Friday, April 15, 2011

A San Diego Cultural Narrative

By its very nature, the art of traveling removes tourists from their home culture and places them temporarily in a different cultural milieu, whether in an adjacent city or in a village halfway across the world.

-McKercher and du Cros, Cultural Tourism: 
The Partnership between Tourism and Cultural Heritage Management 2002

Over the course of my lifetime, I have been interested in travel and tourist activities. With our modern ability to span the globe in a matter of hours, the astounding rates of tourism and its importance to understanding both local and global processes have seemingly become intertwined with our pursuit of daily existence. For the city of San Diego, California, the Visitor Industry is the third largest revenue generator, following manufacturing and the military. Because of the tourism industry’s influence and significance to San Diego’s continuing urban development, it is essential to assess its impact on the spaces and people that serve to attract all of these visitors. Moreover, linkages between tourism, space, history, and commoditization are investigated across locations, but it is within a city setting that anthropologists have a unique opportunity to study the varied activities that shape a dense, multifaceted and peopled environment.

For this discussion, I would like to focus on a place in San Diego where I conducted my thesis research: Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (referred to as Old Town, OTSDSHP, and the Park). Old Town is a historic urban public park that has developed over the years as a popular tourist destination in San Diego. It is a 12-acre California State Park situated in the heart of San Diego and averages over 5 million visitors annually. Old Town is advertised as the “birthplace of California” and is described as a living history site that uses human interpreters, as well as symbolic representations, to bring to life and teach about the past in our current present. The Park is dedicated to public education, but business operations – with pragmatic concerns of visitor attendance rates, stretching limited budgets, and upholding concessionaire guidelines – continue to muddle the effectiveness of education through history and entertainment. The Park’s “historical significance”, its Interpretive Period, encompasses three unique stages that include major, permanent transformations to Southern California’s landscape: the Mexican Period (1821 – 1846), the Transition Period (1846 – 1856), and the American Period (1856 – 1872), as well as displaying a tad bit of American Indian presence throughout the years. Old Town hinges its continuing evolution as a contemporary tourist location, complete with “authentic” buildings, material culture, employee attire, performances, and cuisine, on this 50 year Interpretive Period.

Old Town can be described as a dreamscape produced for visual consumption and is a place in which Park operators inscribe cultural narratives into Old Town’s built environment. These cultural narratives are played out through the Park’s structural layout, period attire clad employees, multiple commercial operations, as well as Park tours and themed special events held throughout the year. What makes Old Town intriguing is that visitors continue to swarm through Old Town’s buildings, engaging with historical interpreters who tell stories about ourselves by talking about what we imagine the past to have been. San Diego history continues to breathe through present tourist activities, and is constructed by our present ideologies and beliefs about who we are today and who we were (or ideally should have been) in the past. This complex array of placed and misplaced histories, narratives, and personalities all coming together in a distinct location is really quite captivating.

Although Old Town is a distinct location, the park is representative of the city of San Diego, other living history sites across the nation, and urban public spaces abroad, as well as being tied to larger global processes of theming, commoditization, and tourism. This is because physical spaces, structures, and cultural constructions serve as metaphors for larger populations and environment. I also believe that the displayed themes at Old Town symbolize even more because of Old Town’s setting within the large urban area of San Diego. The exotic, fetishized elements are additionally highlighted because Old Town takes visitors away from surrounding busy city life and transports them not only in place, but also through time. Scholars write that many tourists traveling to living history sites are symbolically transported into actually believing that they are a part of an unspoiled and authentic community. Although spaces are obviously updated with functioning toilets, ATM machines, and electronic cash registers, Old Town makes the stage look authentic through buildings and activities of employees in period attire specific to the Old Town Interpretive Period.

As cultural consumers, visitors are attracted to places that portray particular themes and depictions of life. These places are influenced by cultural norms and trends, putting on display to the public modified and favorable versions of reality. The theming of Old Town’s space is not simply to make the place look respectable, but also to display a particular image that embodies something more than itself. It functions in a fluctuating consumer environment, playing off visitor desires and their willingness to accept the stories told through theming as real, meaningful, and authentic. In Old Town San Diego, important connections are made through the commoditization of San Diego history and by unifying ideas and symbols to create a joyful location to visit. Although the actual history can be important, it is not as significant as how history is reshaped and subsequently interpreted by the ephemeral visitors. Even though tourists have not experienced the 1800s westward expansion and settlement themselves, their participation at Old Town provides a sense of place and identity.

Tourism in Southern California has always had a dual nature. It has been part of the development of a physical infrastructure, while also combining goods, settlers, businessmen, and tourists with the exploration of land. Furthermore, close ties between place building and image building endure, creating a close link between the development and continual reinvention of Southern California’s physical landscapes and social environments. It is important to remember that Old Town is not necessarily creating an artificial fantasy (because the area does indeed have an actual history), but rather staging a version of it in the real past, as documented by experts and historians, with modern amenities to ensure visitor comfort and positive visitor experience. The Park plays off visitor desires in order to continue operations and produce an imagined, historical California landscape and social environment considered to be a multi-faceted form of education and recreation to all who visit.

Conor Muirhead
Wish You Were Here


Becky said...

Wow, that was awesome Conor. I have never been to Old put me in the picture, I was imagining and wondering. On our next visit I would like to visit Old Town. That was wonderful. You should write books, you are and excellent writer!!Hugs Aunt Becky and boys.

Lanthir Calendae said...

Neat! I work at a living history museum myself (the Frontier Culture Museum, in Staunton, Virginia). I often think about the museum in anthropological terms, but typically only regarding our subject material (history, syncretism and cultural continuity in the valley area, historical archaeology, etc.).

Considering the tourists as a subject of anthropological study themselves is a fascinating new perspective! Thanks for opening up a whole new viewpoint!

Stephen Rochester said...

I've been pretty fascinated with Old Town since I moved to San Diego. I love your observations. Like you said, people want to be transported to the unspoiled historical landscape. I've heard a lot of locals, who are more informed of the history than the average tourist, saying the site is cheesy. Which I think is because it has to represent so many time/cultural transitions in a small area, which makes it seem like the park is exploiting the "old" instead of being specifically historical.

Something I'd love to see is a comparison between the tourists to Old Town and those at a Pre-Colombian Maya site, and find the tourists' view of which one is more "pure" or in its historical place and which they feel is freer from etic interpretation, and why.

Conor said...

Thanks Becky and Lanthir for the feedback. I greatly appreciate it!

And Stephen - I agree with you that locals tend to say the site is cheesy, but that does not stop them from visiting it haha. They use it for happy hour margaritas (among other things) and summer nights listening to jazz music rather than continually assessing OT's historical significance. It is also unfortunate that locals want "their" Old Town to be generally free from tourists. Many San Diegans believe Old Town is their special place and don't like that boisterous tourists swarm through all of the buildings. And more importantly, you bring up a great point about perceived authenticity at historic locations. What is pure? What is authentic? What is real? Who really knows.

Ryan Anderson said...

Stephen! Thanks for commenting on here!

"Something I'd love to see is a comparison between the tourists to Old Town and those at a Pre-Colombian Maya site, and find the tourists' view of which one is more "pure" or in its historical place and which they feel is freer from etic interpretation, and why."

Ya, that would be interesting. I would like to see the responses from international tourists AND local tourists about Old Town specifically, to see who thinks the place is 'authentic' etc. And then do the same with a place like Chichen, again asking international tourists and domestic tourists. Since all of these sites are constructed, it would definitely be interesting to see who is more or less likely to "buy" it, so to speak (or at least be content with the presentation).

Anonymous said...

This sub-field of Cultural Anthro is called Cultural Studies. How to use anthropological ideas toward the goal of capitalism. Cultural studies can be found at Wikipedia. I am dismayed at how few tourist hot-spots we have here in San Diego. Just enough to keep families happy for a few days or a week. If it wasn't for the weather, the world famous Zoo, Scripps Aquarium, and Animal Park, who would come? Except for a few buildings like a haunted house and schoolroom, most of the historical buildings in Presido Park have been removed and paved over. There is only one small graveyard at the park because the rest have been destroyed by the powers that be and will not be excavated in the future. There is only one small spot that SDSU archaeological students can work at because the city doesn't allow research permits anywhere else.The mighty dollar has put shops and restaurants over the bones and lives of the people who don't deserve it. To the tourist who couldn't care less, it's great. For those who want a true cultural experience along with programs and cultural centers, one has to go way outside of the city of San Diego to find that and that's what we have learned to do.