Saturday, July 22, 2006

These guided bus tours are teaching me as much as the "tourists" whom we're engaging in the process ... .

Most of my work for the parks is involved in choreographing and "casting" a series of bus tours designed to inform the community of the fact that they are -- quite literally -- living in the middle of a congressionally-designated national park. "The Rosie the Riveter/Home Front Historical National Park" does not lie on the shoreline as one might be led to believe by the close connection to the Kaiser shipyards and environs, but is made up of over 20 war-related structures that are still standing throughout the city. My mission, as a community outreach specialist, is to raise public awareness of that fact -- toward both the need to preserve those structures -- and to help to move the city toward a greater sense of its role in the telling of the story of the Second World War for the nation. That's a tall order, but achievable.

Yesterday the group made up of the mayor; members of several boards and commissions, the designer of the beautiful Rosie Memorial monument; a major developer who is razing and re-creating a two square block four-story mix-use project on Macdonald Avenue; the district director for state Senator Don Perata; a program evaluator from the National Parks Foundation and his aide (here from Texas); the Gen. Manager of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce; members of several Neighborhood Councils (there are 39 in this city) and several members of park staff gathered at city hall for our fifth such tour. It was amazing!

We use a small 28-passenger bus in order to preserve the feeling of intimacy -- and it works like magic. Everyone is close enough to converse in two's but the group is small enough so that -- when we need to -- we can instantly become part of a single conversation; a deliberate strategy.

When one realizes that these are people who are the civic leaders, and that they've been passing these structures in the course of their lives for many years, it seems a minor miracle to me that they could find this activity of even passing interest.

We gather at 8:30 in the morning for coffee and introductions, view the "Lost Conversations and Untold Stories" DVD (available to view under CBreaux Annex), visit the collections of artifacts and view the growing archives of studies and oral histories, then board the bus for the first stop at the Memorial. Many have surely already seen this stuff, right, so what's the big deal? But from the moment that Naomi picks up the bullhorn to begin the guided tour up 23rd Street, past the Newell Market, the Galileo Club, the Greyhound bus station, the Park Florist and the Winter's Building, etc., the conversations begin to grow louder and more insistent and memories are triggered and chaos reigns! It's the most delightful chaos imaginable.

Everybody has stories to tell. The World War II memories are triggered and lessons either never learned or now forgotten begin to surface.

Many who have been silenced by either the racial or cultural divide are freed to have those conversations that were stilled long ago. The questions that have gone unanswered ├žan be expressed. Candor is the rule of the day.

On the tour, an African American leader -- upon the discovery of the tiny Mexican-American Baptist church on the border of the Santa Fe-Baltimore railyards was heard to say, "...and I was wondering why they were all comin' here. They've been here all the time!" It was only in the moment before that she'd learned that the historically-designated Atchison Village (whites-only) WWII housing development had been erected upon what had been an historic Mexican-American settlement; upon the agricultural lands that had sustained them before the war came in 1941. What a revelation!

After visits to many more sites (including the Ford Assembly Plant, the SS Red Oak Victory and the Whirley Crane that built her, the Kaiser Permanente field hospital and fire station) we return to city hall for a quick lunch and de-briefing.

Out of many contructive comments (all dutifully noted by a recorder), one stands out for me:

A strikingly attractive older woman (white) who heads the Planning Commission rose from her seat to ask (yea, demand!) that "... you must add an hour to the tour (8:30 'til 12:30 now) in order to enable folks to visit the African-American historic area of North Richmond -- where blacks had built a community from scraps discarded in the dismantling of the HUD-built temporary war housing. "That history must not be lost. We need to visit North Richmond and/or Parchester Village (also black) if we're going to tell this story." I felt my heart beat in my ears. This was the precise direction I'd hoped we'd find ourselves embarking on, but we're here so much sooner than I would have ever hoped or dreamed. The history is crossing the racial lines it couldn't have dared cross while those times were being lived -- and by many of those on today's tour.

And later, "... the NPS must be present at the table as we continue to create the city's General Plan." This was an important oversight that (I suspect) will soon be corrected.

Our sixth and seventh tours slated for September (dates to be decided) have already developed a wait-list of eleven who couldn't be accommodated on this one.

An interesting idea is beginning to germinate in the back of my mind -- that may be of interest in days to come. How great would it be to combine -- on future tours -- 4 or 5 outsider tourists visiting the area -- with insiders from the city -- so that visitors from elsewhere might be able to witness this growing phenomenon of this community re-living its history, together, on a small bus -- and reclaiming those years informed by all the years of social change that ensued?

Over the next month or so I plan to make a greater effort to engage the growing communities of Sikhs and Laotians et al so that they, too, can begin to better understand the cultural living environment they've chosen to share with those who came before. How wonderful it could be were they able to eavesdrop on the rest of the community reliving its past in this way -- providing in the process a model they might find helpful to their own journey toward assimilation? The Laotians have only 30 years to build on in this strange and contradictory land of mixed messages.

I think that I'm only just beginning to get a hint of the powers inherent in this new process of civic engagement. Maybe just as important as the park's engagement with the "civic" is the "civic's" engagement with itself. And -- in the end -- is this not the same thing? And, if not, what is it that I'm missing?

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