The project I completed this semester was a walking tour of Washington DC that covered all 8 wards of the city. The goal of this project was to create the longest walking tour in the district and display the rich local history that each community has to offer. I wanted to create a spectacle that would invite a public audience to engage with the history that is all around them.
My methodology for this project was simple but effective. I started by creating an outline of the tour that would see those participants pass through all 8 of DC’s wards. After having an outline of where the tour needed to go I found historic sites that followed that rough outline. I aimed to have a diverse set of sites that covered a wide variety of topics and I am pleased to report that I hit numerous historical topics that displayed the rich history of the local communities. After finding the sites I created the tour in the Clio web app which allows users to create tours that can then be pushed to the public. This way the tour can live on online for the public to use how they see fit. While I don’t think anyone will ever complete the entire tour again I would love to see the public jump in and out of the tour to visit some of the sites. Finally, I completed the tour myself to not only prove that it could be done in one day, but also to see what it was like to complete the tour and what lessons could be learned by walking all 8 wards in one day.
Reflecting on what I learned from this project I feel as though I learned a lot about how to apply digital history to public history. Using tools that were highlighted in the very first week of class (history pins) to think about how to invite the public to engage with the history that is all around them. The tools that we saw every week in the demonstrations really displayed how interactive digital history can be and as I walked and analyzed these sites through my phone it really brought home how digital history can enhance public history.
I also reflected on what some of the sites represented and how their physical absence necessitates the use of digital history so their story can be told. Many of the sites I walked past one would not know the history or the significance of without some sort of digital tool or preexisting knowledge. I am still unsure if we should push to get physical reminders of the importance of these sites, or if we should understand that not everything can be physical and it leaves space for the digital side of history to flourish. I personally lean towards the latter but it is an interesting intersection on how we represent history. Overall I enjoyed not only the project but the class in its entirety. I learned how constantly evolving the field of digital history is and how important it is to understand. A modern public historian must understand the digital world in order to effectively engage and entertain new audiences.
I feel like I have learned half a lifetime’s worth of information this semester. I learned there’s so many other ways to be involved in history that don’t require you to have a PhD or a fancy job in academia. The world of digital history is vast and full of unique opportunities that I want to take advantage of. I’ve been a little bit discouraged lately thinking about my future. The job prospects in academia are dismal, leaving me wondering if I will ever get to do something I’m passionate about as a career. Opening my mind up to all the digital tools I now can use, I feel like there’s going to be a place for me. Through blogging for this course and my project, I’ve become more comfortable and dare I say confident about my writing extending into academics and beyond.
The Final Project
Learning Python was a lot harder and more time consuming than I initially thought. It would take me sometimes 2-3 weeks to understand a single concept. My largest initial struggle was the text editor. Using BBEdit is not super user friendly for beginners and the other program recommended by the Programming Historian is no more (not compatible with newest MAC OS update and is no longer being maintained by the company). That was my largest setback and I was really worried I wouldn’t be able to overcome it, but I did. I did not get as far as I had planned by the end of the semester, but I’m proud of the work I’ve put in. Right now I have 4 blog posts up and I plan on continuing the Python series as well as adding posts on other topics.
Starting this walk, I had anticipated the obvious, it would take me around 5 hours, I would see parts of the city I had never walked in before, and I would be exhausted at the end. However, after 18 miles, 25 sites, and 6:30 hours of walking, I learned that DC is one of the most fascinating historical cities in the country, and I am wildly out of shape.
This was the intro to the tour, we started in front of the most iconic DC landmark I could think of, the Washington Monument. I go on to rant about the history of the monument but honestly the wind is atrocious and the important takeaway here is how confident we are, this confidence would diminish quickly as the miles racked up.
An important note to make here is I will not be going in-depth on all of the stops; I want to make sure I highlight the more exciting or impactful stops on the journey and not get bogged down in the minutia of the Sidney R. Yates Federal Building (although we did get some jokes in). So moving forward, I will let you know what stop we are on so you can track the progress; with all that said, lets see what we looked at next.
An important lesson learned in this journey was that some sites only exist in the digital world. Take this generic federal building pictured above; it is one block behind the National Museum of Air and Space, hundreds of tourists walk past the building everyday, yet the history isn’t displayed anywhere but online. This building sits on the site of the Williams Slave Pen, one of the most prolific slave trade locations in the city. This is not history one can stumble upon in the district, in fact I walked past this building nearly every week and just now learned what the site represents. This theme of sites only existing in the digital realm would come up again and again throughout the walk but this site set the tone for some of the more stark vacancies seen upon the tour.
Not everything we saw held the same significance. While some sites were monuments to human achievements, some just happened to stand long enough to become historic. So if the NRHP decides my old apartment building is important who am I to argue? This was stop 5 and spirits were still high to see the titanic memorial oddly located in the city.
That’s right, tucked in the back corner of the Southwest DC Waterfront is a Titanic memorial. Although I know that it looks like the visage of a man with both arms out, just like Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie, this memorial was built far before. Constructed in 1931 where the Kennedy Center currently sits it was made to honor the men who gave their lives to let women and children board lifeboats first. It was moved to its current spot in 1968, whether or not James Cameron found inspiration is up for debate but it sure does look a lot like the king of the world.
Part 2: Halfway Home
Ten stops in, we discussed the titanic, a baseball stadium, sewage plant, and a lazy bridge guard that let John Wilkes Booth go. It was now time to enter into our next ward and cross the bridge into Anacostia. We only had one stop in Anacostia, the Fredrick Douglas House. While there were plenty historic places to see in Anacostia this tour highlights the discrepancy between the sites that exist and those that are easily accessible. The Clio App is sorely lacking in underprivileged communities a fact which I recently made known to the founder David Trowbridge.
Finishing the Anacostia portion of our walk pushed us past the halfway point. While our legs were tired out spirits were still high. While they wouldn’t let us explore the Congressional Cemetery both Denzel and I considered the implications of wandering around with senator ghosts haunting us.
This check-in came 14 stops in and revealed a tragedy, Denzel, the Louis to my Clark, was dropping out soon. I completely understood why, at this point we had already walked around 10 miles and still had 11 more stops to go. I would not recommend doing this walk alone, Denzel and I talked about history, politics, community, basketball, app ideas, and I think we even debated Lincoln Park versus Linkin Park. Having a friend with you to keep your spirits high is paramount to completing this marathon of a tour.
One of my favorite sites we stopped at was another one that primarily exists digitally. Behind me is an icon of the LGBQT movement in DC. The Furies House was the publishing center of a lesbian newspaper in the 1970s called The Furies which was instrumental in the lesbian community and defining women’s identities and relationships. While I understand why the current owner doesn’t want a plaque outside for tourists to visit it does feel a bit underwhelming that the history is hidden online.
Union Station was stop number 16 and it was also the end of Denzel and I’s journey together. I was now going to face the rest of the walk alone and I was debating on tapping out myself. However, with the power of a burger and a large soda I pressed on. I don’t record another video until the last 5 stops, I was much more concerned with finishing than recording so I saved my energy. What follows are some of my favorite pictures from the sites I visited between videos all of which are important in their own right.
Part 3: Pictures For Proof
I was wildly upset they were closed but what an entrance!
9:30 Club had an event and I didn’t want to ask a bunch of strangers to pose so this what I went with.
The most beautiful PNC bank building in the world, it was stop 22 and built in 1922 by the now defunct Riggs bank.
I recorded a video of my complaining at the second to last stop about the inventor of the wireless telegraph. The audio is terrible, so you’ll have to take my word that I sound miserable and did not appreciate the beautiful statue. This led us to the last stop, I would write a long paragraph of the journey, but I think I summed it up pretty well in the moment. If you read this far, thank you for joining Denzel and I, if you ever walk the tour yourself remember, it is way farther than it sounds.
My final project was a blog post recounting my history tour of Washington DC which took me through all 8 of the district’s wards. The project was designed to give a deeper understanding of DC history and the diversity of that history. By walking through all 8 wards, I wanted to show how different communities contain their own unique history and to challenge the spatial understanding of the city. Ultimately, the tour is a spectacle, a challenge to overcome, but it also invites engagement. The tour uses public history principles which I honed during my time here at American University. By that, I mean it shows that history can be anywhere; it can be an old apartment complex, a memorial, an unassuming house, or even your local park. It also puts that history into a space the public can actually use. By putting the tour up on the Clio App, it is now accessible to anyone using either the application or the website. While I wonder if anyone else will ever complete the gauntlet of a tour, those who find it interesting could always do a small section or even just read through the sites to understand the history of DC.
Reflecting on what I learned while working on this project is something I had on the front of my mind during the entire walk. I was constantly asking myself, what will I take away from this? The first thing that came to mind was not about the history but the space. Walking through every ward in one day is both jarring and unsurprising. The neighborhoods are wildly different, but in many ways, they are identical. However, how the history is displayed and remembered is very different when comparing communities in the various wards. While other parts of the city had numerous Clio entries, Anacostia had few. Our walk through Anacostia was littered with history, yet much of it is not readily available online, a point I have made known to those who run the app. I also noticed that many of the sites only existed digitally; locations that have great historical significance such as the Williams Slave Pen or the Furies House, both have little to no signage letting the public know what they are. Finally, it also showed just how much history is all around us and how one can design a walk that spans nearly 18 miles and cuts through all 8 wards, yet finding sites to fit this path was easy as history is everywhere.
Overall I really enjoyed both creating this project and walking the tour myself. I got to view the city in an entirely new light and explore neighborhoods I never had. I learned about sites that I may have never realized were in the city, and found sites that I walked past everyday without understanding its history. I think exploring your community and appreciating its history is an amazing way to understand and get a deeper appreciation for the world around us.
The research question I had throughout this project was: how do DC residents feel and think about famous landmarks and neighborhoods in the nation’s capital? I wanted to highlight the stories of local Washingtonians since when people think of D.C., they think about the Mall, the Capitol, the White House, etc. and less about the local history of the capital. I was inspired to do this project during my summer internship at the Department of Homeland Security where I came across several oral histories of Anacostia and Congress Heights residents from the 1989 reflected on how they thought of the federally owned, historic hospital – as the unofficial dividing line of segregation between Anacostia, a historically Black neighborhood, and Congress Heights, a historically white neighborhood. St. Elizabeths Hospital was a psychiatric hospital established in 1852 by an act of Congress to treat Navy and Army personnel and D.C. residents, but the residents in those oral histories didn’t view the site as a historic place or as a hospital. Instead, the interviewees showed posterity how they viewed St. Elizabeths Hospitals in their daily lives. Through this project, I wanted to highlight similar stories of how D.C. remember and feel about famous landmarks and neighborhoods in the nation’s capital.
For this project, I delved into oral histories conducted of Washingtonians from the AU Humanities Truck, DC Public Library, DC History Center, and the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. I also included two oral histories conducted of American University students from the Class of 1969 since they resided in the District for a chunk of time during college and shed light on what was occurring in the city and at the university during a tumultuous time in U.S. history.
In order to find stories, I looked at various oral history transcripts. I looked for any mentions of specific places and neighborhoods in D.C. that detail how the resident felt about a specific place or remembered a specific place. The oral histories at the DC Public Library were largely organized by neighborhood, such as Barry Farm, Chinatown, and Marshall Heights. The oral histories from the DC History Center were also organized by neighborhood, such as one folder detailing oral histories from Anacostia residents and one for Congress Heights residents. In the oral histories from the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, the collections were not organized by location, so I read through each oral history to see any mention of a place, such as the Library of Congress, the U.S. Capitol, and Inauguration Parades. The AU Humanities Truck was organized by event, such as the Class of 1969 Reunion and the Knickerbocker Theater 100th Anniversary Commemoration. Even as several collections were organized by location or event, I scanned through the transcripts to view if the residents in that particular oral history mentioned a specific site or neighborhood in recalling various life events. In the end, I added over 60 stories to this project on the map.
In order to show these stories, I created a Google My Maps that shows each site. I chose to note each site with a red star to make it stand out on the map for people and to not confuse it with other icons Google Maps uses to designate different places. For each site, I included the name of the resident being interviewed, the excerpt from the oral history, and the link to the full oral history recording and/or transcription from the archives the oral history originated from. For some locations, I included a note about the historical context for certain sites that are not as well-known outside of the D.C. area. For instance, I included historical contexts for Ben’s Chili Bowl, St. Elizabeths Hospital, and the Knickerbocker Theater since many D.C. and non-D.C. residents might not know about these sites and their historical significance to D.C. local history. Additionally, for sites with numerous oral histories about it, I included a number on the label in order to make it easier for people to keep track which oral histories they have already read about that site and showing how many people have reminisces about this site or neighborhood. Barry Farm, St. Elizabeths Hospital, and the Capitol Hill Neighborhood all have the most recollections with seven each.
Overall, I really enjoyed this project. I learned so much about local D.C. history through these residents’ oral histories. Since I have lived and attended school in the District, I have been interested in uncovering and learning more about local D.C. history. It is important to remember that while D.C. is the nation’s capital, it is also equally as important to highlight and document the rich local history of America’s capital. For instance, I learned about the Knickerbocker Theater disaster and Camp Simms, which was a former D.C. National Guard site in Southeast D.C., due to this project. It was incredible to hear in Washingtonians’ own words how they felt and viewed national and local landmarks and neighborhoods, providing a view into what it is like to live in America’s capital.
For further research and if I continued to add to this project, I would add more oral histories from the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project I did not get to this semester. Additionally, I would add oral histories from the Rainbow History Project. I would also visit the Chevy Chase Historical Society to comb through the numerous oral histories that have been conducted of their neighborhood’s residents and look through the Washington Metro Oral History Project and The Lessons of the 1960s Oral History Interviews collections at George Washington University’s Special Collections. Since Google My Maps does not allow for me to add audio files, I would either look at other platforms that would support audio files or create an accompanying website (as Professor Owens suggested to me) or SoundCloud account for the Google My Maps.