The Tour
Originally published in Urban China 31: Crisis Management, 2008

Flanked by emergency workers, George W. Bush's September 14, 2001 bullhorn ballyhoo atop the ruins of the World Trade Center reassured a panicked public that its leader "can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

Years later, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that she too, had heard a panic-stricken public — having witnessed the post-earthquake rubble of Sichuan Province, she stated: "I was very moved by the people of the affected earthquake area. They clearly are showing great spirit. There's been a major effort to relocate them, and the government has worked very hard at that. Yet it was really the spirit of the people that comes through, because they are determined to restart their lives."[1]

Empathetic, concerned, alternately donning hardhat or furrowed brow — the spectacle of politicians being led through sites of trauma appears again and again for a reason. The Tour signals that they do indeed hear affected publics. Yet, it is hardly a Bush-era phenomenon. Abraham Lincoln walked the charred earth of Antietam, Winston Churchill toured the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and in 1977, Jimmy Carter's limousine took a detour, rolling up to what might have been Dresden circa-Slaughterhouse-Five: Charlotte Street in New York City's South Bronx.

President Carter's visit to this bleak landscape was a break from the past. Covering the event, the New York Times noted: "no one could recall when Mr. Carter, or any other President had visited an area like the South Bronx."[2] The wreckage he toured that day was not specific to one crisis in particular, but rather to the ongoing crisis of being poor in America. Opportunities blockaded by monolithic highways and housing projects, residents had seen once-stately neighborhoods suffer what urban epidemiologists Deborah and Rodrick Wallace call a "contagious fire epidemic" that coincided with municipal cuts to fire departments, and to federal urban renewal funds under Richard Nixon.

Jimmy Carter's tour helped to steer funds and policies towards the recuperation of Charlotte Street, and towards those who felt ignored by their government. Carter asked the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to "[s]ee which areas can be salvaged,” suggesting that “[m]aybe we can create a recreation area and turn it around."[3] The Tour can be many things: photo op, ill-timed political misstep (despite George W. Bush’s repeated trips to post-Katrina New Orleans, the American public never forgave him for not taking a tour immediately — choosing to witness the devastation from above, in Air Force One, instead), symbolic gesture, or in the case of Carter’s tour of Charlotte Street, the beginning of something new.

The Tour

The Tour

[2] Dembart, Lee, “Carter Takes ‘Sobering’ Trip to South Bronx,” New York Times, October 6, 1977.
[3] Ibid.