Summer's here - and the time is right for radical tourism

Two years ago the Washington Socialist ran my first guide to radical tourism in DC. Radical tourism is a (perhaps slowly) emerging specialty for travelers of a left persuasion who have an interest not only in the mainstream tourist sights highlighted in the mainstream travel guides, but also in places and monuments of relevance to political and social struggle. I have been conducting occasional tours of sites in DC of interest to persons interested in local left history [here's the next one -- ed.], and similar (and often more extensive) tours take place in other cities. Perhaps the best-known are those led by Bruce Kayton in New York (see his book “Radical Walking Tours of New York City”) but similar tours have been held in Berkeley, California, Seattle and elsewhere.

In DC, the typical tourist junket hits the sites that have become three-dimensional postcards: the Capitol, the Washington Monument (but you can’t go to the top; it’s closed for renovation until at least next year), the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and the White House (the exterior only unless your member of Congress sets you up for a tour). You might also visit the World War II Memorial and the one of more of the Smithsonian Museums — the Castle draws the shutterbugs while Air and Space attracts the hordes.

True, some of the often-visited sites have significance to social-change movements. Millions have drawn inspiration from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin and then strolled over the Lincoln Memorial to visualize him delivering his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Also on the Tidal Basin, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial celebrates the life of the father of modern American liberalism and the author of the “Four Freedoms,” a radical statement for his or any other time. Many tour groups make it to Anacostia for a visit to Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist, author and advocate for African Americans.

But how many visitors make it to the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality Monument? The bust of Eugene Debs in the National Portrait Gallery? Either of the two monuments to assassinated Chilean socialist Orlando Letelier?

Standard tourist itineraries have tended to follow in the footsteps of history’s rich and powerful, the presidents and generals and industrialists. These individuals have, not incidentally, been almost entire straight white men. It’s no accident that mainstream works of history have tended to minimize and even degrade the struggles and accomplishments of women, nonwhites and nonstraights. Radical tourism, then, is not merely about passing a day while visiting another city, or even your city, but rather a way of looking at the world from the viewpoint of those who bucked the establishment, who struggled for their rights and challenged the status quo of profit, patriarchy, white privilege and homophobia.

Therefore, when readers of the Washington Socialist are visited by friends and relatives and asked to be shown the “sights,” they might skip some of the too-well-trodden tourist meccas for some of these lesser-known monuments to those who fought to make DC and the world more just and equal:


Dupont Circle — This popular gathering spot has seen not only countless political demonstrations and rallies but is also the center of a neighborhood that has been a focal point of the District’s LGBTQ community since at least the 1960s. During a time of rampant discrimination and sometimes violence against nonstraights, Dupont Circle was a welcoming and tolerant oasis. The circle has been the focus of the annual celebration that started as Gay Pride in 1975 and is now known Capital Pride. One of its most important Dupont Circle institutions was Lambda Rising, the gay bookstore that opened in 1974 at a time when books and periodicals serving the LGBTQ community were hard to find. The bookstore’s last and longest location was at 1625 Connecticut Ave. NW, just north of the circle. In 2010 the store closed; the space is now occupied by a shoe store. With Lambda Rising having mostly a clientele of gay men, a sister bookstore, Lammas, became a pillar of the lesbian community. It started as a jewelry store near Eastern Market in 1974, but soon became a bookstore and community gathering place in the Dupont Circle area, eventually settling into 1607 17th Street NW until it closed its doors in 2000.

The Strivers’ Section — Today this enclave of gentrified homes is usually referred to as Dupont East or U Street West, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the area bounded by Swann Street on the south, Florida Avenue on the north and west, and 16th Street on the east was an African American neighborhood known at the Strivers’ Section. The name echoed that of Strivers’ Row in Harlem, New York, and like its northern counterpart was favored by African American professional and upper-middle class residents in a segregated city where their housing options were limited. Frederick Douglass built three rowhouses — at 2000–2004 17th Street — one of which was the longtime home of his son Lewis Henry Douglas. Another notable home in this area is the modest rowhouse at 1749 S Street that was the home of of poet Langston Hughes during his sojourn in DC between 1924 and 1926 — before he moved to New York and became a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary House — It’s worth a quick stop to appreciate the home of this writer, abolitionist and pioneering female African-American journalist, just northeast of the Strivers’ Section at 1421 W Street NW. Cary founded the Provincial Freeman, the first newspaper published by an African American woman in North America. The house, built around 1860, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is identified by a historical marker. It is still a private home and not open to visitors.

Frederick Douglass Home on Capitol Hill — The fingerprints of Douglass, who lived in Washington from shortly after the end of the Civil War until his death in 1895, are all over the city. Before he moved to Cedar Hill, he lived in a rowhouse on Capitol Hill from 1871 to 1878, 316 A Street NE, a couple of blocks from the Supreme Court. Years ago, the house was owned by the Smithsonian, but in a controversial 1989 sale it became the property of the National Association for Home Care. That organization continued to maintain the home and three adjacent houses as a museum, although open only for limited hours. The owner has put the properties up for sale, so it’s not clear how long the Douglass house and museum will be open to the public. Let’s hope the buyer is a person or institution that appreciates Douglass and his accomplishments, for it would be a tragedy if the house were to be turned into more million-dollar condominiums.

Orlando Letelier Statue, Chilean Ambassador’s Residence — In my article two years ago I highlighted the monument at Sheridan Circle to Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, who were killed in 1976 by a car bomb near where the monument stands. Letelier was an official in the socialist government of Chile’s President Salavador Allende, and was exiled from his homeland after the U.S.-backed 1973 coup that cost Allende his life and plunged his country into two decades of military dictatorship. Letelier joined the Institute for Policy Studies, the progressive D.C. think tank, where he spoke out against and wrote of the brutality of the Chilean regime. The bomb, which was planted by Chilean government agents, also took the life of IPS employee Ronni Moffit. The small memorial placed on the east side of Sheridan Circle in 1981 was joined by a larger monument to Letelier earlier this year on the opposite side of the circle. The new monument, in which a smiling Letelier looks confidently off into the distance, stands in front of the residence of the Chilean ambassador at 2305 Massachusetts Avenue NW. While the older monument was a rebuke to the Chilean military regime that was very much in power when it was dedicated, the new one is a testament to the current Chilean government’s embrace of Letelier and his democratic vision.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History — Okay, this is not exactly off the beaten path; it is daily and all year long besieged by the tourist hordes. But since this museum opened in 1964 it has gradually transformed from a purveyor of all-American rah-rah to an institution that recognizes some of the darker chapters of the country’s history. While the masses are cooing over the First Ladies’ dresses or drawing inspiration from the Star-Spangled Banner and the slave-owning author of the anthem dedicated to it, you can escort your visitors over to Unity Square, the home of a section of the lunch counter from the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth where a 1960 student sit-in proved a seminal event in the dismantling of segregation (a smaller section of the same counter is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, visible through the window across from the display). The “American Enterprise” exhibit illustrates the story of the rise of American capitalism but also its dark side of slavery and worker exploitation. The “Many Voices, One Nation” exhibit acknowledges the diversity of the American experience, while the “American Democracy” gallery gives a nod to a range of political expression that includes resistance and dissent.

Anacostia Community Museum — One of the least-known Smithsonian museums is the only one that focuses on a DC neighborhood. The Anacostia Community Museum’s mission, according to its website, is to “explore social issues impacting diverse populations of the DC metropolitan area to promote mutual understanding and strengthen community bonds.” Its mission of celebrating diversity and promoting community empowerment makes it unique in the Smithsonian constellation. A current exhibit, “A Right to the City,” explores the history of neighborhood change in DC, from the days of disinvestment and population decline to today’s gentrification and displacement, and traces the organizing and activism that arose to address the changes. The museum is located at 1901 Fort Place SE.

So when friends and family come calling this summer, take them to see sights that their neighbors probably haven’t seen, places that will leave them something to think about. Apollo 11 will always be there.

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