In 1975 I was working in Washington DC on the staff of a President’s Advisory Council created to protect historic sites. The Council met several times each year, usually in Washington, DC, but also made site visits around the US.
I suggested we take the Council to California to review Federal management of sites in Monterey County, where I had been part of the preservation movement before relocating to Washington. (See my earlier post, SAVING THE COUNTY.) Our Director and the Council members liked the idea, and I was told to set it all up. For me this was a stroke of good fortune. In my two years of working at the local level, I had helped to save many sites, but a great deal remained to be done, and federal power could make a big difference.
We decided we would visit Monterey County in detail, followed by a stay at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, a tour of the US Mint in San Francisco and a ceremonial meeting of the Council at The Presidio to supplement our main meeting in Monterey County.
Now I began to learn a lot about governmental potential. We knew that the National Park Service would help. I knew the people in local government who worked with the private sector historical societies in Monterey County and I was confident I would have their cooperation. The Army was more problematic. Under Federal law, we could require any agency of government to assist us with our tour. But, because the Council was a small agency, we knew that the Pentagon might provide only minimal help unless we prepared carefully. Our General Counsel drafted a latter for the signature of Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash), Chairman of one of the powerful committees that dealt with preservation, requesting the Department of Defense to provide all necessary assistance to us, on the grounds that we would be doing fact finding for him. One of the Senator’s staff members, a longtime ally of the Council, secured the necessary signature. Then our Director and the General Counsel sought a similar letter from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, directing all military commands in California to be helpful to us. Soon, as I went forward with arrangements for the trip, my phone calls to the Army were being returned more promptly.
We needed a background report, to give to everyone who would be involved in the tour, on the significance of the historical sites we would be visiting and the policy issues related to preserving them. I already knew a great deal of the information from personal experience. To supplement it, I went out to the Council’s Western Regional Office in Denver, where the files were kept for every case west of the Mississippi River, and put the report together.
The research in Denver taught me an important lesson about stereotypes. From my experiences while living in Monterey County, I had concluded that the biggest Federal obstacle to protection of the historic sites was the Army. After reading all the correspondence, however, I could see that the major problems had resulted from delays by the National Park Service. To make sure this finding was not overlooked, we circulated my report to more people at the Department of the Interior than originally planned.
Finally the big week arrived. From points all over the U.S., the Council members arrived in Monterey County. My first indication that I was now dealing with a national examination of California’s historic sites was the surprising variety of reactions to the landscape. I took it as an axiom that Monterey County was beautiful. So did some of the people in our tour group; but not everyone. A lot of the visitors grumbled about the morning fog that is common along the Pacific Coast. They found it depressing, even eerie. Several of the visitors who had never been west of the Rockies were upset by the brown vegetation. Summer is the green season in the United States east of the Rockies. But in the far west, the green season is the winter. There were also stereotypes about beauty. A friend of mine on the Council staff, from Maryland, seemed unimpressed by the dramatic coastline around Pacific Grove and Carmel. He complained about the “debris” in the water, by which he meant the kelp, and seemed to want a Miami style coast. I suggested that he compare the coast to Japanese paintings, but the advice didn’t appeal to him. Then there were the restaurants. There were a number of very fine ones in and around Monterey, offering not only excellent food but also the opportunity, by way of the cuisine, to learn more about the place — an experience that is familiar to anyone who has read the works of the California writer, M.F.K. Fisher, on France. But the main consideration of our Council members, when choosing restaurants, was status, not whether they could learn about local culture.
We arranged for some bus tours to put the Council members in direct contact with the sites that were the subject of the meeting. The parts of the landscape that the members felt most comfortable seeing were the ones along the coast: the cute shops and breakfast houses at Carmel — the ones Steinbeck had once said were created by the “Pixie People” who ruined the area — the golf courses and mansions around Pebble Beach, the military compound at the Monterey Presidio, the restaurants and restored factories at Cannery Row, the Spanish colonial buildings in the city of Monterey. These were all, to our Council members, part of a tourist environment they could respond to in well-rehearsed manner, even if they had never been in the area before.
What was more interesting was to watch the way the Council members had their perceptions challenged on the day we devoted to going inland. The bus picked us up early in the morning and headed east along highway 68. The Council members at first stared blankly out the windows of the bus as we passed through beautiful but not especially distinctive hills covered with brown grass and occasional clusters of oak tress. Over the microphone, for the rest of the bus ride. I explained that we had just crossed the Salinas River and that we had been staring at the Spreckels sugar beet factory. Soon, as the bus moved on and we turned onto highway 101 and headed south, I was into a long description of the Salinas River, the rich soil of the Valley, and the towns and people who made their living from it.
Most of the passengers on the bus had never seen a world quite like the one we were riding through — a place stamped by Spanish and Mexican culture, conquered by industrial Americans, engulfed by American business monopolists, made legendary by Steinbeck, made fertile by the largest irrigation projects in the world, and given over to the regimental dictates of international agribusiness. The bus ride smashed all the categories of the Council members. And I loved being the source of the destruction and their first hints as to how they might rebuild.
After we had been on Highway 101 for about an hour, our bus turned west near King City and headed into the mountains that lie between the Valley and the Pacific Coast. Here we snaked along a two-lane road for a while, past creeks and groves of trees and clusters of cattle, until we reached the Hunter-Liggett Military Reservation. Our first stop was the San Antonio Mission. Here it was my turn to be challenged. I think the Mission is one of the most beautiful historic sites in the world. But, until that moment, I had never faced the fact that it is, in a way, a falsehood. One of my colleagues from the staff of the Council asked me if the Mission was on the National Register of Historic Places. I said, come to think of it, no. He said that the site would, in fact, never be eligible, because reconstructions were not eligible. I was enraged. The comment felt like an intentional insult. Then I realized that my colleague was simply being objective. In fact, the Mission was p
ractically gone when, in the 1930s, as part of the romanticism of the Spanish revival in California, Harry Downey and other Catholics rebuilt all the missions.
After touring the Mission, we were met by about twenty Army jeeps. They drove us in a convoy for about ten miles along narrow dirt roads to an isolated area where we would be able to see the most interesting of the Stone Age caves that had been the homes of the Native Americans who once lived in the region. This was the riskiest part of the trip. The temperature was about 95 degrees – like a safari. In view of the age of some of our Council members, we had been warned in advance to carry first aid supplies. Fortunately, the heat was bearable.
I found this part of the trip unpleasant. The convoy seemed imperialistic. I knew that the Native Americans who had lived in the Hunter-Liggett area were not saints, probably not even fastidious stewards of the land. But, as I looked again at their cave paintings, I thought I saw a delicacy, an artistic interaction, a reverence for the fragile landscape. Now, however, jeeps had taken a group of wrinkled white people noisily into the hills, and the boots of the soldiers and of the rest of us were trampling the area. Even worse, our conversation was all about federal rules and regulations and jurisdictions and grants: as if we ever could, really, govern such a mysterious, ineffable place.
By the time the tour was completed, and the bus had returned us to our motel, I realized that the visit to the Hunter-Liggett area, all by itself, had done a great deal to protect the historic resources there. Seeing a bunch of White House appointees crawl all over the property made the Army more attentive. We were confident that, as a result of the visit, the Army would allot some of its men and resources to protect, improve, and maintain the site and structures. And the National Park Service would behave itself. In a way, therefore, the actual meeting of the Council back in Monterey, when we heard the official statements from the Army and others, was almost redundant. It did, however, reveal some interesting aspects of organizational culture, and it served the very important function of allowing local groups to be heard.
The Council meeting began in the morning with the usual welcome by the Chairman, and his statement of the issues before the Council. As always, the Chairman simply read his remarks from the big briefing book the staff had given him, changing not a word. Then the Army and local groups said their pieces. A Colonel who had obviously been to briefing school read his prepared remarks accompanied by maps and photographs on an easel and what seemed to me like thousands of images projected onto the screen behind him. There were graphs, flow charts, outlines and sub-outlines. If ever the terms “bullet points” and “blowups” seemed appropriate to describe a style of presentation, this was the time. In sum, the Army’s message was that they had numerous missions to carry out, numerous laws to obey, and not enough dollars and personnel to do everything. That was what every agency told us, of course, and the briefing officer knew it. But, by the mere fact of putting the Army on the agenda, the Council had accomplished its purpose. The Army would try harder.
The speeches by local governmental representatives were similarly ritualized. A member of the County Board of Supervisors officially welcomed us. City and county planning officers described the ways they were including preservation in their work. The director of the county parks department lectured angrily about the need for greater federal sensitivity to grass roots concerns. ‘We asked the National Park Service and the Army for more help, and they didn’t give it,” he intoned sweepingly. “We may not have your national prestige, but we’re busy people, too,” he added.
In reply to all of this, the Council members offered very few reactions. There were some questions about specific points of fact. The Chairman made some statesmanlike comments about the need to focus on our shared respect for heritage. And there was one egregious comment by a Council member who had grown up in the East. “We need to have compassion for these local groups in the West,” she observed. “They really don’t have very much history. They’re trying hard to cling to the little they possess. This isn’t like Charleston or Savannah or Philadelphia.” The woman seemed to be framing the problem as a debate about who owned the most antiques. And she was, of course, factually in error as to who had the most history. By certain definitions, the West did. The people in the audience, wiser than she realized, simply let her patronizing comments pass.
For me, the most inspiring part of the meeting came during one of the breaks when I had the opportunity to see two old friends from King City, Olive and Rachel Gillette, who owned ranches in the county, and who had helped in the struggle to preserve local history when I had worked there. “You said you wouldn’t forget us, and you kept your promise,” they noted as we greeted each other. “Yes,” I answered, “I guess I did keep my promise. But I didn’t know that luck would be quite so much on our side.”