Telling Untold Stories for Preservation Advocacy at the Tidal Basin

By Special Contributor posted 02-26-2020 16:00


By Taneil Ruffin

Editor’s Note: This past summer the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the National Mall Tidal Basin as a National Treasure. To learn more about the threats and current campaign to save the Tidal Basin, visit Want to learn more about the landscape of the Tidal Basin? Read Phia Sennett’s piece How Does the National Mall Tidal Basin Actually Work?

The National Mall Tidal Basin is one of the country’s most visually stunning and significant cultural landscapes. The site is home to highly recognizable memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the pink and white blossoms on the cherry trees that ring the Tidal Basin attract thousands of visitors to the site each spring. In addition to having aesthetic significance, the monuments and cherry trees also all tell important stories about the United States.

While these particular narratives are of obvious historical importance, focusing solely on them obscures all of the other ways that people have interacted and understood with the Tidal Basin throughout its history. In addition to seeing people appreciate the monuments, I observed people partaking in other activities like jogging, riding scooters, fishing, and relaxing during a break from work. The Tidal Basin is more than a tourist destination commemorating historic events and famous individuals, and last summer I set out to find and record untold stories that reflect the diversity of experiences and meanings associated with the site. I believed that telling these lesser known stories broaden what we know about the Tidal Basin and why it matters.

Visitors enjoy the Tidal Basin on land and water as the blossoms on the famous cherry trees bloom. The trees are one of several gifts given to the United States by Japan at the Tidal Basin, and they are often regarded as a symbol of friendship between the two nations. | Credit: Sam Kittner / National Trust for Historic Preservation

Finding Untold Stories of the Tidal Basin

I leaned heavily on my training as a historian to search for stories about the Tidal Basin that were not a part of the park rangers’ standard narrative at the site or captured in the signs that ring the Tidal Basin. The approach I used to find these stories was looking at primary sources other than those produced by the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service, the agencies responsible for the Tidal Basin’s operations.

Historic newspapers that covered events in Washington D.C. proved to be invaluable resources for learning about all that happened at the Tidal Basin from the perspective of an average Washingtonian. More than official documents and reports about the Tidal Basin, newspapers often provided me with accounts of activities that took place at the Tidal Basin that were much more focused on the thoughts and experiences of people who actually used site rather than agency officials.
Rising Tides at the Tidal Basin
: The combination of water level rise, sinking land, and insufficient funding for maintenance results in frequent flooding and inaccessible walkways around the Tidal Basin. | Credit: Sam Kittner / National Trust for Historic Preservation

One of the most helpful resources for me during this project was the Library of Congress’ website “Chronicling America.” The site is home to an extensive searchable collection of digitized newspapers from the late eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth. Not only did the availability of these digitized sources make my own research process easier, but it also enables any readers to interact with primary sources themselves even if they do not have the institutional affiliations that are often necessary to access many archives.

Since these newspapers turned up a large number of stories, my biggest challenge was deciding which twelve stories to include in the report. In order to narrow down the search to stories that would emphasize the broad array of activities that occurred during the Tidal Basin’s 100+ years of history, I developed some key criteria. First, I was interested in including stories that resonated with current events and contemporary issues. My hope was that these stories might be used to establish or deepen people’s connections with the Tidal Basin. For instance, because of current concern with environmental changes due to climate change at the Tidal Basin and across the world, several of the stories I found explored moments in the Tidal Basin’s history when the landscape was, or was perceived to be, under threat. One of those stories was the saga of felled cherry trees during the spring of 1999. The mystery of who or what was destroying the beloved trees captivated the attention of readers of The Washington Post for just over a week before the culprits—three beavers—were caught and removed from the Tidal Basin.

Telling stories of historically underrepresented groups was another priority for identifying which stories to tell because one of the Trust’s goals is “to tell the full story.” These stories were at times more challenging to find in archives, but they were not impossible to recover. One strategy I employed to tell these stories was using different analytical perspectives to retell more familiar narratives. For instance, the First Ladies’ involvement at the Tidal Basin is already well-documented. In particular, signs along the Tidal Basin and pages on the National Park Service’s website highlight that Helen “Nellie” Taft and Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson planted cherry trees at the site. These contributions are not typically regarded as a form of politics, but in my story about the First Ladies’ involvement at the Tidal Basin, I frame their actions as expressions of political and social activism.

While textual sources were my main informants for the stories, I also determined which accounts I would incorporate in my report based on the availability of images that could accompany the written story. Images are essential in showing how the Tidal Basin has or has not changed over time. Photographs of the bathing beach that existed at the Tidal Basin from 1918 until 1925 were particularly evocative. Seeing people outfitted in bathing suits laying on a sandy shore and diving into water at the Tidal Basin’s southern edge where the Thomas Jefferson Memorial now stands made it easier for me to imagine a future for the Tidal Basin that looked quite different from how the site appears now. Therefore, I prioritized stories with photographs so that people who read the stories in the report might feel inclined to imagine the same.

Some Promises of Storytelling and Preservation

My experience researching and writing these stories underscored the critical role that storytelling—especially telling diverse histories—has in enhancing preservation efforts. For instance, while many people today think of the Tidal Basin as a tourist destination where visitors reflect on the lives and legacies of some of the nation’s most influential figures, several of the stories I included in my report focused on the area’s long history as a place where D.C. residents organized and participated in public recreational activities like swimming and ice-skating. Knowing this story should encourage preservationists to consider possibilities for the landscape beyond commemoration as we think about what the future of the site.

Crowd at the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach in 1922. From 1918 until 1925, bathers at the segregated public beach would find a sandy shore and bathhouses at the southern edge of the Tidal Basin where the Thomas Jefferson Memorial now stands. | Credit: Library of Congress

Storytelling also encouraged me to broaden who I thought of as the campaign’s stakeholders. Learning the history of recreation at the Tidal Basin pointed me to some groups and individuals in D.C. that are committed to creating and maintaining more equitable public recreation spaces as potential supporters of the campaign.

Researching and writing untold stories about the Tidal Basin revealed a much more diverse history at the site than most people might assume exists. In addition to being a major memorial site, the process of storytelling taught me that the Tidal Basin has also been a place of leisure and community-building for D.C. residents as well as a stage for a variety of political expressions. These stories that I featured are just some of the many that could be told. For a fuller understanding of what places have meant and mean to all Americans, we must deliberately make inclusive storytelling a major component of preservation work.

Taneil Ruffin was the Storytelling and Historic Preservation Advocacy Intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation during the summer of 2019. She is working towards an M.A. in History and a certificate in Public History from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and has a B.A. in History from Brown University.

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