The Forward March of “Free” Walking Tours

a rich Spanish family’s house on the plaza as they memorialize themselves and their conquering of the Maya underfoot and the “wild men” outside their gates

Merida   I’ve had some interest in the concept of “tours” for some time. The way in which a people, a neighborhood, and a city are presented is not a trivial concern either for those doing the looking and listening or for those being observed, usually silently and sometimes like animals in the cage.

the “weight” or responsibility for the building is pictured on the architect

There is a historic arch across the street from our house in New Orleans. On a normal day several local bicycle tours stop to look at the arch commemorating soldiers from the 9th Ward who fought in World War I. It’s hard not to hear the explanation of the guides and the stories they tell and sometimes fabricate about the arch. On the street side the names listed alphabetically are all white. If anyone happens to walk to the other side of the arch, the names listed alphabetically are all black, and so it states clearly. Some guides stand in front of the arch and lecture their riders without ever suggesting they get off the bike and walk to the other side. Others see the arch as simply a rest stop and offer the opportunity to rubberneck at the houses surrounding this one block green square as they talk generally about the neighborhood. I’ve never heard anyone describe the fact that the arch was moved to its current location from the center of what was known as McCarty Square. The history that led to it being fenced and gifted to the school board from the city because neighbors on the square became afraid of too many people, and increasing numbers of African-Americans, using the park day and night is never told. The very issue of the separate spaces for the names of neighborhood soldiers, black and white, is never mentioned or condemned, nor the relative irony that even listing the names at all and allowing them in the center of the small park might have been a bit radical for that time almost one-hundred years ago either.

Our union represented New Orleans buggy drivers for a while, and some of them were clear that they unabashedly made up stories and stops based on favors from businesses and tips along the way. In the Lower 9th Ward now the post-Katrina tours are a constant issue for neighbors, because they receive no benefits from the gawking and pointing. In the coming issue of Social Policy we offer an excerpt of a book dealing with slum tourism, pro and con, which includes a long interview with ACORN’s Vinod Shetty about our members’ view of tours in Mumbai’s giant Dharavi slum where we work. At the first Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue in Brazil, my companera and I spent several days in Rio de Janiero and took a so-called “slum tour” of the favelas as this trend was beginning. My point is simple. All of this is happening in the cities around you, perhaps off your radar, but has impact both profound and political, and benefits that are either nonexistent or minimal to the those living and working while the objects of the tourists’ gaze.

pieces of Mayan temples are used to build the church walls

And, I say this after our family enjoyed and learned from a free walking tour in Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan that essentially walked among the buildings, churches, parks, and cathedral located around the city’s central plaza. Free walking tours are sometimes touted as having begun in Berlin in 2004 and according to various websites exist in 18 cities around Europe and 60 cities around the world, although a quick look reveals that this is just hype and marketing. The US National Park Service has done an excellent free walking tour around the New Orleans French Quarter for decades for example. Our Merida tour in Mexico is not on any lists.

I’m not an advocate of free labor, but it is hard to deny that having the guide dependent on tips creates incentives for an excellent presentation. Our guide in Merida was Mayan, but his thousand watt smile didn’t disguise the political and religious facts of the Spanish colonization and enslavement of Mayans, the destruction of Mayan temples to build the churches, the apology of Pope John Paul II in the Cathedral for the historic abuses, the conflict of beliefs, his derision of the city’s upper class 19th century love affair with everything French from architecture to fashion, and more.

In his case, the two hour bilingual tour was a service to the city, and should have merited the guide a position on the municipal payroll. As free walking tours are exploding around the world, if communities want to receive benefits for their people as well as make sure that the whole story is told and the contributions go to the community and the organizations making a difference, rather than see their history and futures as little more than a gratuity, they need to take their messages more seriously and recognize the power they pack.

murals in the governor’s house depict the Mayan creation story

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