Intro to Public History Week 8: Understanding Place and Preservation

On the bookshelf:
Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities
Dolores Hayden, “Claiming Urban Landscapes as Public History” in The Power of Place
Marla Miller and Max Page, “Introduction” in Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States
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These classy women put the ‘ladies’ in The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

This week’s readings are probably the most pertinent of any others I’ve done for grad school so far to what I actually want to do in real life. I love cities- their cultural vibrance, their neighborhoods, their landscapes, and their histories. I think those things should be preserved when possible. I also feel strongly about the importance of “the tough stuff of American memory,” to quote Hurley quoting James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton. What I’m less enamored of is the world of historic preservation groups, many of which have their roots in culturally elitist organizations, and some of which tend to devote their resources in perpetuation of those sorts of ideals.

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The power of place: The path of the Berlin Wall is marked with stones in the pavement for about 3.5 miles (5.7km) through the city. Although the Wall no longer stands, its legacy is still felt. Author’s photo.

Reading Dolores Hayden’s “Claiming Urban Landscapes as Public History” challenged my assumptions somewhat about what urban preservation can, ideally, look like. In relating a 1975 argument between sociologist Herbert Gans and architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable over the New York City Landmark Commission’s attitude toward historic preservation, Hayden makes the point that although they both cared about the issue, they were speaking two different languages betraying two different value systems. Reconciliation of diverging perspectives of the parties concerned with cultural landscapes- social historians, preservationists, environmentalists, and public artists- is necessary for a fruitful conversation about the issues of historic preservation.  She elaborates on the idea of place memory and the power of place, arguing that communities invest places with social and cultural meaning; buildings and landscapes become “storehouses for collective memory.”

Similarly, Marla Miller and Max Page address the importance of collaborative work between preservationists, grassroots community organizations, and environmentalists in Bending the Future. The contributors to the volume, summarized in the introduction, recognize a place for activism and social justice in preservation work. They also confront the inadequacies of the industry- for instance, the nondiversity of the majority of preservation professionals, the over-reliance on National Historic Register Criterion “C” (architectural and design/constructional merit), and the risk of preservation sometimes leading to displacement and class segregation.

Lastly, but certainly not least, Andrew Hurley makes an argument for infusing historic preservation work with public history in order to make it “a more effective instrument for revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods.” In tackling the issues of gentrification, displacement, and redevelopment, Hurley provides lots of warts-and-all case studies. He also urges collaboration between public historians and others in the community, providing basic principles for broadening the concept of shared authority in practice. Some of his guidelines include: seeking broad community engagement and social inclusivity; utilizing methodologies like oral history and archaeology that can get community members involved in doing their own history, thereby ensuring investment; connecting with grassroots organizations familiar with local civic affairs; and balancing objectives.

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“Welcome to Penn Ave., a place where history lives.” Marquee monument to the demolished Royal Theater, a famous black-owned jazz and blues venue. Author’s photo.

All that I’ve been reading about lost and complex landscapes has had me thinking, particularly about the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor of Baltimore. Once a vibrant African-American theater and music district, it was known as “Baltimore’s Harlem.” It was a central location in the city’s 1960s Civil Rights Movement as well as the backdrop to the 2015 arrest of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed his death. In working on a mapping project of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book sites in the city this past summer, I came to realize just how little of this legacy and landscape remain. Only three sites out of dozens in the area (pulled from three editions of the books) were still extant, and only one was still operating as the original business (The Sugar Hill Tavern). There have been some local efforts to revitalize, preserve, and readapt the area but none by any major public history players in the city, at least recently. There has been a lot of disagreement about the purpose of commemoration in the area. The highly concentrated African-American population in the Penn Ave. corridor did not result from choice- it was the calculated outcome of segregational policies of city lawmakers and community organizations that utilized restrictive covenants to keep African-Americans out of other neighborhoods. It’s an understandably fraught history- how can the “tough stuff of American history” be addressed here?

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