Imperfect History 

Most of Ethnic Landmarks is essential reading

Ethnic Landmarks, the first book published by Boise's Office of the City Historian, is a pocket-sized text with remarkable production value, plenty of great stories and an unnecessarily large chip on its shoulder.

On first glance, with the book's black and red glossy paperback cover and seamless graphic design, you might mistake it for a Frommer's-style guide to Boise. In actuality, it's another slick project by Todd Shallat and Adele Thomsen, respectively the production editor and designer for the Idaho State Historical Society's impressive biannual journal Idaho Yesterdays. In Ethnic Landmarks, author Shallat, director of the Center For Idaho History and Politics at Boise State, attempts to create an introductory history to the various cultures that helped found the Boise Valley. He approaches this ambitious premise through a unique narrative structure, in which he devotes an equal amount of space, eight pages apiece, to the Shoshone-Bannock, Irish, Spanish, German, Jewish, Chinese, Basque, Bohemian, Black and Greek communities (the last of which, I should note, is based largely on Shallat's interview with my very own Yaiyia, Lily Collias). Each chapter includes a brief cultural history or biography of one of the respective communities' most prominent citizens and a description of a downtown building associated with that community. The buildings are also included in a map in the front of the book, so that a reader can, in theory, visit the sites in person--though hopefully in better weather than that which accompanied my inaugural walking tour last weekend.

For a few of the immigrant cultures, eight pages feels adequate--barely--to encapsulate a rudimentary overview of their local history. For others, it seems painfully hurried, as when Shallat refers only to a single Jew, Idaho Governor Moses Alexander, while giving the communities of Greeks, Basques, Blacks and Germans far more in-depth coverage. Still, he includes facts and anecdotes throughout all 10 chapters that make for gripping reading. Just a few highlights include: that Alexander, the nation's first Jewish governor, so alienated the local Jewish community that a Christian minister had to preside over his memorial; or that Boise was home to the first all-Basque church in America in 1919, but the church closed when the congregation protested the Bishop's message of cultural assimilation.

While this book's chapters are both captivating and packed with research, they are unexpectedly dwarfed by Shallat's prologue, "Walking Backward: Boise Has Long Been a Cultural Crossroads and Surprisingly Diverse." In this puzzling 34-page essay, the Boise State professor tackles a host of topics that better belong in other books. He starts by addressing our reputation as a "white" city, saying that it is the undeserved product of a community that has "whitened its past" in historical publications and schools. From there, Shallat gives an exhaustive history of discrimination in the City of Trees, including details about racist practices in the local census, a directory of the racial slurs whites used to label local minorities, and most puzzling of all, a needlessly thorough history of Old Boise's most notorious ethnic bogeyman, the half-black, half-Cherokee serial killer Big Foot. All of these topics are worth undertaking in their own right, but not in a shiny little city-published book with the stated goal of being a "top-ten guide to historic locations that make Boise like no other place." Racist labels and legends don't make our town unique; they make it just like every other nice western town with a shady and hegemonic history.

However, I wouldn't see fit to complain about "Walking Backward," were it not over four times longer than any of the individual chapters in the book. With competent editing, it should easily have been cut to a quarter of its size. This would have opened up enough space to include additional photographs, research and other elements that would have helped Ethnic Landmarks make sense as the "walking tour" it purports to be. With 10 pages instead of eight, perhaps the Mexican chapter of the book could have referred to a building that still exists, rather than to a spot now occupied by a parking lot on private property. Or perhaps the chapter on Boise's German communities, which focuses largely on the accomplishments of architects James C. Paulsen and Charles Hummell, could have included more photographs of buildings designed by these architects, rather than three pictures of the Turnverein Building at Sixth and Main streets. (Seriously--to mention Paulsen, but not include a picture of at least one of his masterpieces, the original Boise City Hall or the original Natatorium, probably the two most striking buildings in Boise's history, is inexcusable.) Maybe, if the prologue didn't take up almost a third of Ethnic Landmarks, the chapters could have included more interviews, oral histories and primary sources, and fewer rehashed snippets of old Idaho Statesman articles.

Bear in mind, the office sponsoring this book has been in existence for only about two years, so fledgling City Historian Ann Felton is probably--and justifiably--eager to pursue such a project as Ethnic Landmarks, which has a progressive premise easy for the city government to rally behind. And rally it does, in a classy and direct one-page forward by Mayor Dave Bieter. That the Office of the City Historian was able to put out such a polished, unique text is promising. Hopefully, their next offering will better stay on topic, and have the substance to match its sheen.

Book release and signing, today at 10 a.m., at 512 W. Idaho St. For more information or to purchase a copy of Ethnic Landmarks, contact the Office of the City Historian at historian@cityofboise.org or 208-384-3731.

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