Monday, March 2, 2020
March 2, 2020: Boston Sites: The Freedom Trail
[On March 5th, 1770, the events of the Boston Massacre unfolded on King’s Street. On March 5th, 2020, the Northeast MLA convention will begin in Boston. So for both the Massacre’s 250th anniversary and that ongoing convention, this week I’ll highlight some historic sites and collective memories in Boston!]
On one thing I love about the historic path, one I don’t, and how we can move forward.
As I wrote in this long-ago post, one of my favorite things about Rome, the only European city in which I’ve gotten to spend extended time, was how much its history and its contemporary (as of my 2002 visit, anyway) coexisted, how fully the historic spaces and sites felt part of the city’s life and identity in the early 21st century. Too often, American cities segregate the histories, treat them as separate sections to be visited by tourists or school field trips (and, implicitly, forgotten or ignored the rest of the time). One happy exception to that trend, however, is Boston’s Freedom Trail, a painted red line on the city’s sidewalks that leads walkers to many different historic and cultural sites and landmarks, all while winding its way through the city’s very current and busy downtown districts. I’m sure Trail walkers routinely bump up against frustrated businesspeople hurrying to their next appointment, but that’s precisely what I love so much about this way of leading us through history—it reminds us that our present communities are literally and figuratively built upon those pasts, and forces our experience of the past to butt up against the realities of the present.
So I really do like the way the Freedom Trail presents Boston histories—but at the same time, it’s important to note that presenting them in that linked and guided way makes it that much more likely that visitors might not find or experience sites that are not included on the Trail. There’s no way everything could be included, of course—especially not sites that are beyond walking distance away from the current Trail’s location—but some exclusions nonetheless feel frustratingly arbitrary and damaging. Without doubt the most frustrating exclusion is of the parallel trail on which I will focus tomorrow’s post: the Black Heritage Trail. This Beacon Hill neighborhood walk past various historic sites and landmarks (about which, again, more tomorrow!) literally abuts the start of the Freedom Trail, near the Boston State House and the Shaw Memorial, and as a result it would seem particularly straightforward to extend the Freedom Trail’s red line to include the Black Heritage Trail. But unless things have changed in the few months since I was last in that area of the city, the Black Heritage Trail is not in any way linked to the Freedom Trail—not with the red line, and not in any other obvious way that would lead those visitors walking the Freedom Trail to add this profoundly parallel path into their excursion.
How do we challenge that frustrating exclusion (one which, to be clear, I think is due much more to timing than racism; the Freedom Trail had existed for decades by the time the Black Heritage Trail was created)? One important way is to highlight the Black Heritage Trail as frequently and widely as possible (as I’ll do in tomorrow’s post); I can’t tell you how many Bostonians I’ve encountered who simply don’t know of its existence, and that, at least, is a very addressable problem! But at the same time, the separation of the Black Heritage Trail from the Freedom Trail is a distinct and telling problem of its own, and one that can’t be fixed simply with more awareness. For that, it seems to me, we need to literally change (or rather extend) the Freedom Trail, bringing its lines and its guidance to the Black Heritage Trail as well. I’ve reached out to the Freedom Trail folks through their email and phone number to make that case, and if you read this and are able to do the same, it couldn’t hurt! Thanks!
Next site tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sites and collective memories (in Boston or anywhere else) you’d highlight?