inspired to keep both alive.


References

Blight, David. 2009. “If You Don’t Tell It Like It Was, It Can Never Be as It Ought To Be.” Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. Retrieved July 29, 2009 (http://cwmemory.com/2006/06 /03/history-vs-memory/).

Headrick, Emily. 2009. “And I Proudly Stand Up….Next to You: Boston Day 3.” Where in America is Emily Ann Headrick? Retrieved July 18, 2009 (http:// emily40statesin40days.blogspot.com/2009/07/and-i-proudly-stand-upnext-to-you.htm

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