Why the Historic District?

All the guidebooks, all the travel articles tell you about the historic part of US cities. And, in fairness, to other world cities as well. What of the other parts? Isn’t their history there as well? They can’t all have been built yesterday. And even if they weren’t, isn’t yesterday history?

It’s one of those little things in tourism that is beginning to annoy me. Why is one part of a place designated a historic district and another isn’t? Take Chicago. According to the “Where Guide to Chicago” the historic district is in a triangle north of the river and is so called because it wasn’t decimated in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Everywhere else there is a grid street system introduced much later but here there are narrow winding streets. Yet down south of the river you’ll find historic parts as well as where Frank Lloyd Wright built houses, where warehouses have become trendy housing (like Gloucester and the Docklands in London.) Isn’t this history as well?

The misuse of the expression could drive tourists away or attract them. A flourishing shopping area could be missed if it was just called the historic quarter. Calling an area the Museum area could deter people with little interest in museums from seeing the other delights of the area. How would you apply the term to London for example? Which part of London is the historic district? The part around the Tower of London because that goes back to 1087? What of the Roman ruins found around the area north of St Paul’s? St Paul’s can’t be historic since it only dates to the late 1600’s. And what of Rome? Virtually throw a coin in the area and where it comes down could be a historic district. The same could also apply to the inner parts of Colchester, Dublin, Athens, Alexandria, York, and Chester to name just a few. This has come about because sometimes tourism people and journalists can’t be creative enough to come up with a more fitting description of an area. Go back to Chicago for a moment. Couldn’t that triangle area be called “Original Chicago?” It would cause more people to wonder and wouldn’t deter people who are put off by using the word “history.”

Sometimes you don’t need to change a name because the name still applies such as the fashion district in New York. With other places, a name stays around but the area becomes known for something else like Birmingham with its jewelry quarter now better known for its restaurants.

With less of the world being inaccessible and with more destinations competing for our business, the creative use of descriptions of parts of a place will be more important than ever in persuading us where to go.

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