Monday, November 07, 2011

At Home with History in Traverse City

Three years ago, before I moved to central Michigan, a friend told me about an astonishing adaptive reuse project a few hours north of his hometown. He described this project as "creepy" and even "crazy." Given that the project was to convert a shuttered state mental institution into a mixed-use commercial/residential complex, I didn't doubt his assessment.

However, a few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit this place with my husband as part of our annual anniversary get-away. The complex is now called "The Village at Grand Traverse Commons" and, although it retains an austere grandeur reflected off of its blonde brick facade, it doesn't feel the least bit haunted.

On the contrary, it feels integrated, accepted or even loved. I suppose this is what every architect of an adaptive reuse project desires-- community support and ultimately patronage. But I believe it takes a special kind of alchemy. The community needs to exist in and of itself before it can rally around an architectural icon. The community needs to want this for itself, not purely to show off to tourists.

When my husband and I arrived at Trattoria Stella, an Italian-style locovore haven in the basement of one of the original buildings in the complex, we did not feel like we were surrounded by tourists. Instead, we felt like we were welcomed into to view a local gem, embraced by a thriving community. In the end, I believe that's the best possible outcome for "heritage tourism" anywhere.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Telling Stories at Les Egouts and Versailles

Two highlights of my trip to Paris and its environs were the relatively obscure Museum of the Sewers (Les Egouts) and the wildly popular Chateau of Versailles with its gardens. It might seem strange to write about them in the same post, but you'd be surprised by how much they have in common. Both are authentic historical places with rich histories, and both, as interpretive sites, missed opportunities.

Les Egouts, accessible via a museum entrance at Pont D'Alma in Paris, are earnest and forthright in the story they tell about the history of Parisien sanitation. The self-guided walking tour reminded me of Ms. Frizzle's Magic School Bus, beginning with a series of placards describing the water-cycle, all narrated by the ever-affable "Curious Crayfish." Aimed at children, these introductory panels established an informational and environmental tone remenisant of a science museum. As I passed through the sewer tunnels, aided by my English gallery guide, I encountered the most fascinating part of the exhibit: a long gallery filled with panels and artifacts, described in French and English, that charted, in essence, the environmental history of Paris from the middle ages through the present day. What was distinctly missing from the tour was a sense of the other uses of Paris's sewers, especially during the second World War. The exhibit would benefit from an audio guide that pointed out the ways in which the sewers served to hide the resistance fighters, or even more, from optional guided tours focused on different periods in the history of the place.

Versailles, as well, missed opportunities to broaden and deepen the history of the buildings and the grounds. The challenges faced by the institution were obvious-- Versailles is in danger of being loved to death. The place was so popular on a Thursday morning, that we feared at times being crushed against the plastic-covered walls, strategically shielded from the sea of humanity. Audio tours in 10 languages were available as part of the ticket package for the place, but it seemed that the stories told at each stop along the way were limited due to a desire to move people along. At least that's my hope. Otherwise, the missed opportunity would be more glaring-- very little information about the political strategy of the sun-king and the revolution that changed France, and lots and lots of information about the furniture.

The gardens, though, are not to be missed!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Taste of France

Sorry to disappoint, but this post will not be about cheese. Although, I can attest to its superior qualities judging by my husband's rapturous indulgence as frequently as possible. We Americans are invariably amazed by the comparative svelt-a-tude of the French given their seemingly large portions (even at Paul Bocuse) and their rather continuous consumption of cream.

But, enough about food. I'm hear to report on some off-the-beaten path observations from my third trip to France.

1) Lyon: the promenade along the Rhone River is divided into unique sections, each with its own navigational sign. In the afternoon or evening, the pedestrian walks and bike paths are alive with activity. Surprisingly, the city does not feel the need to publicize what appears to be a recent, excellently executed renovation, with a website, so no link is currently available. I'll add pictures later. What most distinguishes this inviting development are the changing environs that reflect the heritage and current uses of the parts of the city: from meadows scattered with wild-flowers to playgrounds and skate parks, the promenade progresses from floral to funky and back again, creating a public space that appears truly inviting to locals and welcoming to tourists alike.

2) Noramandy: the Caen Memorial Museum was the first stop on a Normandy WWII history bus tour we took as a day trip from Paris. Our tour-guide wisely advised us not to try to see the entire museum in the hour we were given to explore before lunch. Directed to view only the section about the Normandy allied invasion, I was still overwhelmed by the overabundance of text lining the walls, with photos used as illustration. Of course, the museum was charged with the difficult burden of presenting content in French, English, and German, but it was still disappointing to find the walls laid out like a text-book with artifacts used as illustration. The most fascinating section, at least for me, was the one about the invasion's impact on the inhabitants of Normandy's small towns. Video oral histories provided fascinating, and at times, shocking insights into the experiences of the locals who were caught between the necessity of the allied invasion to liberate France and end the war with Germany, and the realities of their towns destroyed by bombardments with limited protection offered to the old and the young in church basements. Propaganda posters put forward by the Vichy government also provided a unique glimpse into the universal technique of the imperial puppet government using the plight of the citizenry to divert popular scorn away from their own policies.

Stay tuned for Paris's sewers and Versailles...