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Archive for November, 2006

Part of National Capital Parks – East
Washington, D.C.
Visited: November 10, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 326 of 353
NPS Website

Cedar HillWHAT IS IT?
Hilltop Anacostia mansion and, from 1877 to 1895, home of famed African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Cedar Hill is located at what might be the highest point in Southeast Washington, D.C. The wide vista from the porch offers a direct and downward-angled perspective on the U.S. Capitol and the entire city to northwest. The Douglass house locale portrays the extraordinary heights and prominence he achieved in our nation and its government center.

The views, the stature and even Cedar Hill’s unexpectedly immense size are ironically reminiscent of the Robert E. Lee family home, Arlington House, located a short distance to the west in Virginia. The freed slave abolitionist and the slave-owning Confederate general, born just a few years apart, both iconic symbols of their American century, both such disparate human beings are both honored by the National Park Service in similar houses separated by just a few miles.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman are the most celebrated African Americans of the 19th century. Ms. Tubman’s exploits as a supernaturally courageous Underground Railroad conductor are indelibly etched in the collective American consciousness. Her actions speak volumes.

Frederick Douglass spoke, wrote powerful narratives and worked alongside some of the most powerful people of the era, including Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and William Lloyd Garrison for civil and human rights causes. Our understanding of Douglass’ standing amongst his peers as well as his historical influence is decidedly lacking. Our visit here hindered and negatively impacted our prior knowledge. More on that later.

CROWDS (6/10)
There were a few others touring the Site but they did not affect our visit.

Looking Out from Cedar HillEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site is located in the heart of historic downtown Anacostia at the corner of W Street SE and 14th Street SE. Washington, D.C. is geographically broken into four quadrants: NW, NE, SE and SW. Both NW and NE also have a W and 14th Street. So be aware, the Douglass Site is in Southeast D.C.

There are many different paths to the Site, most of them involving Interstate 295 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. We had no trouble finding the Site; there are plenty of signs. The Site has a large parking lot so, unlike most D.C. sites, you don’t have to worry about street parking.

For those without car, the nearest D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the Douglass House is Anacostia, located on the green line. It is a 0.62-mile uphill hike to the Site.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The Site carries a sparse but representative selection of Douglass and abolitionist texts. We always enjoy seeing the affordably priced Dover Thrift Editions of classic works but are a little leery when they dominate a store’s racks.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free with two free Ranger tours of the grounds daily. There may be a house tour fee in the future when Cedar Hill reopens.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
One Ranger interrupted her personal phone call to say “good bye.” It was just as well. The video had put us in a sour mood and our questions would have been too numerous and too surly.

TOURS/CLASSES (2/10)
Cedar Hill’s doors shut in 2004 as a part of an extensive refurbishment project. The tentative grand reopening is spring of 2007. In the meantime, what a Park volunteer told us were “very short” Ranger-led tours of the grounds leave daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. We arrived at noon and the volunteer’s half-hearted tour pitch did not inspire our confidence. Our only educational choice was the “17-minute” film which was at least a half-hour long.

The abstract film consisted only of first-person historical reenactments told through the memories of an aged Douglass. There is no third-person narrator. You are there. We enjoyed this immersion style at Tumacácori NHP because the events recounted were common everyday occurrences. Douglass’ story is about singular events with historic significance. We wanted to learn about these incidents, we wanted some outside perspective and we wanted to know their historic influence and lasting legacy. We didn’t want speculative dialogue, dubious acting and no commentary.

At the very least, a superimposed date indicating when the memory was occurring would have helped. Instead, the viewer is forced to deduce the time via Douglass’ percentage of gray hair. We learned nothing about Douglass via the film; in fact, we lost knowledge. The film even led us to irrationally dislike Douglass, not because of his historic actions but because of his creepy and pompous portrayal by the film’s lead actor.

No educational result can be worse. Unfortunately the Site’s “museum” consists only of a few poorly placed, dimly lit and tinily written panels. So any counter education is impossible. As for the “very short” tour, (even though we missed it) we are confident in saying it is the Site’s best learning opportunity.

Gab and FrederickFUN (2/10)
The Frederick Douglass NHS was a huge disappointment. One of the main purposes of our two- (now three) year trip was to intensively learn about the small number of great people that our country has honored with National Park sites. Learning about someone at their home or place of accomplishment is usually more memorable and more meaningful than sitting at home and reading a book. Not so here.

Note: We are getting depressed just writing this review. We apologize if we’ve brought you down.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10)
If you must go before spring 2007 when the home tours ostensibly begin again, come at either 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. Skip the film. Please. Skip the film.

Because Cedar Hill is closed, there is little you can learn about Douglass at the Site. If you have an interest in the man, read his famous slave narrative and even some of his speeches. His National Park Site does not do his words or his actions justice.

TOTAL 33/80

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Part of Part of National Mall and Memorial Parks
Washington, D.C.
Visited: November 11, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 303 of 353
Local Website

Photo Opportunity

WHAT IS IT?
A circular statue located at the corner of Vermont Avenue and U Street NW that commemorates the African Americans who fought for the Union in the American Civil War.

Review Coming Soon!

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Part of National Capital Parks – East
Washington, D.C.
Visited: November 11, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 330 of 353
NPS Website

The Black CabinetWHAT IS IT?
Stately Victorian-era home of Mary McLeod Bethune and longtime headquarters of the organization she founded, the National Council of Negro Women.

BEAUTY (4/10)
This three-story Second Empire Victorian house blends benignly with the other townhouses along Vermont Avenue. Its only distinction is a cream-colored sign standing next to the tiled walkway leading to its wrought iron door. You might walk right past the Council House if you are busy admiring the other manicured gardens or doorways in the neighborhood.

A 1966 fire gutted the interior of the Council House and forced the NCNW to find a new home on Connecticut Avenue for eleven years. Once the Site was placed on D.C. Register of Historic Places, NCNW was able to raise funds and begin an extensive restoration. Mary McLeod’s formal front parlor, where she received dignitaries and friends like Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Council’s functional upstairs Conference Room were restored to their former glory before the National Park Service even stepped foot inside the building.

Two Great WomenHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10)
Bethune-Cookman College founder, advisor to four U.S. presidents, founding member of FDR’s New Deal-era Black Cabinet, federally-appointed director of the National Youth Administration and founder of the National Council of Negro Women. This rudimentary listing of Ms. Bethune’s accomplishments does not do her justice. Her pioneering work and pragmatic genius in a time of rapid political change and violent societal upheaval cannot be underestimated.

One only needs to look at the picture of the Black Cabinet on display at the Site. The 1930’s-era Black Cabinet consisted of FDR’s African American federal appointees, the first set of African Americans ever nominated for these prestigious positions. In their photo, Ms. Bethune is the anchor. She stands in the middle. She is the focal point. She is also the only woman. She is unmistakably in charge.

CROWDS (7/10)
Less than 10,000 tourists pass through the Council House doors every year, making this Site one of the Park Service’s ten least-visited destinations. Odds are that your guided house tour will just be you and the Ranger.

The only-us crowd suited us well because we had known nothing about Ms. Bethune. The visitor dearth allowed for in-depth answers to our sometimes ignorant and sometimes probing questions. We might not have learned as much or asked such basic questions about Ms. Bethune’s life had there been other tourists.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site is located at 1318 Vermont Avenue between Thomas and Logan Circles, five blocks northwest of both the White House and the nearest D.C. Metro station, McPherson Square. The Site warns that street parking is limited and suggests mass transit.

Operating hours are Monday-Saturday 10-4. The Park’s website incorrectly lists 9 a.m. as opening time. Trust us. We were there at 9:01 and the doors were locked.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The small bookstore stocks a meager assortment of Bethune, local history and Women’s History texts. While we did not visit the carriage house behind the main building, home of the National Archives for Black Women’s History, we assume the bookstore is not representative of the scholastic treasures that might be found there.

COSTS (5/5)
The Site is free and includes a Ranger-led guided house tour.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
Our superb Ranger was the only staff person on site. House tour and spatial dynamics would have changed dramatically if another set of tourists had arrived during our stay.

The Council HouseTOURS/CLASSES (9/10)
The excellent non-NPS produced video serves as a perfect introduction to the Site’s little-known honoree. The video quickly convinced us that Ms. Bethune was an extraordinary person with accomplishments and a story as amazing as other more famous 20th century figures. The trailer to the video showed us it was one in a series of historical profiles; had this series introduced us to Frederick Douglass at his National Historic Site, perhaps our review and our opinion of that Site would have been higher.

Had the film ended at the ten minute mark, after Ms. Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. and as anecdotes told us, peacefully and cleverly fended off Ku Klux Klan attacks on her students, we would have been sold on the merits of the Site. But just as we were suitably impressed with her achievements, the video would continue to roll and another phase of her amazing life and work would unfold.

While the video was superb, this Site’s highlight was its Ranger-led house tour. Our Ranger’s knowledge was surpassed only by her passion and love of history. As she answered our questions, she had the casual air of someone who really knows what she is talking about and enjoys the stimulation of discussing rather than dictating interpretations of history. Her thoughtful responses set the scene for an extended discussion about the importance of archives and the value of advisory committees which we continued long after we said goodbye to the Ranger and left Logan Circle.

FUN (8/10)
Our Ranger gave us as much time as we wanted to explore the Council House and pore through the documents (some of them originals) resting on the long conference table in the second floor Conference Room. The room was restored to look as it did as the NCNW was preparing for a huge fundraiser, benefit dinner and show with the aging, yet still stunningly beautiful, Josephine Baker. We were instantly transported back in time as we tried to decipher the scribble of personal notes, phone messages and meeting minutes and visualized the stately and, frankly, physically imposing Ms. Bethune at the head of the table, directing audio traffic and planning for the visit of yet another V.I.P.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (?/10)
A Site that we thought would take a few minutes to survey actually kept us engrossed for almost two hours. While we thoroughly enjoyed our time spent at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS, we understand it might not hold the interest of the average D.C. tourist, particularly one carting around young kids eager to see some more marquee attractions.

TOTAL 54/80

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Part of National Capital Parks – East
Washington, D.C.
Visited: November 11, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 329 OF 353
NPS Website

A Historian's Dream

WHAT IS IT?
1915-1950 Shaw neighborhood home of Carter G. Woodson: professor, pioneering historian and founder of Black History Month.

BEAUTY (1/10)
The Woodson House is an abandoned row house in a not so picturesque part of NW Washington, D.C. A trompe l’oeil mural opposite the Site paints a curtained windowsill and a vase of flowers onto another abandoned building. Underneath the faux window reads, “Bienvenue à Shaw. Slum historique.

Painted a little further down the same wall is a much less disconcerting and far more inspiring mural dedicated to Mr. Woodson. In it, his proud likeness sits next to an idealistic quote proclaiming that history should not be subdivided into selective race-based studies but should emphasize everybody’s role without prejudice, bias and hate.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10)
Carter G. Woodson’s achievements, vision and historical influence are monumental. Woodson was born to former slaves in 1875 Virginia during the height of Reconstruction and just ten years after the Civil War’s end. Over the course of his life he would, the Park brochure states, “almost single-handedly establish African American historiography.”

Before Woodson, little to no written history concerning the nearly 400 years of African American contributions existed. In much of the South, black literacy was punishable by death. Woodson created not just a field of study or a month of remembrance; he asserted and inserted the lives and accomplishments of a displaced people into their rightful place in American history. He made it imperative for us to listen to the voices that weren’t allowed to speak.

When Woodson died in 1950, there were no African American studies departments, graduate or undergraduate majors at any university. Academia only taught the classics, western history and the thoughts and accomplishments of those in power. What would Woodson think to know that now all the Ivy League schools, the apex of the American ivory tower, have African American studies program and that Woodson’s history doctorate alma mater, Harvard, now offers an African American Studies doctorate degree?

His Shaw neighborhood mural indicates that he might not agree with this genre-ized direction. Was Woodson’s goal to integrate African American history and the history of the muted voices into the general American history canon? Has that happened and can it happen as long as Gender, Gay, Lesbian, Native American, Asian American, Latino, Bisexual, etc… Studies programs exist?

Hard to say. But these are just a few of the many questions that could be addressed when the Carter G. Woodson Home NHS opens. Which, by the look of things, won’t be for at least ten years. We do know that through Woodson’s inclusion into the National Park System he and his dream has officially become a part of the canon. And not a moment too soon.

CROWDS (1/10)
There were a lot of homeless people milling about the abandoned lots that border the row house. We weren’t that scared until a man who appeared to have a mental illness began repeatedly screaming “get out of here” in an urgent, territorial and garbled voice. He didn’t stop until we were three blocks away.

In Need of RemodelingEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
The Home is located at the corner of 9th and Q Streets NW near their intersection with Rhode Island Avenue. There are currently no Park facilities, just an inaccessible building awaiting renovation. Lots of renovation. You can drive outside the Home and take a picture of the mural but that is about it. We walked but a car would probably have been the best choice for a fast getaway.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS, located just four blocks away at 1318 Vermont Avenue NW, is the temporary location for the Woodson NHS Visitor Center.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
The Bethune Council House NHS bookstore carries two versions of Woodson’s famed treatise The Mis-education of the Negro, whose title was notably appropriated by Lauryn Hill’s multi-million selling 1998 album.

We have been repeatedly disappointed by the quantity and quality of books found at the NPS African American sites. We fully hope and expect that when the Woodson Site opens in the distant future it will stock a definitive selection of historical texts. If not at the “Father of Black History’s” Site, then where?

COSTS (2/5)
There’s no charge but there’s also nothing to see.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
We will count our wonderful Bethune Council House NHS Ranger. Had we asked about Woodson she would have had answers. We would probably still be talking.

TOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
Only a non-glossy brochure and one cursory exhibit panel at the Bethune Council House. But we knew nothing about Woodson before our trip here except his role in the creation of Black History Month. Our visit sparked our interest and changed our opinion from “why does he have a park site?” to “he should have had one sooner.”

FUN (1/10)
We had fun once we knew we were out of danger.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
Not just yet. Wait until the “No Trespassing” comes off the Site’s front door. Once that happens, the Site has no shortage of interesting topics and themes to explore. Historians rarely get the credit they deserve. Heck, Henry Adams, the greatest historian of the 19th century, isn’t even mentioned at his family home’s Park Site.

Ironically, Woodson is a man whom history has unfairly overlooked. We love the idea of his commemoration and hope the Site does not languish in disrepair and without rightful federal appropriations forever.

TOTAL 21/80

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Glistening FlagsPart of Part of National Mall and Memorial Parks
Washington, D.C.
Visited: November 11, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 303 of 353
Local Website

WHAT IS IT?
An elaborate memorial complex located along Pennsylvania Avenue that honors the naval branch of the U.S. armed forces.

Review Coming Soon!

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Part of George Washington Memorial Parkway
Washington, D.C.
Visited: November 10, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 328 of 353
NPS Website

Olfactory Stimulation

WHAT IS IT?
Fragrant grove of shady trees whose windy paths converge to an imposing red granite slab. The narrow Park is a living memorial to our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Nothing says greatness like a fifteen-foot high block of red granite indiscriminately shaped like the state of Idaho. You don’t agree? Neither do we. The whole memorial feels rather ridiculous, especially since most slab-viewing angles include the much taller Washington Monument in the background. LBJ is done no comparative justice in these overtly phallic commemorations.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (1/10)
What does LBJ and the sixties have to do with granite and smelly trees? Uh, nothing. Maybe our minds are just too literal.

CROWDS (4/10)
About a half-dozen business casual-dressed men wandering aimlessly looking like they wanted to talk. Kind of creepy.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
We were even more overjoyed to find the Pentagon-side LBJ Grove parking lot than we were finding the Theodore Roosevelt Island parking lot. But unlike our successful route to TR, there is no chance we can recount how we found our way to LBJ. Michael thinks that Gab somehow channeled the spirit of Magellan. Signs to the Pentagon or signs to the Columbia Island Marina might help.

Presidential-Style ComparisonCONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (1/5)
There is no bookstore and no Visitor Center. The Site is entirely outdoors.

COSTS (1/5)
Entry into the Memorial Grove is free but be careful. If you park in the lot adjacent to the Pentagon don’t take pictures until you have crossed the footbridge. Your shutterbug tendencies could cost you your camera.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
No Rangers, but the Grove’s proximity to the Pentagon gave us the eerie feeling that we were being watched and that our conversation was being recorded.

TOURS/CLASSES (1/10)
There are a few illegible LBJ quotes on the base of his memorial. We couldn’t read them.

FUN (2/10)
We made it from the TR Island lot to the LBJ Grove Pentagon lot in less than five minutes and were overjoyed. We had earnestly discussed walking the two-mile round trip distance. Everything after our miraculous navigation was a bit anti-climactic.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10)
Three attractions line the Virginia side of the Potomac River in the in the two-mile long stretch of the George Washington MEM PKWY between the Arlington Memorial Bridge and the Ronald Reagan International Airport: the LBJ MEM Grove, the Navy and Marine Memorial and Gravelly Point. The LBJ Grove is by far our least favorite of these attractions.

The Navy and Marine Memorial offers the best views of the city because, unlike the LBJ Grove, the vistas are not interrupted by screaming auto traffic. The Memorial’s wave and gull design is also a lot cooler and dare we say, more interactive. Go and see what we mean.

Gravelly Point is the best of place of them all. Here you can picnic, relax or just sit and enjoy the day. Sounds boring? Well, Gravelly Point is located just yards from where the planes take off and land. Every minute or so jumbo jets will be less than one hundred feet above you! The sounds, the excitement, the fun are so much better than a red granite slab. Sorry Lyndon.

TOTAL 19/80

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Theodore Roosevelt Island

Part of George Washington Memorial Parkway
Washington, D.C.
Visited: November 10, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 327 of 353
NPS Website

Bully!

WHAT IS IT?
100 acre Potomac River island that serves as a memorial to our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Many D.C.-area sites advertise themselves as an “urban oasis.” Theodore Roosevelt Island is one of the few that delivers. You enter a different world when you cross the footbridge and step foot on the island. Trees engulf you, remove the traffic sounds and limit your sight lines. The dirt and boardwalk trails sing an undeniable siren song, “explore me, explore me.”

Openings in the tree line haphazardly appear allowing fleeting views of the city to the east. But these vistas don’t reveal Washington’s stalwart landmarks; they only show you boathouses, the river and Georgetown to the north. Here you have escaped the madness. Even D.C. denizens have left their ambitions, pretensions and hypocrisies at home. They just smile, jog and meander, perhaps transporting themselves away from their capital city home.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10)
The island has been set aside for public enjoyment and outdoor recreation since 1967 as a tribute to our most notable conservationist president. Would Teddy have enjoyed his time on his island? He probably would have liked his 15-foot tall statue likeness but wouldn’t have come back much; there’s not enough game.

CROWDS (8/10)
TR Island was packed with a diverse and happy crowd: joggers with their dogs, relaxed fishermen, university students, bicyclers, families, kids in strollers, professional photographers and countless everyday people smiling and enjoying the beautiful day.

An Afternoon CastEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
Roosevelt Island supposedly lives in Washington, D.C. The island is only reachable via a footbridge located near Rosslyn, Va. Good luck getting to that footbridge. The bridge’s parking lot is accessible ONLY IF YOU ARE TRAVELING NORTHWARD on the George Washington MEM PKWY in the half-mile long stretch between the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge (I-66) and the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge.

Getting to that stretch of the GW PKWY is harder than it sounds if you are coming from Virginia. We have tried multiple times. The GW serpentines at alarming rates and before you know it you’re at the Beltway. The simplest approach is actually from Washington, D.C. Take the I-66 TR Bridge across the Potomac, get in the right hand lane and stay in the right hand lane. Exit off I-66 and onto the GW. The parking lot is the next right hand turn.

We let out a huge sigh of relief after finding a parking spot in the crowded lot. WE MADE IT! You could also take the D.C. Metro’s (subway) orange and blue lines to Rosslyn and walk the short distance to the Site.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (1/5)
No bookstore and no Visitor Center. The park map indicates that the Site’s only bathroom facilities are on the southern end of the island; an icon that frustratingly eluded Michael’s keen eyes during our stay.

COSTS (4/5)
Your island adventure costs nothing.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
No Rangers. You are on your own.

TOURS/CLASSES (1/10)
Surrounding Teddy’s larger-than-life statue are four large white granite monoliths upon which are emblazoned Teddy’s anachronistic macho paeans to “The State,” “Nature,” “Manhood” and “Youth.” It is safe to say that these monoliths won’t make the monkeys evolve.

These quotes are the extent of TR Island’s educational offerings. The island is about relaxation, exercise and exploration; the Site never pretends to be a learning tool.

An Afternoon Island Jog with a FriendFUN (5/10)
It is a fitting geographical quirk that you have to leave D.C. to get to one of the city’s most relaxing sites. Michael biked through the Site’s parking lot dozens of times while at University but he never crossed the footbridge. Now he knows what he missed and is sort of sad. This could have been his happy place.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Should TR Island be at the top of your D.C.-area tourist destinations? No. Is it one of the best D.C. presidential memorials? Yes. It is a fitting tribute and encapsulates the exceedingly imposing aura of our beloved conservationist president. Don’t skip the Smithsonian to come here but don’t miss out on this tranquil place if you live in the city.

TOTAL 33/80

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