This is a review of Cultural Tourism DC’s mobile walking tour site. The site includes five walking tours, three in downtown DC and two in the U Street neighborhood, which is pretty close to where I live. There are maps for each of the tours and the site uses your location to lead you through the tours. The sites on each tour are also marked on the maps. The sites are generally buildings or other locations like parks or historical markers. The mobile site asks you to engage by physically visiting the various locations on the tours.
All of the tours have audio components – you navigate to a site and then listen to a brief description of the history of the site – but some of the tours (both U Street tours) also have a video version of the audio description, which confused me more than it probably should have. The video version is in some cases identical and in some cases not. The video segments are mostly just montages of still images, but some do have music, which is nice since the U Street area was known for it music, particularly jazz. The still images in the videos include photos of famous people, newspaper articles, and other types of primary sources. Most of the audio and video segments are between 2 and 5 minutes long, although some are longer. When walking around, shorter is generally better, as it’s a bit weird to stand on a street corner looking at a building for five minutes while listening to an audio clip. I didn’t view the videos on the street, as I didn’t want to use a bunch of data on my phone to do so. This is a definite drawback to this format – it would take much less data to just read a webpage, although the music and images definitely do enhance the experience.
The overarching narrative of the U Street begins with the neighborhood as a site of African American culture and community, moves from that to the riots of 1968, and concludes with recent changes/revitalization. The downtown tours have less of a narrative, as they cover a more disparate set of sites and a broader time period (from the 19th century to the present).
It was difficult to find a public history site that focused on the neighborhoods of DC; most are put out by organizations like the Smithsonian Institution or National Park Service, or deal with public spaces in the city, like Histories of the National Mall. This isn’t really surprising, since that’s what DC is primarily known for (and what is very apparent during cherry blossom season, ugh). I appreciated that Cultural Tourism focused very specifically on DC neighborhoods, because I think the local and everyday history tends to get subsumed in the grand narratives presented by places like the National Mall. The Anacostia Community Museum is also really good at this, but it’s not a museum a lot of tourists visit. In some ways, it would have been nice for the Cultural Tourism mobile walking tour site to rely less on famous people, but it does a pretty good of balancing the famous and the not.