Saturday, April 18, 2009

One if by car, two if by SUV

Well, I’m back. Not that I’ve been anywhere terrifically exciting—just so busy teaching that I haven’t had time to work on my cars and heritage project. But now that the semester is starting to slow down, I’ll be able to hit the road again and have some fun with this. (Not that teaching isn’t fun, but…you know…)

I went to Minute Man National Historical Park today (107 miles, round trip) for part of the Patriots Day weekend festivities. I spent some time following Revolutionary War reenactors around at Minute Man about ten years ago, and they were certainly out in force today, colorful and eye-catching as always. However, I’m working on re-focusing my ethnographic gaze on cars and car-related infrastructure at historic sites, which is surprisingly hard to do (especially when the British are coming) but which starts to reveal some interesting new layers if you can do it.

Minute Man NHS is a particularly rich site for thinking about this, because in some ways it’s all about cars, and our struggle with cars. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, but the idea of creating a national park along a long stretch of preserved land following the line of the British retreat in 1775 actually dates back to the 1920s, when a prominent Boston landscape architect, Arthur Shurcliff (left), proposed it. Shurcliff was an amazingly prolific designer who worked on gardens, campuses, parks, and historic environments at Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Holyoke College, the Quabbin Reservoir, parts of Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Emerald Necklace” (Shurcliff worked for Olmsted’s firm in Brookline), the Paul Revere Mall, the grounds of Plymouth Rock, and many other iconic places, trying to resolve the old nature/culture, city/garden tensions in a pleasing way.

Shurcliff, and the preservationists who shared his values and made use of his ideas, worried about development, traffic, and what a 1956 report called “mundane and disrespectful uses” of the sacred ground of the Battle Road. Long story short, the park as created in 1959 was based on a plan, which has since been almost entirely realized, to “restore” the landscape to something close to its 1775 condition, with rolling fields, stone walls, and a dirt road where there once was blacktop.

This feat of restoration has required many decades, the deaths of life-tenants in park properties, and recurring tussles with the adjacent Hanscom Air Force Base and other neighbors who would like to see more development of the very desirable real estate along the Route 128 corridor that rings Boston. You can still see glimpses of the old paved road within the park, if you look for it. And if you follow the restored road all the way to its end at Fiske Hill in Lexington, you can certainly hear evidence—via the noise of the eight-lane highway right around the corner—of the manic automobility that the park’s creators were reacting against.

And when the park hosts a big event, like today’s encounter between the redcoats and the Yankees along the Battle Road, you get a sense of just how hard it is to reclaim a road from automobiles in a place where most people are reliant on them. Parking is always a huge issue when there’s a crowd at Minute Man, and today’s plan involved many, many park rangers and police from the Middlesex Sheriff’s office (volunteering their time, I was told) and the takeover of an almost mile-long stretch of the Hanscom Airport Road for parking.

I need to figure out a good way to talk to visitors at sites like this about how driving to and from events like this fits within the larger heritage experience, and also to find out how people feel about the shift from being in the car to walking in the woods or whatever historic environment they end up in. There are such similarities between these environments and college campuses, “natural” parks, botanical gardens, and the other kinds of car-free places that Arthur Shurcliff designed so many of. They all promise an experience of a different pace and beautiful things to look at—once you’ve negotiated the hassle of getting there and finding a place to park.