South Asians: Stewards of America's Roadside Heritage

Posted on: May 19th, 2009 by Guest Writer
The neon sign at the El Don Motel, Albuquerque, NM, during the day.

The neon sign at the El Don Motel, Albuquerque, NM, during the day.

Written by Anne Dodge

Since April of 2008, I have been working on a project called “66 Motels”, a collection of photos and interviews that document the independently owned, historic motels of Route 66 and their owners. I was drawn into this project after studying preservation planning along Route 66 for my master’s thesis. In my research, I discovered that the towns and cities along Route 66 -- and the Route 66 property owners themselves -- view the road and its resources in very different ways, and that preservation can take unexpected turns when what’s being preserved is an idea as well as a concrete series of buildings or places.

From a preservationist’s point of view, the corridor’s most authentic places –- the buildings that spoke most eloquently of the road’s history -– are the motels. Architectural styles range from the beloved wigwam motels of the southwest to the “Giraffe stone” motor courts of the Missouri Ozarks. By their use, siting, and architecture, the motels themselves tell the story of Route 66 –- how for decades, the road served as a major transportation corridor for migrant workers, recreational travelers, families, salesmen, immigrants, and anyone who planned to motor west. Once I began interviewing motel owners, I learned more about the complexities of running and maintaining an older, smaller motel and the forces at work against the preservation of these properties. Most interestingly, I found that more than 30% of the independent motel owners along Route 66 were new Americans, people who had come to the U.S. from India, east Africa, Europe, and other parts of the U.S. to own and manage these businesses.

Rest Haven Court, Springfield MO sign by night.

Rest Haven Court, Springfield MO sign by night.

In addition to documenting the diverse group of owners and properties along Route 66, this project also looks at the power of signage and the history and contemporary practice of labeling a property as "American Owned." I began this research thinking that "American Owned" was a label that was used exclusively by white motel owners to promote their properties to customers who were disinclined to rent a room at an Indian American owned motel. This is, without a doubt, the origin of the "American Owned" sign, and some motel owners today defend this language and signage as a legitimate component of their advertising strategy. But I've learned, thanks to several generous interviewees, that this type of signage is often an accident of history, something that came with a property when purchased, or something that Indian American owners themselves use to make a statement about themselves and their properties.

Nina at the Americana Motel, Tucumcari, NM

Nina at the Americana Motel, Tucumcari, NM.

This project has several goals; one is to start a dialog about the role of Asian Americans and other motel owners in the preservation and development of the emerging Route 66 heritage corridor. This debate is part of a broader conversation about racial and cultural diversity in America’s preservation movement, and ways in which the work of public historians, preservationists, and other interpreters of the past can better represent the narratives of new Americans. In the meantime, the motels tell their own stories, and their new custodians add yet another layer of history to the many layers already evident along the highway. Behind every historic Route 66 motel is a person and a history that enriches the architectural and cultural experience of the whole corridor. And that's the story that I hope the 66 Motels project will tell to others.

Anne Dodge is a writer, researcher, and media producer based in Cambridge, MA, who also works as a circuit rider for Preservation Massachusetts and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, providing technical assistance, advocacy, and preservation planning for people and the buildings they love across the Commonwealth. She blogs at www.annedodge.com.

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