So, for my first exploration into the virtual (or pandemic-friendly) offerings of DC history I would like to introduce the DC Neighborhood Heritage Trails.
I have two reasons for choosing this as the first in this series. One, because it is something you might be able to get out and do independently despite the pandemic, depending on where you live and/or your access to a vehicle. Two, because I think it offers you a new picture of a lot of neighborhoods and the deeply rooted multicultural experience that is living in the DC area.
*Their website encourages you to consider the trails as a way to get some fresh air during the pandemic, so you should feel comfortable enjoying a trail. That being said, you should not go if you have any concerns for your safety.*
What are these trails, anyway? Well, they're a series of maps that take you from one historical site/building/monument to another with the intention that you will follow the map on foot in search of the prominent historical markers. The maps are easy to follow and the markers are also easy to identify. In fact, if you've done any exploring in downtown, you've likely stopped to take a look at one or two of them without knowing exactly what they were.
Click the image to go to the webpage:
Unfortunately, these maps only come as a PDF download and there is no GPX file or app to guide you. There is, however, an audio tour available for some of the trails (Click here for the audio guide to the "From Civil War to Civil Rights" trail).
The purpose of these maps were to draw tourists out of the National Mall and into the other neighborhoods around DC. Locals knew these neighborhoods had a lot to offer but tourists wouldn't know what to look for outside the heavily advertised areas. The maps were originally printed as pamphlets and were made available for free on countertops of delis, convenience stores, hotels, coffee shops, and more. The trails were made to be simple to follow and thematically relevant to the history and values of the neighborhood. For this reason, they begin and end at metro stops. (Another fun fact is that the trails were made to emphasize the use of the metro to tourists because the metro was pretty new when this project began.)
When you look at the maps, you can see the history and images featured on the signs in PDF form. Downloading it will allow you to read it on an e-reader or computer and enjoy learning about different neighborhoods. You might learn something new about your own neighborhood, or the neighborhood where you work!
One of the important themes in these trails is the people who built the city we live and work in. Many of these communities have been overshadowed by the growth of the city and their stories get lost in the noise of progress. The trails are a small reminder that the people who brought this city to life left an important heritage that we can see in the buildings and monuments they erected.
My favorite parts of this particular project are the neighborhoods' input and the way the trails were made to last.
The historians who put these trails together went to the communities and talked to them about their histories and what they viewed as important stories to tell. In terms of public history projects, this is essential when you're undertaking something of this scale. Public history is about engaging with a community of people and it goes way beyond what you might find in a classroom or textbook. A lot of public history projects sort of fall flat or are too confined by their environment. Museums present this issue because you can put up a great museum in a neighborhood that is just the wrong fit. You might think about putting a nautical museum in a desert! Who cares about the history of boats when you don't really connect with the experience of riding in one?
These trails are different because they reflect the communities that house them, the communities had input, and they aren't confined by an environment or venue that limits them. (We will be coming back to the idea of environments for history later!)
The reason I said I love that these trails were made to last is that the project, sadly, has run out of funding. I'm not sure about the current state of some aspects of their website that advertise "Coming Soon" elements, but I do know that the public historians who brought this project to life have moved on and the project has not been expanded in years.
What are some reasons for the project ending when there seems to be so much left for them to do? Well, money is the simple answer. This project was funded by a special allocation to the Department of Transportation and the DC DOT maintain the signs (in the end, the DOT decided to reallocate the money). When a sign is damaged or needs to be moved for construction, they take care of it. Each sign costs tens of thousands of dollars to create and place at the site, not to mention the huge overhead of a massive staff who research the history, engage with community leaders and local businesses, and navigate the complex bureaucracy in DC. It's not simple to put up historical landmarks, but it is so worthwhile for the people who get to enjoy them.
Anyway, you probably want to know something about my experiences on the trails. I love walking them, but I think you should take someone with you if you're going to walk them because it gets a little boring by yourself. Plus, if you're in an unfamiliar neighborhood, you want to consider your safety and having a friend can really help (especially if you're prone to getting lost like me).
Walking the Civil War to Civil Rights trail was something I planned out, and I'm glad I did. I planned to bring water, wear appropriate shoes, and I definitely considered the weather. Another thing I thought about was which neighborhood I was going to walk through because there are three loops to this trail. I chose one that was slightly more familiar to me because I didn't have a walking buddy who knew the neighborhoods. I also thought a lot about what I wanted to learn, how busy the area would be for the time of day, and which metro stops were at the head and end of the trail. Fortunately, the Civil War to Civil Rights trail was super interesting to me, it had a great/familiar location, and there were metro stops close to a lot of the markers in case I needed to leave before finishing the trail since I had limited time.
If you decide to go, please let me know what you thought about the trails in the comments section or via email!
If you want to know more about DC history, you can read some great blogs from the DC History Center (the editor of their publication, Washington History, was a key historian in the Heritage Trails project!).
I love to wrap up history blogs with a recommendation for movies or TV shows that feature relevant topics. There are no shortages of movies featuring aspects of DC life, but one family-friendly flick I love is National Treasure. The reason I recommend National Treasure is because it really takes the experience of history off the beaten path and plays up Indiana Jones-inspired adventure in our nations' most-loved landmarks.
Evan Almighty is another fun watch featuring a lot of DC scenery and Steve Carrell in a Noah's Ark inspired follow-up to Bruce Almighty.
Click below for more movies: