The Sustainability of History

When I began this blog two years ago the big news was Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, so perhaps it is time for another look. My friend and fellow National Trust Trustee Jack Davis had a very good piece in the Tribune’s editorial section today about New Orleans, one of his two hometowns (the other is Chicago). It was accompanied by two excellent maps of historic 19th century New Orleans and the area that escaped flooding following Hurrican Katrina two years ago. The maps matched up perfectly: 18th and 19th century New Orleans residents, developers and leaders had built a sustainable community on the high ground safe from flooding. Most of what flooded were areas that had been expensively and artificially drained in the 20th century – basically disasters waiting to happen. Davis was weighing in on the battle to rebuild the modern areas in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they will continue to be vulnerable. Part of the challenge is racial and political, as the new areas were strongly poor and black, and part is personal and emotional – he describes lovingly restored homes in virtually abandoned neighborhoods. People forge a bond to a place that defies logic. I was reminded of my friend Myron Stachiw’s project documenting the people that returned to their homes around Chernobyl in the Ukraine following the nuclear disaster despite the fact that they were demonstrably endangering their lives by doing so. Davis also points out that the racial equation is not simple either, as New Orleans today has a sudden and significant Hispanic population it never had before (despite being briefly part of Spain).

This racial and economic – which is to say political – struggle recalled the one played out on Friday at the Bronzeville National Heritage Area Summit at McCormick Place. This was the second summit on the excellent idea of creating a Bronzeville National Heritage Area in Chicago, a loose federal designation that interpretively unites a series of sites and landscapes without regulatory mechanism. My first job was aiding the creation of the first heritage area, the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984, and my work in Yunnan is in the aid of a similar landscape-wide mechanism to enhance historic preservation and economic development. One of the speakers, Leanna Flowers of Shorebank, talked about the issues of race and class that are already inflecting the effort to save Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side. I have noticed it – when I brought tour groups through Bronzeville 20 years ago, there were no white faces, although in the Gap and along King Drive there was the clear presence of an upper-middle class black population that was politically and socially distinct from poorer members of the community, despite their racial identity. Today the presence of white faces throughout the South Side has brought a more visible expression of the same challenge: how do you preserve and promote a community without experiencing a gentrification that transforms that community? Will the celebration of African-American history that is Bronzeville be undertaken by African-Americans? Will it be undertaken by those with a personal connection to that past – like my friend Harold Lucas – or more recent residents? If the latter, what does that mean for the interpretation and perpetuation of that heritage?

Personally I believe that all people can share in and celebrate a particular heritage – it was clear from the tourism vision promoted in Bronzeville and every other heritage area that this is the case. Harold is as likely to take a group of Europeans on a tour of Bronzeville as a group of Americans. Yet how does the present-day community play into that tourist vision? Is it spoiled if the area is too white? Will that drive away tourists seeking an “authentic” experience? By the same token, if the area becomes predominately black but also predominately middle-class, will that accurately portray a history that was defined and delimited by racism and thus combined a range of economic classes into a single community? The challenge is true in every heritage area – the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan could experience a gentrification by the Han Chinese (and those from Hong Kong and Taiwan) and a diminution of the local Yi, Hui and other groups (Lisu, Miao, etc.) that the Heritage Valley commemorates and celebrates – and tries to preserve.

Is preservation forever a fugitive goal, motivated by and condemned to patch together a facsimile of lost community? Perhaps, but it is central to personal identity and place identity, as both New Orleans and Chicago (and Chernobyl and Weishan) show. After all, Identity and Life are also fugitives, existing not in their attainment but in their pursuit.

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