In La Crosse they call their downtown: “Historic Downtown.” But a new innovative and interactive tour asks whose history is being told there. The project is called “Hear Here” and as executive director Ariel Beaujot explains, “This is not telling a certain story of downtown. It’s telling all the stories we could gather about downtown.”
While Beaujot offers occasional tours of the Hear Here sites, including one on bike for La Crosse’s annual bike fest, you do not need her along to hear the stories the project has collected. In downtown La Crosse, a series of Hear Here signs display a phone number visitors can call on their cell phones. Then they enter a location number and access an oral history, usually told in the first person by the person who experienced it.
“Hear Here is a public history project, because it’s in the public. People listen to it in the public and it’s outside of academia essentially,” says Beaujot. “We’re bringing the new form of history out of the ivory tower, and we’re putting it into the public.”
Beaujot says Hear Here represents a new form of history that does not just tell the usual story of the powerful and influential. “When we tell a certain arc, we’re only telling certain people’s stories,” she says. “And we should be telling everybody’s stories.”
“We’re trying to get every story out. And when you’re trying to get every story out, you start with underrepresented populations,” says Beaujot. “But I didn’t know what those stories would be. And I didn’t know what the community reaction would be.”
Some reaction has been negative. Someone even stole the sign that connects listeners to a story about a police incident and arrest that may have been racially-motivated. Despite this, Beaujot sees a positive value in sharing stories, even if some can be hard to hear.
“I think it’s always important to find the positive things,” she says. “I argue that they can be about creating a more ideal city.”
If Beaujot believes that Hear Here can make a difference, it’s because it’s changed her: “I’ve become a different person and a different historian because of this project.”