Guided walking tours are gaining popularity and momentum all across the country. As scores of people are discovering nationwide, they're a casual yet engaging way to learn about a city's history, gain insight about its people and culture, and get sun, fresh air and exercise in the process.
Historic walking tours often focus on a particular area or community within the host city. In New York, for example, residents and out-of-towners can tour Chinatown, Little Italy, the chocolate shops in midtown Manhattan or even Chelsea and the nearby meat-packing district.
Some tours art timed to coincide with significant dates. Locally, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates offers tours that celebrate the Christmas season, Edison's birthday and other important dates. And this Sunday, James Kaplan of the McManus Democratic Association will be leading a walking tour of Hell's Kitchen to commemorate St. Patrick's Day. Once a place where Irish street gangs, bootleggers, gamblers and mobsters held sway, today this working class Irish neighborhood west of the theater district is home to major law, accounting and advertising firms, off broadway theaters and trendy bars and restaurants as well as upscale apartment buildings in which actors and young professionals reside.
New on the scene in many locales are public art walking tours. Olympia, Washington has one that's sponsored by its Parks, Arts & Recreation Department in partnership with its Arts Commission. Denver has a tour that circumambulates its Golden Triangle Cultural District. In Chicago, Art in the Loop includes stops at works by Picasso, Miro and Chagall. And Philadelphia not only has more public art than any city in the world except Paris, but a guided public art walking tour that's as exceptional as its extensive public art collection.
Public art tours are not confined to enthusiasts, collectors and inveterate art lovers. Anyone can enjoy them because they're a unique way to catch a glimpse of a city's historical past. In the words of public artist Barbara Jo Revelle, “one important function public art can serve is to help us remember the lived history of a particular site.”
Revelle's 20 foot tall by 100 foot long ceramic tile mural on the eastern facade of the federal courthouse on First Street is a classic illustration of this principle. Fort Myers: An Alternative History encapsulates Fort Myers' early history, a 46-year period denoted by conflict, struggle, and even abject shame. It includes digitized historic photographs that depict Fort Myers' role in deporting the last of the Seminole Indians to a reservation in Oklahoma; the origins of the fort from which the city draws its name; and 15 members of a company of black soldiers who defended the fort from Confederate attack and made the area's settlement possible after the Civil War.
Each image tells a tale about our past and how we got where we are today, as Fox 4's Bill Wood discovered recently when he filmed a segment for Paradise TV that deciphers and decodes the words incised into the bronze projection cylinders of the light sculpture that bathe the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in an alphabet soup of lighted letters after dark. The west drum of Caloosahatchee Manuscripts, for example, contains the Latin names of plants that Thomas Edison tested in the botanical lab at his winter estate. The east cylinder contains an except from the text of a tale that explains how the Seminole Indians' ancestors first migrated into the Southeast, including Florida.
Since public art helps define a city's identity, participants come away from public art walking tours filled with newfound civic pride and a better feel for the community's value and the vision of its leaders.
If you haven't been on Fort Myers' public art walking tour, there's one scheduled for 2:30 on Sunday, March 17. The 90-minute tour visits 15 of Fort Myers' public art landmarks, and discusses the City's plans for its newly-completed 1.8 acre river basin. While the tour normally costs $15, you can sign up for Sunday's tour for just $10 plus gratuity by calling 239-945-0405 or by visiting www.TrueTours.net.
If you go, wear comfortable walking shoes. Oh, and something green. Sunday is St. Patrick's Day, after all.