A handful of new travel companies ask what you'd learn if you approached the mundane in your own neighborhood like a tourist.
Ryan Griffis first took a group of locals on a tour of the Chicago Technology Park, on the west side of the city, back in 2004. He was interested at the time in biotechnology, in the political, ethical and philosophical debates then taking place in the country around how to responsibly harness the science of this growing field. In a much more tangible sense, he figured, this is how biotechnology shows up in our communities: in concrete research campuses and office parks.
No one here had particularly invited Griffis to come learn about the place, or to show it to others. “We would just walk in,” he says, sounding as if this were a perfectly common thing to do.
As for how he would explain the group's presence to bewildered office workers: “You know how there are architectural enthusiasts who tour various parts of the city and they talk about architecture and want to learn about its history?” he asks. “I say, ‘Well, it’s sort of like that. But we’re looking in this instance at the technology park, and how ideas of biotechnology are transforming this space that we’re walking in.’
“For some people, that’s enough that that works,” he says. “And for other people, that just makes them more suspicious.”
But why shouldn’t we tour biotechnology parks, or parking lots, the more unnoticed corners of our cities and the spots where its seldom-cited history once occurred? Griffis, an artist who plays with this idea through a project called the Temporary Travel Office, is interested in how the tropes of tourism can be applied to decided non-touristy places. This is not an endeavor for out-of-towners. Traditional tourism tries to sell outsiders on a city – its tallest skyscrapers, its picturesque waterfront, its historic monuments. This homegrown hybrid, aimed at locals touring their own communities, aspires to something else, to make us reconsider the places we pass through every day.
“Chicago is a great city to illustrate how urban space is always in flux or changing,” says Paul Durica, a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Chicago. He’s writing a dissertation on the representation of tramps and hobos in American literature, and he decided he wanted to be able to share the research he was unearthing with a non-academic audience. Since 2008, he, too, has been leading walking tours around Chicago of even more curious sights: the compact geography of the famous 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder on the South Side of the city; the once-thriving hobo neighborhoods that existed in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century when this was a true railroad town; the former location of Haymarket Square, site of an 1886 labor rally (an early precursor to May Day) that devolved into a deadly riot and internationally divisive trial.
Today, there is a monument at the location, but hardly anything else of the era remains. In contemporary Chicago, the Kennedy Expressway cuts through the area.
“The city is a sort of inherited thing,” says Durica (he and Griffis know each other; the quirky urban walking tour scene in Chicago is a small one). “Oftentimes, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how it got to be the way it is. If you can trace out those narratives, it can help you think about certain things better in the present.”
As an example of that, Durica pointed just this past weekend to the city’s reaction to the NATO summit in town (one uninterrupted thread that runs throughout Chicago's history: the disproportionate police force the city throws at suspected trouble-makers). Police raided the home of three Occupy Chicago protesters accused of making Molotov cocktails – although friends said they were just homebrew enthusiasts. Last year, on the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket affair, Durica even orchestrated a full-fledged costumed reenactment at the site (from the images both above and below), giving a living history lesson particularly relevant amid modern-day labor rallies just over the border in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest.
Much of the history Durica tours is dark. His free events, under the banner of The Pocket Guide to Hell (a reference to a 19th century slur against the city), focus on “true crime, social justice, labor history, peanuts.” He is tapping into the counter-intuitive idea that touring these darker places from the past can endear people to a city in the present.
"My hope is that as the result of leaning about the past of the various spaces they inhabit, that they’ll have a greater sense of connection to it," he says, "and perhaps ownership as well, and perhaps care more about what’s happening in the present, and possibly what will happen in the future."
Griffis focuses less on the distant past than the history behind places that still stand before us today, like parking lots. He has led parking tours in Hollywood, Brooklyn and Chicago – often in conjunction with cultural festivals – not particularly to criticize them, but to encourage people to think about how they came into being and why our communities have so many of them.
"It’s really interesting to see the kind of effort on the part of people to look at this thing seriously as a thing," he says. And in some ways, it’s easiest to do that if we treat parking lots (or technology parks, or forgotten historical sites) as a literal tourist destination. Griffis, who also teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gives his students a reading on The Tourist at Home by curator Lucy Lippard. Tourism, she writes, is the “apotheosis of looking around”:
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.
You may want to beware of saccharine civic campaigns that urge you to “be a tourist in your own hometown,” by which tourism bureaus generally mean that you, too should take those $40 architectural boat tours meant for out-of-towners. Griffis is talking instead about visiting places typical tourists never go, like that parking lot just north of Waveland Avenue on Seminary Avenue in Wrigleyville (which you can visit on your own using the self-guided booklet he has produced). Did you know, for instance, that this lot was the site of a protest camp known as the Chicago Indian Village in the summer of 1970?
“Our goal is to get people to think about them seriously as something that has a history and information behind it,” Griffis says of even these parking lots. “It’s definitely not natural, it’s not just there. Somebody put it there and there’s a history behind how and why it’s there.”