For Your Entertainment
Neighborhoods Without A Soul
Destination: Key West, Florida, United States Community: Bahama Village Peoples: Residents and Tourists
Looking back at my first evening in Key West, I see that it left an impact on me. The sun had set as I walked back to the main entertainment area on Duval Street. The evening was lit by a mix of neon and tungsten lighting making the bars and eateries glow. Music, both live and streamed from audio sites, came out of speakers as mostly American couples 50 and older danced, drank, and laughed in the warm weather that many of them had flocked here to enjoy. They left behind gray skies and cold weather.
Key West, as the southernmost U.S. city, is a beacon for anyone who wants to forget whatever is happening elsewhere. If you wanted to find an actual local resident, you would have to walk only a block or two away from the action and into areas that are best deemed sketchy.
As I zig-zagged down one of the side streets, I heard the sound of an R&B standard that I knew yet could not remember the artist. On this night, the song was being covered by a house band of all-white performers. A short line formed along the outdoor terrace as people gazed in hoping to join in the revelry. The tables were full of half-eaten dinners, half-empty beer bottles, and glasses once filled with liquor as most people were dancing to the repackaged soul music.
At that moment, I wondered if the man wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag across his back. and dancing with his partner knew that we were in a neighborhood that was once all Black and Hispanic. That right behind the club was public housing that was mostly filled with black residents who could not afford to be in his position.
I also wondered if anyone cared that the name Bahama Village was more than a street. The name of this tourist attraction meant that many families had left behind their personal histories of developing the area into a community. Would it even resonate or matter to these tourists? Would the man in the jacket think of this irony or become upset if any residents intruded on his entertainment?
Gentrification is an ongoing issue throughout most of North America and involves a reversal of white flight from neighborhoods that were previously considered too “urban” or “unsafe.” The uniqueness of these neighborhoods have become a selling point. As a result, the location, culture, and peoples who developed these neighborhoods are commoditized to attract tourism dollars without the peskiness of actually learning the culture, benefiting local, or helping neighborhoods grow. Instead, tourism creates a superficial experience for travelers.
That is why I would like to focus on neighborhoods without a soul.
Destination: Hilton Head, South Carolina, United States Community: Georgeville Peoples: Gullah, Geechee, and Tourists
The history of the Gullah (Carolinas) and Geechee (Georgia/N. Florida) has been a topic of interest for some time. When the book Gullah Days: Hilton Head Islands Before the Bridge 1861–1956 by Thomas C. Barnwell Jr., Emory Shaw Campbell, and Carolyn Grant was released, I was excited to dive deeply into this topic with a focus on the island of Hilton Head.
Gullah peoples have inhabited the island since the early 1700s. Brought over from rice-growing regions in West Africa, they used their expertise to tend to rice and cotton fields. As the island was cut off from the mainland, their culture survived due to the lack of outside influences.
To date, there are many African Americans who can trace their lineage back to this region. Most often stories from their ancestors help them to re-connect with their past. So pervasive was the culture that many their words are still used in the American lexicon, such as watchnight, tote bag, and kumbaya.
Yet when I visited the Hilton Head tourism website, I had difficulty find anything related to the Gullah peoples, except a page or two about basket weaving. Instead, I saw many images of White Americans playing golf, shopping, eating, and enjoying themselves. For diversity’s sake, a fair-skinned Black woman was thrown into the mix with her slightly darker boyfriend in a few photos trying to showcase the island’s appeal to a wide range of people.
Unfortunately, no one from the tourism or Chamber of Commerce responded to my inquiries. Fortunately, I was able to contact Mrs. Luana Graves Sellars, the founder of Low Country Gullah.
Having been coming to the island since she was 10, Mrs. Graves Sellars stated that her family is Charleston Gullah but grew up in Long Island, New York. When she was growing up, her aunts said they were Geechee, but did not know what that meant. The major turning point was when her 15-year-old daughter asked about their genealogy, which led her to move to Hilton Head.
Today, she works with the non-profit Lowcountry Gullah to educate and make people more aware of the culture and traditions as well as try to change the messaging being packaged to tourists.
Our conversation started with the completion of the James F. Byrnes Bridge (1956), named after a Beaufort congressman, which coincides with the commodification of the island.
“Before the bridge the island was virtually untouched. To get back and forth, you used Charlie Simmons’ ferry service. He created a lifeline to the mainland with his motorized boat.”
“What happened after that?”
“Real estate developer, Charles Fraser was brought to look at the island. Once he got here, the development began. The island’s focus stopped being about Gullah culture.”
As our conversation continued, I probed more into understanding exactly how Fraser and other real estate companies secured so much land.
“African tradition is that NO man owns land. Which contributes to why culturally a lot of Gullah Geechee don’t have wills. Because there is no clear title, generationally, it passes to the descendants. In some cases, if a descendant has never been to the island, it is, it is likely they don’t care about the cultural significance of holding on to it. Unfortunately, they learn that their property is oceanfront, then they can legally force the sale by every other descendant. Even people living on a property for generations can be forced off.”
Another way their land could be taken is due to the rising value of adjacent properties.
“Let’s say that descendants live on family land and taxes on that land have been $400 for generations. If someone buys the property next door and develops it, their taxes can go up to maybe $4,000.”
One of Lowcountry Gullah’s initiatives is to help untangle the issues of heir’s property, which is generational land without a clean title. We assist families with finding solutions so that they can clear the titles and offer landowners land use and economic development options even when taxes increase.
After understanding how the land was taken, we brought the conversation to how the island is marketed to tourists.
“Golf is dying!”
Mrs. Graves Sellars detailed that fewer people are playing golf today than in the past. Younger generations are not as interested, so how can this model of portraying Hilton Head as a golfing destination be sustained.
The average tourists to the island are primarily white senior citizens. So, the question becomes what will happen when they are gone and who can take their place?
“There are things to see here, such as the Gullah Heritage tour and museum. Mitchellville, the first self-governed town three years prior to emancipation and the first in compulsory education in South Carolina. Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, and Booker T. Washington all spent time here. Martin Luther King also wrote some of his speeches in Beaufort County at Penn Center. Even Gullah cuisine is off the menu. Most establishments do not serve their foods and there are no Gullah-owned restaurants.”
“What would you change?”
“I would change the Chamber website asap. Also put a sign at the base of the bridge when you hit the ground. When they see it for the first time, people know that it’s a Gullah island. So, everyone knows.”
“Is that what would make the situation better?”
“It would be a start.”
As we continued our conversation, it was obvious that the Gullahs’ goal was to be recognized and left to prosper on their own lands. By receiving financial reimbursement going towards, the community would benefit greatly.
After the conversation, I reviewed the site with a feeling of doubt creeping in. In a period where diversifying has been the temporary agenda for many tourism boards, Hilton Head has chosen to stay the course, but will that pay off in the long run?
According to one of my wealthy black friends, the answer is no.
“I would never go back. Did not like the vibe and it’s only for white people.”
Perhaps when it affects revenue, they will respond to Mrs. Graves Sellars and hopefully add Gullah culture to the narrative.
Destinations: Washington D.C. and Boston Community: Chinatown Peoples: Mainly Chinese with mixed Asian groups
Due to the accessibility of Amtrak’s North East Corridor, visiting Boston only requires the time to ride the rails between the major cities along the East Coast. Arriving in the back half of South Station, which houses both cross-state trains and buses, to reach the front end means departing and walking around the building to the main hub that serves as the terminus for the suburban lines and a major station for the Metro.
The area forms the border between South End and Downtown. Yet nestled between all of the high-rises sits the Chinatown Trade Gate. It looks out of place, especially as you get closer and realize how little of the area actually has the markings of a Chinatown. You will find a few restaurants and a metro station, but its identity was changed by expansion of the highway during the 1960s, expansion of the New England Medical Center (Tufts) during the 1980s and 1990s, and most recently, the addition of condominiums.
The same reduction has happened in Washington, D.C., although you are in Chinatown but you struggle to find many Asian-owned businesses or landmarks of cultural importance. Their diminishment started in the 1930s as new government buildings began to creep into the neighborhood. This influx was postponed due to the efforts of Frank Ping-Fong who was considered to be the mayor of Chinatown.
However, by 2015, the total number of Chinese residents had reportedly dropped to 300. This decrease was due to higher cost of living that forced a number of Asian residents to move out, thus opening the doors for new construction, most notably of the Capital One Arena.
The reduction of Chinese residents is due to gentrification, but communities still have some tourist attractions.
The end result of all of these changes has created inauthentic interactions with not only the space, which is labeled as Chinatown in name only, but also with walk-in gentrifiers who inhabit the area because of work or in transit but are not from the area.
The Chinatowns of a few decades ago consisted of community centers, authentic restaurants, community growth, cultural experiences, and a living history that existed within the limits of the neighborhood. The history, culture, and experiences were passed down and expressed in art, architecture, and oral histories of local heroes.
To travelers, the signs and written characters, as well as pagodas, may display authenticity, but not so for the Asian community. In D.C. Asian American locals have voiced complaints due to the use of the wrong characters, in some case upside down on signs. This has led to confusion and miscommunication. Unfortunately, in D.C. to be labeled Asian simply means items that portray the aesthetic are used on the property and in surrounding areas.
Similarly in Boston, a transformation has led to locals to feel as though there is no place for them sans the few Asian-owned businesses located around Harrison Avenue. Unfortunately, restaurants established to cater to the medical staff and students do not provide anything for the community. In my opinion, what is still considered Chinatown is so small that it fails to leave an impact or make an impression except for the conversations in Mandarin.
What this means for tourists is misrepresentation.
How are we as non-Asians to understand, learn, or know their stories if there is no one to tell us? In both cities, the affordable residential areas are blocks away and are disconnected from the neighborhood.
A recent visit to the Chinese American Museum in D.C. reinforced my thoughts as it was closer to Dupont Circle than to Chinatown.
As I wandered the floors that focused on the Chinese experience throughout the United States as well as the art of Dora Fugh Lee that I was lucky enough to experience before the exhibit was taken down, my thought was How do both Chinatowns benefit their respective communities?
Unfortunately, very little. There is an ongoing struggle to regain the identities of both communities. However, some have stated that, at this rate, it would not be proper to actually consider them Chinatowns. Yet the state they are currently in can be reversed.
In Philadelphia, local government has stated that it will attempt to rectify its reduction of Chinatown due to the creation of the expressway in the 1960s. This could lead to a re-connection with the cut-off portion of the area, which goes by multiple names, one of them being North Chinatown. Chicago stands out due to its growth making it an outlier. In its case, an influx of Chinese nationals and descendants have purchased property in the area, and this has helped the community regain ownership.
Each solution is unique to their individual situation, but in both the results were advanced by community involvement. Hopefully projects such as the film “Three Chinatowns” will discuss the various histories and possible solutions for the East Coast-based Chinatowns. The work of young journalists such as Yiwen Lu and Cynthia Yee recounts their own experiences growing up in Chinatown. Lastly, the Benevolent Associations are keeping Asian communities’ voices heard in local governments.
In the end, it would be nice to visit Chinatown for more than dim sum and boba teas.
Destination: State of Veracruz, Mexico Community: Mandinga Peoples: Local Fishermen
My visit to Veracruz City was predicated on a seaport that no longer existed. After the first few days, I felt disappointed and underwhelmed by the uniform look of the clean white walkways of the malecon (seawall), zocalo (main square), and entertainment area, which consisted of tall gleaming skyscrapers next to other. There was no character or markings of its history except for a rare sign or two regarding State heroes. Where were the mentions of The United States’ influence to the region? Hernan Cortez? The Afro Mexican dock workers? Tourism maps focused on entertainment and a brief mention of San Juan de Ulua, which was a task to reach.
I found my solace in the neglected areas of the old city, which were the only places that felt real. The decaying early 20th century buildings gave the area a sense of history and presence that I could not find elsewhere.
From what I was told, it had been years earlier that the decision was made to transform the city into a much more attractive tourist destination for wealthy Mexicans looking for a quick escape. Although not as popular among Americans, Mexicans flock to Veracruz for its nightlife, shopping, and foodie culture. In response, the city lost its charm. Its transformation stretched from the Old City to the town of Boca del Rio that looked undistinguishable from the rest of it.
Losing interest in my surroundings, I found myself needing a break.
I took a kayaking tour with the eco-tourism group Manglareando to see more of the surrounding area from a different perspective. It was during that time that I learned that the city’s transformation was ongoing and reaching out to other towns in the region. The decision to make said changes were not popular. Initially the goal was to meet some sort of middle ground between new and old, but the rallying effort for this direction was disregarded in favor of its current look.
I met Jimena Montane, a master of environmental sciences and co-founder of Manglareando. We engaged in an ongoing conversation that concluded after I returned to the States. As we made our way to Mandinga, picking up additional travelers along the way, she pointed out a sign by Punta Tiburon, a residential, marina, and golf developer, who creates condos for long-term guests and short-term vacationers. Other projects include a golf course, a marina, and, coming soon, a place for boat tours that happens to be the Laguna of Mandinga, which is home to various mangroves and the livelihood of fishermen who have worked the area for generations.
“What exactly is happening to the mangroves?” I asked.
“There’s a housing development called Punta Tiburón, established around 12 years ago, and they promised their buyers a marina, which they haven’t built. That marina will be built at the small Mandinga lagoon, for which they will have to open some sort of canal from there all the way to the lagoon by tearing down a big chunk of the mangroves. This will also cause sedimentation in that part of the lagoon, because of all the soil that will be dragged and lost (because there will be no vegetation to hold it), affecting flooding levels and the local fish and shrimp populations.”
“How have the residents responded?”
“The fishermen from Mandinga are particularly worried about that because that’s one of their main sites for catching shrimp.”
“Have the fishermen done anything to stop this from happening?”
“They’ve been taking trips to Xalapa, Veracruz’s capital, to bring petitions to the authorities to stop the project. However, that development belongs to powerful and rich people, as in general it’s a wealthy area, and the residents, also mostly wealthy people, (not knowing what their marina will cause) are strongly demanding for the marina to be built.”
“How is this possible?”
“Mangroves in Mexico are a protected species and their deforestation is illegal; however, authorities are always subject to corruption, allowing this kind of project to happen. Same thing occurred in the El Dorado housing development, marina, and mall about a decade ago.”
Our conversation continued a month later.
“What has been happening with the mangroves?”
“A third party has been removing mangrove at night and burning it at night to make progress. I think they are working on the marina.”
“Why would both residents and tourists be interested in this?”
“Do not think the people who want the marina know. There is a huge lack of knowledge with the mangroves. Perhaps people need to be better educated.”
“How are you involved in this?”
“Manglareando has been working with the local fishermen to take tourists and locals on kayaking tours through the mangroves. We hope to educate people on why mangroves are important.”
“What will happen if the project is completed?”
“If they open the canal to the marina, it will affect shrimp and currents and all fishing activities. Rumor is that the fisherman will not be allowed to fish anymore because it will be private property only for recreation. Another rumor is that they have been thinking about taking bribes to retire early since their children are not interested in fishing.”
“Why would they contemplate accepting a payout? Is there no pride in their work?”
“They feel pride when they fish and catch oysters. It comes from knowledge of their craft, but they are still willing to stop for enough money. They believe that their children will figure out a solution, but that is very short-sighted.”
To date, there has been no further progress on the mangroves. The fishermen have formed a collective to speak to local government, which has not gotten any results due to a recent election and change in local politicians. There has been local press, but no changes in either direction.
Manglareando is continuing to take locals and tourists through the mangroves to not only meet the fishermen of Mandinga but to educate on the importance of mangroves.
I reached out to representatives in Punta Tiburón for their perspective but did not receive a response.
This story is ongoing.
Destination: State of Guerreo, Mexico Community: Tehuacalco area Peoples: Surrounding Communities
While working throughout the State of Guerreo, I met tour guides from the area. On a particular day, I was taken to the Tehuacalco Archaeological Site. Re-discovered in 1998, it was there that I learned about the Yope peoples, a relatively small indigenous group that never rose to prominence but left a mark on the area by leaving behind pyramids, artifacts, a basketball court, and a temple. My initial thought was that this could bring wealth via tourism to the area. After a chat with some residents, I learned that the local community did not desire this. They feared that it would destroy their community instead of bringing wealth. Another concern was that they would lose input on the goings on in the area. Thus, they actively shunned visitors.
As I witnessed another guide bringing additional tourists to visit the landmarks. I began to understand their perspective. Trash was left behind. Gates left open. My guide was mindful of expressing that I respect the space that we were in. He often “tisked” at the other guide for not doing the same. We cleaned up after his group to not leave a footprint. I imagined this same scene with busloads of people coming by with selfie sticks.
Destination: Back to Key West Community: Mostly transients Peoples: Residents and Tourists
Johnson’s Grocery has survived as the last black-owned multigenerational business in Bahama Village. While there, you can pretend as though you are in the Conch Republic of old by trying some of the family recipes such as conch salad. As I stood on the corner of St Thomas and Petronia, the expectation of travelers to respect the spaces that formed these neighborhoods began to feel unreasonable. As I have often been told, “vacations are to forget,” so perhaps that is the direction we should go towards: forgetting. There is already too much going on both in our personal lives and in world events. Add that vacation time is already hard enough to earn, especially within the United States. We should be destressing not the other way around.
Perhaps I put too much of an emphasis on learning the past. Most of the transplants to the area knew very little about the neighborhood’s past. Perhaps that is best. Would it matter to them or the man in the Confederate jacket that there are slaves buried at Higgs Beach? Does it matter to the golfers in Hilton Head that they are playing through recently swindled land? What about the visitors of Chinatown? Should they care? They simply want a latte or quick meal. What about those anxious to take a boat tour through a newly made marina in Mandinga?
Why should it matter that we learn anything about a culture other than our own? We got this far without doing so. Unfortunately, we also engage in disputes over cultural misunderstandings.
To inhabit these spaces is a privilege. To learn their stories is to honor them. All cultures and ethnic groups want their story told. How is this possible if said space is changed?
It comes down to the individual. We can do better by doing our own research, visiting museums if applicable, and asking questions.
Tourism trends are based around where interests lie. In the end, revenue drives the industry. Each of the above destinations faces ongoing challenges that encompass more than tourism. An outsider can bring attention to their struggles. This causes a shift in the marketing.
Eventually you will not be able to enter these areas without being confronted with some kernel of knowledge.
All it takes is a little of your vacation time.
Johnson’s Grocery - Key West - Last Black Owned Business in Bahama Village
Bahama Village - Key West
Chinese American Museum - Washington D.C.
Museum Square - Washington D.C. - Public Housing for mainly Chinese residents.
Rudolpho (Fisherman) - Mandinga, Veracruz
Exploring the lagoon - Mandinga, Veracruz
Yope Pyramid - Tehuacalco, Guerreo State