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History Markers

Like the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places in the US, ceramic, blue plaques mark places in the United Kingdom where people of note once lived. Not long ago, the English Heritage Society unveiled one of these in London at the site of the artists’ studio where my father and his collaborator Donald Swann lived and worked for much of the 1950s.

The ceremony, as you can imagine, had me thinking about history and markers and passers-by and place. I’ve always been one of those annoying people who holds everyone up to stop and read the markers on the street. This happened here. The markers are about the past, but also the present.  They’re prompts to possibilities. I like them because they’re reminders that anything’s possible right here—that history is made by real life people who trod these real-life streets.

They also pierce the public-private divide, revealing what happened behind closed doors. Inevitably, I end up wondering, what’s happening here now? If that person could, could I? What’s going on right here behind that door today?

Past, present, public, private. This particular plaque for my father made me think about something else too: inclusive design. You see, my father Michael Flanders, who, with Swann, went on to become a well-known performing duo, contracted polio in World War Two. Having kicked off an exciting acting career in college, he came home from the Navy partially paralyzed. He spent three years in a nursing home. His college refused to let him return to finish his studies. “We’re not a home for cripples,” they said.

But at Scarsdale Villas, he was able to make a home thanks to a curb cut for his wheelchair, a government-issued custom car for veterans, and a whole lot of handmade furniture, which I remember growing up with years later. It had all sorts of low surfaces with edges and secret storage bins.

Standing outside that building in Kensington, which was reachable then by a stair-free path from the street, I celebrated the unveiling with my sister Stephanie, her kids, and a whole crowd of friends and fans of Flanders & Swann who turned out and sang their greatest hits. I couldn’t help wondering about those history-makers and artists we might be missing because of too few curb cuts or too many closed doors or stairs from the street. And I couldn’t help giving thanks to that curb cut and that inclusive design, which made a whole lot of great songs, and me, possible. Without them, I literally would not exist.

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Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media. lauraflanders.org

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