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Pickled history

In the United States, tomorrow will be a national holiday for the birthday(-ish) of prominent civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929. Thirty-nine years later, Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was in the city for a sanitation workers’ strike.

More than fifty years after King’s death, the Lorraine Motel still exists – sort of. The building, no longer a functioning motel, has been incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991 and reopened after a $27-million renovation in 2014. The district around the motel was struggling economically in 1968 when King has shot, but since then it has been aggressively gentrified. (When I visited the neighborhood in late 2014, there was even an American Apparel store a couple of blocks from the former hotel, although it appears to have since closed, along with the struggling brand’s other brick-and-mortar stores.)

The Lorraine Motel, as incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Lorraine Motel, as incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum.

Like the surrounding neighborhood, the motel is also gentrified. The balcony where King was shot has been preserved, but it is an island of a heritage structure surrounded by a new pedestrian walkway, a parking lot, and new museum buildings. Visiting the motel shortly after the $27-million renovation, I could hardly imagine what the place looked like in 1968.

The fateful balcony where King was shot, marked by a commemorate wreath.

The fateful balcony where King was shot, marked by a commemorate wreath.

A classic car parked below room 306.

A classic car parked below room 306.

The over-preservation of the Lorraine Motel gives a false impression of what the place was like when King was shot there. Its gentrification elides the very real economic problems the neighborhood was facing in 1968. It is as if the building has been pickled and sealed in a glass jar, without any of its context.

There is a certain sad irony that this has happened to the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot while in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a march on Washington by the nation’s poor. This irony was not lost on the last resident of the Lorraine Motel, Jacqueline Smith, who was evicted in 1988 before the building was converted into a museum. Since then, she has protested the museum from across the street. “Gentrification is a violation of civil rights,” one of her signs said in 2014. Don’t spend $27 million on the museum renovation and $0 for the poor, another sign said; “Use the money as Dr. King would have wanted.”

Where was Lake Texcoco?

Much of the land occupied by the great metropolis of Mexico City was once underwater. Before modern times, the Valley of Mexico was flooded by Lake Texcoco and adjoining bodies of water. The Aztecs founded their capital city, Tenochtitlán, on an island in the lake in 1325. Two hundred years later, Spanish conquistadors were astonished by the scale of the city and the causeways connecting the islands of the lake to the mainland. The Spanish conquered Tenochtitlán in 1521 and built their new colonial capital, Mexico City, on its ruins. Over the following centuries, engineers built drainage works to control the floods and eventually drain the lake almost completely. (A monument to one of these engineers, Enrico Martínez, stands next to the city’s cathedral.) All that is left of Lake Texcoco now is some marshland near the international airport on the east side of the city. Some canals on the adjoining lake to the south, Xochimilco, have also survived.

Monument to Enrico Martínez, one of the engineers who built drainage works on Lake Texcoco.

Monument to Enrico Martínez, one of the engineers who built drainage works on Lake Texcoco.

Some of the marshy remnants of Lake Texcoco, as seen from a flight out of Benito Juárez International Airport.

Some of the marshy remnants of Lake Texcoco, as seen from a flight out of Benito Juárez International Airport.

One of the surviving canals of Lake Xochimilco, a popular place for boat-rides in southern Mexico City.

One of the surviving canals of Lake Xochimilco, a popular place for boat-rides in southern Mexico City.

Where exactly was Lake Texcoco? When I have visited Mexico City, I have wondered what parts of the city were above-water (islands or lakeshore), and what parts are reclaimed lakebed. I thought that someone must have made a map of the modern-day city with the outline of the erstwhile lake superimposed on it, but I was not able to find one. So I made my own.

For the modern city, I used a 1:250,000 sectional chart that was jointly issued by the governments of the United States and Mexico in 2000. (It is part of the maps collection of the Perry-Castañeda Library of UT–Austin.) This map was a good find because it is big enough to cover the entire basin once flooded by the lakes, but it is detailed enough to include contour lines. For the outline of the lake, I used a map from Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the Valley of Mexico ca. 1519.

Map of the Valley of Mexico ca. 1519. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC-SA 4.0.)

I initially tried superimposing the lake map directly on the sectional chart, but I was never able to get the geographical points to line up. My second attempt (and this was successful) was to hand-draw the outline of the lake onto the sectional, using surviving Aztec place-names and contour-lines for reference. (I also had to use some guesswork.) Here is the result:

Map of Lake Texcoco and adjoining lakes superimposed over modern-day Mexico City.

Map of Lake Texcoco and adjoining lakes superimposed over modern-day Mexico City.

The map with the lakes labeled.

The map with the lakes labeled.

Some observations from this exercise of historical mapping:

  • A considerable portion of the erstwhile lakebed, including land to the east of the international airport, is still not built-up.
  • The marshes near the airport must have been the lowest part of the lakebed.
  • The western edge of the modern urbanized area, including such Aztec place-names as Chapultepec, Mixcoac, and Coyoacán, was on the western shore of the lake and thus was never underwater—except during floods. (Rule of thumb: places with Aztec names were at least partly above-water.)
  • But much of the city was underwater, including the most modern parts where there are high-rise buildings (Zona Rosa).

Now that I have made this map, I would like to see a detailed view of the territory around Tenochtitlán, which corresponds with the area around the Zócalo. Where exactly were the islands that the city was built on? But making such a map is a project for another time (and possibly another person as well).

Revisiting Tacitus

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote in the early second century, during the reigns of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He wrote several books that have come down to modern times entirely or partially, including Germania, The Annals (about the first dynasty of Roman emperors, minus the founder Augustus, AD 14-68), and The Histories.

My first encounter with Tacitus was an excerpt of The Annals in my tenth-grade literature textbook, describing a fire that devastated the city of Rome in the year 64. As I recall, the passage hadn’t even been assigned for us to read, but I found it while flipping through the book and read it out of curiosity. I was taken by the vivid narrative explaining how the fire had spread through the city while the much-reviled emperor Nero whiled away the hours of the catastrophe singing about the burning of Troy. I was also intrigued by a brief reference to the Christians who were scapegoated for the fire—one of the earliest references to the practitioners of this new religion outside their own scriptures.

In eleventh grade, when my family went to Rome for Christmas and New Year’s, I brought along a Penguin edition of Tacitus’s Annals, translated by Michael Grant. Although there was much I couldn’t understand, I excitedly read the book on the trip to Italy and afterward. There were several episodes that stood out to me in the narrative, and I still remember them clearly. One of them was the assassination of Nero’s step-brother Britannicus, who was offed by putting poison in a cup that had already been tested, ostensibly to cool the too-hot drink down. There were many stories like this, about the intrigues and schemings of nobles in the inner circle of power.

Reading Tacitus corresponded with my own awakening as a scholar late in high school. Now that my days of adolescent apathy were past, I was beginning to see the world with new eyes, and it was turning out to be a big and fascinating place. The Annals was the beginning of an ancient history reading kick that continued with Josephus, Tacitus again (this time The Histories), Herodotus, Thucydides, and a little later (in college), Arrian (The Campaigns of Alexander).

When I read The Annals the first time, I took its content and style very much for granted. I guess I assumed that this was the one way to tell the history of early imperial Rome. By reading Tacitus, I felt that I was learning the true, authoritative history of Rome.

Ten years later, when I was in graduate school, I reread some parts of The Annals for a class about historiography (the history of history-writing). It was unsettling to read Tacitus again, because his writing didn’t seem so worshipful now. The parts that I read this time seemed petty and narrow-minded, as they focused almost completely on a small power-holding elite in a vast empire. There was nothing true or authoritative about any of this. I felt that my teenage self had been naïve to see the endless string of assassinations as the definitive account of Roman history. I now knew that there were many ways to tell the story of a time and place, and Tacitus had only chosen one of them.

I was ready to jettison Tacitus entirely when I reread him in grad school, but I have been assured—both by a friend who is a late-antique historian, and my own reading—that Tacitus is still an important and indispensable resource for early-imperial Roman history. The key is not to read him as the authoritative account and final word on everything, as I did in high school, but to read him critically as a source, much as I would read a project report for an Indian development project or an editorial from the Times of India or Hindustan.

But there is at least one fundamental way in which the work of an ancient historian differs from my own: I don’t have to reconstruct the past. Certain details of events that I am interested in might remain obscure, but the period that I as a modern historian study is very well-documented. That is not the case for Roman history. Most books, including Tacitus’s narrative histories, are missing large parts. Many books have disappeared entirely. Before ancient historians can study why something happened, they first must try to discover what happened. I have the luxury of skipping that step.

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