Sunday, April 11, 2010


Sometimes history leaves physical traces, doesn't it? Other times, those traces are covered up or erased. Just down the street from my old apartment, there's a big ugly bank and office building that was the site of some controversy in the 1970s. A radical underground group threatened to bomb the building if the developer went ahead with plans to build several more monstrosities just like it up and down the block. Whether because of the threat or some other reason, the developers opted not to proceed with the razing of the old and the raising of the new. But not a single trace of this struggle remains on the building itself. However, there are the markings of another, more recent controversy. During the late 1990s, the dot-com boom hit the area, and mostly white tech workers were displacing  long-time residents, many of them Latino. The owner of this particular building kicked out many of the nonprofit tenants to make way for one giant dot-com company. Protests ensued, and the building got paint-balled with the colors of the Mexican flag -- green, red and white splotches of paint still dot the large, windowless west face of the building. So, in this case, there are traces that hint at some of the building's more recent history; however, the more distant history -- more distant in time, but not in relevance -- has no such clear markers. 

I was thinking about this as I strolled around the Central City area of New Orleans. An artists' collective called "Mondo Bizarro" has created an innovative sort of walking tour called "I-Witness Central City." There are signs posted around the neighborhood (like the one in the photo above) that prompt passers-by to dial the phone number given, then dial the code for that particular location, and listen to a cell-phone story about something that happened in that exact spot. Some of the stories relate to places or works of art that are still there, such as the murals underneath the elevated I-10 freeway. (Ironically, however, some of the murals are of trees that were destroyed to make way for the construction of the I-10 roadway. So the story is about art that still exists, but some of the art is of trees that no longer exist.) Other stories refer to long-past sites or events that have left no visible reminders, such as the old home of the Free Southern Theater, a legendary troupe that served as a cultural arm of the Civil Rights movement. In telling these stories, "I-Witness" peels away the topmost layer of these sites to reveal the underlying past that animates them.

"I-Witness" encourages wandering. The stories are numbered, but the project doesn't dictate any particular route or sequence you have to follow. There's a story map online that you can print out or look at on an iPhone as you meander. But I enjoyed just chancing upon a few of the story sites as I strolled around the area after a second line parade. I figured I could always come back for more at my own leisure. Callers can also leave comments after the recorded stories, and hear other people's comments if they choose. In this way, just as a place accumulates layers of history (a theater company office becomes a church, which may later become something else), the telling of that history also accumulates layers (people leave comments adding or responding to a recorded story). Just another sign, if you will, that history is never separate from its telling.

For those who can't make it to Central City, "I-Witness" also has a story map online, which allows you to click on any of a couple dozen pointers and see a video version of the stories in the collection.

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