THE TOURIST AT HOME
This village loves this village because its river banks are full of iguanas sunning themselves and its fishes love to bite. SANTIAGO CHUB
"What's here?"asked some friends from Maine as I walked them through the New Mexican village I live in. They had seen the place written up in a guidebook as "picturesque." "Nothing," I said with a certain mendacious pleasure, thinking how opaque the village's surface is.
"Is there anything over there?" asked a couple I met on the bridge; they were staying at the local inn. "Depends on what you're looking for," I replied, secure in the knowledge that there was nothing over there they would see.
Yet when I give my own walking tours through the rutted dirt streets (and few of my visitors escape them), it seems to me that everything is here: culture, nature, history, art, food, progress, and irony. There is the old village itself and its vestigial claims to "authenticity"; the church (relatively new as southwestern churches go, having replaced an older one in 1884); the 18-year-old upscale development to the west for contrast (and for an architectural tour of another nature; it's a good survey of imagined "Santa Fe style"); the movie set in the distance; the curandero's "office" with its skull on a pole; what used to be here and there (scattered adobe ruins); the quite new community center and the brand new firehouse (partially built by community work parties); yard art; an extensive petroglyph site; the cloud shows and encompassing light on ranchlands and mountains; the (diminishing) biological diversity of the creek and bosque; the mouthwatering tamales at the Tienda Anaya; and, of course, the people. We have it all, but for an outsider, it's hard to find.
The next question is, should it be easier? What's in it for a town like this, with few local businesses? Who would profit from a higher profile? Will signs begin to proliferate along the highway? Will local artists lend themselves to making this place a "destination" rather than a flythrough? Will a proposed café/gallery and/or restaurant change our identity? We may soon have to answer these questions, as the state and county tourism bureaus look farther and farther afield for attractive "authenticity." Dean MacCannell has said that the concept of the authentic is a potential "stake driven into the heart of local cultures."
THE LOCAL IS DEFINED by its unfamiliar counterparts. A peculiar tension exists between around here and out there, regional and national, home and others' homes, present and past, outsiders and insiders. This tension is particularly familiar in a multicentered society like ours, where so many of us have arrived relatively recently in the places we call home, and have a different (though not lesser) responsibility to our places than those who have been living in the area for generations. Jody Burland has remarked on the "peculiar reciprocity of longing" at the heart of tourism which binds outsiders to insiders. Tourists may long for warmth, beauty, exoticism, whereas locals may long for escape, progress, and an improved economy: "Between us there can be a moment of strange, perhaps misleading comprehension." Local residents both possess and become a "natural resource which produces more pleasure, and tourists are necessary to its conversion to wealth." Smiles and solicitude are part of the negotiations. The exchange contains the contradictions that define a multicentered society.
Tourism is the apotheosis of looking around, which is the root of regional arts as well as how we know where we are. Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we'd probably learn twice as much. When we are tourists elsewhere seeing the sights, how often do we stop and wonder who chose the sights we are seeing and how they have been constructed for us? We do often wonder about the sights we're not seeinghouses and gardens glimpsed behind the walls, historic sites and natural wonders sequestered on private property or closed on Tuesdays.
The tourist experience is a kind of art form if it is, as Alexander Wilson says, its own way of organizing the landscape and our sense of it. "We tour the disparate surfaces of everyday life as a way of reintegrating a fragmented world." It is an art form best practiced domestically, challenging artists to work in the interstices between the art scene and local audiences. This can mean demythologizing local legends and constructing antimyths that will arm residents against those who would transform their places in ways that counter local meaning (which in itself is unstable). So the resident who accepts the role of tourist at home becomes responsible not only for the way the place is seen but for how it is used. Jim Kent, a sociologist based in the legendary Colorado ski town notes, "So many people complain about the people who bought Aspen. What about the people who sold Aspen?"
Being here and being there, being home and being away, are more alike than we often think. Even as we learn them, our places change, because no place is static, and no resident remains the same as s/he lives and changes with the experiences life and place provide. People visit, they like the place, they retreat or retire there, becoming what have been called "amenity migrants." Then, prey to the "drawbridge syndrome," they begin to complain about the tourists and other newcomers. In Aspen, they say "if you've been here a year, you remember the good old days." A former county commissioner observes, "What defines you as a local, in my mind, is whether you give more than you take." Yet locals can be takers too, from a littering habit that pervades the rural United States to more permanently destructive behavior. It was a local, mad at his girlfriend, who poisoned and brought down the great historic tree called the Austin Treaty Oak, in Texas. At Higgins Beach, near Portland, Maine, drunken party goers deliberately stomped on the nests and eggs of endangered terns. All over the West, local people target shoot at ancient rock art. Vandalism, not necessarily by "foreign" tourists, recently destroyed an arch in Canyonlands. The examples are chillingly ubiquitous.
Many towns are not so much potential destinations as service stops along the way to more desirable places. Considered negligible, they are unseen, recalling tourism in its innocence, when travelers were the strangers, providing entertainment for locals, when the passing tourists looked out upon views that were the same before they came and after they left. But all too soon came the deluge. Opposing tourism in the West, if only theoretically, has suddenly become "like being against ranching, or Christianity," writes Donald Snow in a bitter elegy for Montana titled "Selling Out the Last Best Place":
We're getting the endless strips of motels, junk food restaurants, and self-serve gas depots out along the interstates that make our towns look like every other greasy little burg everywhere else in Walt Disney's Amerika. We've got increasingly egregious pollution problems now, here in the paradise of the northern Plains, and we have seriously outstripped the abilities of local government to handle even modest levels of new home development. Recent news in my hometown paper is that a new hydrologic study of Missoula County has found significant levels of septic contamination in every single well ... including one well drilled 220 feet down to bedrock.... If all that isn't stupid enough, we spend what paltry money we raise from a tourism tax right back on more tourism.
Over a period of years, John Gregory Peck and Alice Shear Lepie have studied three North Carolina communities and charted the effects of rapid growth, slow growth, and "transient development" (weekend and special event tourist trade) on three criteria of central importance to local people: power (land ownership, sources of financing, local input, and the relationship of local traditions to development projects); payoff (benefits and potential upward mobility for how many residents); and tradeoffs (the social impact on communities). Under the best of conditions, balance seems achievable. Yet when tourism becomes the only option for economic survival, our labor force becomes a nation of service workers, dolled up to look like our ancestors as we rewrite the past to serve the present. Although this situation might provide a chance for retrospection, the romantics, the generalizers, and the simulators usually get there first. Towns can wither on the vine as they preserve the obsolete out of stubbornness or impotence, or they can inform their residents' current lives. Past places and events can be used to support what is happening in the present, or they can be separated from the present in a hyped-up, idealized no-place, or pseudo-utopia, that no longer belongs to the people who belong there.
In recent years, a lot of cities around the country have come up with PR campaigns called Be a Tourist in Your Own Town. It's an interesting idea if it's taken way past the overtly commercial motives that inspire it. Instead of discounted trips to restaurants and museums offered in order to stimulate local markets, this could be a time to focus on latent questions about our own placesareas we've never walked through, people we've never met, history we don't know, issues we aren't well-informed about, political agendas written on the landscape. It is a task taken seriously by the innovative Center for Land Use Interpretation and its publications and tours. (See pp. 20, 150.)
John Stilgoe's studies of "locally popular" places such as the Blue Springs Cafe, just off the interstate at Highland, Indiana, and the Ice House Café in Sheridan, Arkansas, or even the ubiquitous Wal-Marts, suggest that people are less interested in the visual impact, in the architectural containers, than in "something different" from the corporate style and, above all, in "high quality product and service within the container." Thus the tourist looking for the locally validated, the truly "authentic," is unlikely to stumble into it because from the outside it looks like nothing special. Most locals, perhaps even some proprietors, would like to keep it that way. In tourist towns, at least, residents feel displaced. They need their own refuges, which are always endangeredpotential tourist spots, if the secret gets out. MacCannell has pointed out that in San Francisco, "everything that eventually became an attraction certainly did not start out as one. There was a time when ... Fisherman's Wharf was just a fisherman's wharf, when Chinatown was just a neighborhood settled by the Chinese."
Years ago, theater innovator Richard Schechner got a job as a tour guide to prepare for an article on tourist performances. Creative Time's 1995 Manhattan Passport7 Two Token Tours encouraged New Yorkers to rediscover their borough by "re-contextualizing typical tourist attractions with areas of the island other than those in which you might live and work." The seven cleverly titled excursions included "Take the A Train" (Harlem), "More Than Harlem on My Mind" (Washington Heights and Inwood), the "Melting Pot Tour" (the U.N. and Roosevelt Island), and the "Cultural Cornucopia Tour" (Lower East Side and East Village). The latter stopped at the Henry Street Settlement, Gus's Pickle Stand, Liz Christie Gardens, the 6th Street Indian restaurant row, Nuyorican Poets Café, St. Marks on the Bowery, the Russian and Turkish Baths, and four yoga dens. This is cultural tourism at its liveliest, though it is unclear how actively it addressed the problematics of gentrification, homelessness, redlining and other pressing social ills in relation to cultural issues.
A provocative community exercise in being a tourist in our own towns would be to ask people what local existing sites or buildings, artifacts, places they'd like to see preserved, and why. Times Square might not have been on my list during the forty years I lived in New York, but now that it's too late, it is suddenly on everyone's list. As early as 1914 the area was described as "a little bit of the underworld, a soupçon of the halfworldthere you have the modern synthesis of New York as revealed in the neighborhood of Forty-Second Street." First-run movies showed in the odorous and slightly dangerous theaters of my youth, now gone, as is Grant's, where New Yorkers could buy a hot dog and be goggle-eyed tourists on the seamier side of their home townnot to mention the squalid porn shops, hustlers of every stripe, adult movies billed as "XXXstasy," and the sometimes violent street life. All gone now, replaced by Disneyfication, to make Times Square a safe place for mallrats and anathema for locals.
What is at stake in Times Square, according to literary scholar Andreas Huyssen, is "the transformation of a fabled place of popular culture in an age in which global entertainment conglomerates are rediscovering the value of the city and its millions of tourists for its marketing strategies." And where will Times Square's marginalized population (which made the place what it was for better and for worse) go now? Wherever they turn up, it's unlikely that a new place will ever achieve the historical and populist grandeur of its predecessor. Or can Times Square be reincarnated elsewhere? Maybe Disney will take that on too, if we don't. As architect Michael Sorkin concludes sadly, "of course, it's terribly true that the demise of Times Square, its conversion to another version of the recursion of Vegas (which has now built its own Times Square, even more pared down and distilled than the vanishing `original'), must be blamed squarely not on the energetic advocates of sanitized fun but on our own failures to propose a better idea."
San Francisco has often been celebrated by its multifaceted artist and writer population. In 1984, a group of "activist punks" organized street theater action tours of corporations involved in nuclear energy and military intervention (modeled on the "Hall of Shame" tours of nuclear corporations in 1981 and preceding the "War Chest Tours" at the 1984 Democratic Convention). These enabled the anarchist Left, wrote David Solnit, to "collectively take their politics out of the underground shows and into public spaces." Fourteen years later, his sister Rebecca Solnit lauds San Francisco's scale and its street life, which "still embodies the powerful idea of the city as a place of unmediated encounters," unlike other western cities which are "merely enlarged suburbs, scrupulously controlled and segregated."
The city has been the site of several artists' tours, such as Jo Hanson's $5 tour of "Illegal Sights/Sites" in the early 1980s. Conceived as part of her "Art That's Sweeping the City," the environmental tours to ten sites were guided by community activists, exploring "the living city under the tourist attractions ... focusing on the web of urban issues/relationships through litter and dumping." The selected sites included Chinatown ("where you will see more of the alleys and markets than the tourist shops"), "Bay View and Hunter's Point, the Shadow of Candlestick Park, the victimization of unique Black communities by illegal dumping from outside," "Ocean Beach and its devastation," and "Twin Peaks, the breathtaking grand view strewn with litter down its steep slopes."