The New York Times Visits Montgomery: A Conversation

By on 1 March, 2018 in Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Among a certain set, the news has been omnipresent: The New York Times sent a writer to our city, and she wrote it up, publishing her travelogue on Monday. The piece, which can be read here, sparked considerable conversation online (and presumably in non-digital spaces too), most of it something like WSFA’s localization by a “digital content producer” that comes off as a bit provincial.

We decided to write about our reaction to the NYT piece, which was authored by a writer named Jada Yuan, who was selected from 13,000 applicants to visit all of the NYT’s “52 places to visit in 2018,” which is a fine enough gimmick. More on Yuan here, and you can follow her on Twitter here. Worth noting, perhaps, that when Montgomery was selected as one of these 52 special places (“a starter kit for escaping into the world”), it got the same “aw shucks” localization. Obviously, you should read the piece to be able to effectively follow this conversation.

Stephen: First, I’ll say that I’m a fan of the concept, and we have talked on several occasions about how we enjoy the NYT’s “36 hours” gimmick, in which a travel writer parachutes into a city and tries to hit some high points in a short amount of time. I think it’s cool that people are trying to be well-traveled, but also efficient with their time. The pieces generally hit the right amount of improvisation while hitting some planned highlights.

Kate: But you didn’t love this piece.

Stephen: It made me feel defensive. And not exactly thrilled with the image of our city being shared to the readers of the New York Times, even if city leaders and chamber of commerce types seemed excited for the attention.

Kate: What didn’t you like?

Stephen: I didn’t like how she talked about the emptiness of the airport, which seems like something we’re allowed to say, but only because we recognize the positive elements of the small town elements of those kinds of things. It’s like when someone insults a member of your family by saying the same things that you always say. It’s different when we say it.

Kate: But it was really cool how it started out with her meeting up with More Than Tours and learning about the grim statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims. That was a pretty edgy opening.

Stephen: Yeah, but medical experiments on enslaved women is not exactly what you want to highlight first, even if that history absolutely does need to be lifted up. I’m fine that Yuan describes much of our city’s landscape as “heavy,” because that is important and I’m glad she noticed it. But there’s just so much in the piece about the embedded pain, and so little about the community itself.

Kate: That’s fair. It does feel like a tourist-y account of the city, not the kind of story someone would tell who lives here. It reminded me a little of people who come to Montgomery for short amounts of time to experience the civil rights history vibe, but don’t really dig in to experience what it’s like to live here. But maybe that’s not her job.

Stephen: I just really felt like we could have given her a much fuller picture of our city. She writes about our abandoned downtown streets, and talks to a Lyft driver and a Roy Moore supporter who has prayed to a tiny American flag that he put on the grounds of the state capitol. Between that and the effusive praise for a museum-slash-memorial that hasn’t even opened yet, plus the trip to Applebee’s and the crack about how no black people live in Old Cloverdale, I was not really feeling her report, even if it was probably a pretty accurate chronicle of her experiences.

Kate: I was happy that at least she did go to some places that are not downtown. She had some good guides. And it’s a real testament to the city’s unheralded Uber and Lyft drivers, who seem to have operated as her guides.

Stephen: If you look at the handful of things she did that are forward-looking (instead of memorializations of atrocities), there’s eating a meal at Central (about which she quotes a local fairly jabbing the restaurant for being over-priced) and visits to Prevail, Cafe Louisa, and Leroy (which she unfairly calls a “dive”). Those are good spots to hit, and would probably have been on our tour.

Kate: She went to Aviator Bar (which we’d probably skip) and was super happy about Mrs. B’s. Plus she hit the Dexter Parsonage and Fitzgerald Museum, which are pretty inspiring places. And she skipped the Hank Williams Museum, which we probably also would have advised.

Stephen: People are probably going to come away from her piece thinking that visiting here is some kind of moral chore — maybe not all that fun, but good for you. Like we’re the historical fiber you have to visit on your way to the fun of Atlanta, New Orleans, or even Birmingham. That’s too bad, because we’re so much more.

Kate: I think that Montgomery is so much under the surface that sometimes people who visit here just leave with the impression of what they can skim off the top. They don’t really get a sense that we’re a living, breathing city.

Stephen: I think in the end, I’m glad she came here, and am glad that she wrote the piece, if only because there ought to be some widespread grappling with our history, in the sense that EJI’s historical plaques are totally needed and valuable contributions to our city. And if she takes a shot at the city for not already having a statute for Dr. King yet (and none for Rosa Parks either), those are probably fair criticisms that implicate our efforts at memorialization and moving forward, even when the statue of Dr. King is dedicated this August on the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Kate: I’m glad, too. I think tourism dollars are important for our economy, and the more we can promote that the better for our city. I just wish that we could be known for more than just what’s happened (good and bad) in the past. But part of living here is trying to create the kind of narrative and the kind of future that we can be known for.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with one cat, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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