Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

Transforming the Heritage Field

May 7, 2015

The first of two blogs on my plan to transform the statutory and philanthropic foundations of heritage conservation.  Today we deal with the statutory in the United States…

As I prepare to move on from Global Heritage Fund after three years, I am committed more than ever to the transformation of the field of heritage conservation.  In the distant past, heritage conservation was a curatorial activity that sanctioned and even encouraged the removal of physical – and intangible – artifacts from our economic everyday in order to conserve them as if under a bell jar.  But, as I demonstrated in my dissertation, that approach began to die as historic preservation (in the U.S.) and heritage conservation (everywhere else) were infused with community-based activism and organization in the 1960s.  I had the good fortune of coming into the field during the creation of the first heritage area in the U.S. 32 years ago.

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Lockport, Illinois, part of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor

This was the era of Reaganism and the public-private partnership.  Heritage areas not only married historic preservation to natural area conservation, they confirmed preservation as an economic development strategy, an idea which Mary Means started with Main Street a few years earlier.  Dozens of heritage areas, Main Streets, and tax credits later, heritage has become so successful that real estate developers now ape the types and styles of past architectures in order to insure their economic success.

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Brand new house, 100-year old style

I have had the great fortune to work internationally over the last 17 years, and that work has reinforced my conviction that heritage is a community and economic development strategy.  Even the other motivations we ascribe to wanting to save history – education, identity, community – have an economic component.  You can’t maintain property values without an educational system.  You can’t attract human and financial investment without identity.  You can’t sustain development beyond five years without community.  Rehabilitating old buildings gives you all three.


Fort Collins, Colorado – making downtown vibrant

The evolution over time has been thus:  early in the 20th century, heritage was a curatorial pursuit, and architects dominated especially after the creation of federal programs during the Great Depression.  Heritage was also focused largely on tourism, with places like Charleston and New Orleans and Natchez and Tombstone saving buildings to attract tourist dollars.

Balcs and Shutters Royal and Toulouse Corner

The Vieux Carré, with fully clothed tourists

That started to change in the 1950s in places like Georgetown and Beacon Hill and Brooklyn Heights, where highly organized communities became historic districts in order to preserve their property values and promote sensitive new development that would not destroy their community, their identity, and indeed their economic investment.

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Georgetown, Washington DC

The next four decades witnessed the increasing involvement of communities, and community organization and development, in the creation of historic districts and other forms of zoning that did what all zoning does: preserves investment.  The extent of community involvement meant that districts that may not have had the highest architectural INTEGRITY (bad word – will explain in a moment) were designated because the community had a strong identity and a strong investment in historic architecture and landscape.

By the onset of the 21st century, neighborhoods considered “slum and blighted” in the 1960s and 70s were now historic districts, exercising the great middle-class value shared by all:  a say in the disposition of your home environment.  Preservation (Heritage Conservation) had become a democratic tool.

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148th and Convent, Hamilton Heights, New York City

But had it?  Many of the activist communities that sought local control through historic zoning ran up against architectural rules that seemed arcane and illogical.  The vast majority of designated landmarks and historic districts fell under the architectural category, and a whole set of architectural rules – the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – had been created back in the 1970s, when the basic historic preservation textbook still had “curatorial” in its title.

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Not historic enough in 1991 – North Kenwood, Chicago

Several of my recent blogs have discussed the idea of revamping the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which haven’t had much update in a quarter-century.  Reading the Standards is a little like watching an old movie  or reading a 19th century novel.  There are many discussions about this topic going on right now, and my own contribution flows from my international experience and my lifelong understanding that heritage conservation (historic preservation) is above all a community development tool.

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Han Li in Dali Dong village, Guizhou

Preservation is a Process, not a Set of Rules

For the last 15 years the best heritage conservation practice follows the Burra Charter, which does not preach community outreach but in fact requires community engagement and input into the entire PROCESS of IDENTIFY, EVALUATE, REGISTER, and TREAT.  This came out of the fact that many different cultures value different kinds of heritage and the context statement that is SUPPOSED to be at the beginning of every preservation survey and plan must be DEFINED in part by the local culture.  In China, the greatest art is calligraphy.  In the West, some believe it to be architecture.  Some tribal cultures find it in the landscape and some minority cultures find it in festival and performance.  The process of the Burra Charter deals with all of that.


After all architecture is just frozen music anyway

The Problem of Integrity

So why did Australia get this right before the U.S.?  Because their native populations had a particularly non-tangible approach to heritage?  I would argue it was also the Asian context, where heritage lies more in the performance and craft than in the artifact.  But we also have the problem of integrity, in that the U.S. is the only place that uses that word.  Everyone else uses authenticity, which by its nature is more accommodating to a broader range of significances.  Integrity refers almost exclusively to architecture and formal, visual concerns, although we do have verbiage about “feeling and association” in there, but let’s be honest, we didn’t commit to it.

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Smells like teen spirit  Los Gatos, CA

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Here is Jane Addams Hull House Museum, the Dining Hall, which is an absolute travesty in terms of architectural integrity.  The building was moved off its foundation, rotated 90 degrees, moved 50 feet, and covered with a veneer of red bricks IT NEVER HAD in 1965.  But each week in the Dining Hall they engage in discussion of the social, political and environmental issues of the day, just as Jane Addams and the residents did a century earlier.  From a performative, intangible perspective, this building has more HISTORICAL integrity than almost any other in the land.

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The Forum on 43rd in Chicago.  Light on Integrity, Super heavy on history.  Preserve It!

The other problem is that we treat integrity as an on-off switch, which is, prima facie, cray cray.  I wrote about Ray Rast’s approach to this before here.  Integrity is no more a YES/NO question than history is a singular narrative. But, nearly 50 years of National Register practice in this country has reinforced the architectural legacy in our system.  In some ways, if we actually took the time and trouble to do proper context statements prior to every survey and every community plan, we would start to address the diversity deficit in our own landmarks, but we don’t.  We tend to rest on a set of standards and practices written at a time when new buildings were High Modern and old buildings were old-fashioned.  All of that has changed completely.

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Architecture of its time, 1996.  Los Gatos, CA

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Architecture of its time, 2014.  Los Gatos, CA

So, we swap authenticity for integrity, work to create a series of serious historic context statements with a special focus on minority history, intangible heritage, and non-design based conservation treatments.  We should revise the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to be in line with international practice and we should ACTUALLY FOLLOW the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation Planning.  They should reference the Burra Charter and they should insist on stakeholder engagement in each step of IDENTIFY, EVALUATE, REGISTER and TREAT.  That would be a start.

skatebd park 31st

So we landmarked the Zephyr Skate Shop but that is a building??? Why not landmark the cultural performance and practice they invented there and in the empty pools of the 1970s California drought???

If we adopt this process, it will make more room for preserving HISTORY as well, where that history is not contained in neat or attractive buildings.  As my dear friend and hero Donna Graves says, ‘Interpretation is the fourth leg of preservation.”  To capture the diversity of American history we need to reclaim lost sites from oral traditions, from the depredations of disaster and urban renewal.  Donna pioneered this a quarter-century ago with a project that garnered my immediate attention even though I was at the other end of Route 66 and would not see it in person for over a decade.

biddy mason 1850

Interpretation is a part of preservation because it preserves intangible, lost and oftentimes deliberately buried history.  It activates the power of place, which is what LA’s Biddy Mason park was and is, and it can activate and sustain community.

Activating and sustaining community is the fundamental work of preservation.

Next time:  A new heritage practice for a new philanthropy


Diversity in Preservation: Rethinking Standards and Practices

November 1, 2013

I have been Vice Chair of the Diversity Task Force for the National Trust for Historic Preservation for several years and yesterday at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis we held a Conversation Starter that represented one of the results of our work.

Exactly 20 National Preservation Conferences ago I did my first national presentation and it was part of a session on Inner-City Preservation that sought to answer the question: how do we get more minorities and inner-city dwellers involved in preservation? My answer was: Wrong Question. They are involved. I chronicled a long list of Landmarks Illinois efforts in Chicago to that date, including my experience with the North Kenwood community, which I wrote about in the Future Anterior journal in 2005. The question was more appropriately, how do we integrate our efforts with theirs? This is the same question National Trust President Stephanie Meeks has been asking – how do we reach local preservationists?

The difference twenty years later? Well, for one, the Diversity Task Force has been talking with the National Park Service about Standards and Practices and how they might be amended or altered to create and recognize more diverse historic sites. Ray Rast of Gonzaga described his challenge surveying and documenting sites associated with labor organizer Cesar Chavez. He kept running into issues of INTEGRITY, which is the word we use in the U.S., because back when we created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, the international word “authenticity” was too scary.
1817 hudson muckdoor

Now, both words are difficult to define, but integrity is slightly more problematic because it tracks more closely with the strong visual, formal and architectural focus of the preservation movement over time. This is why the redefinitions of preservation as process in the last fifteen years have focused on how authenticity is determined. Integrity is loads easier. It means simply: Does the architecture look like it did historically? Does it convey its significance?
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This question is relatively easy for architectural historians to answer, but it makes much less sense to regular historians and to many of our minority cultures whose significance lies in narratives or other elements of intangible heritage.
afric ceme 2 sign

Rast also noted that Standards and Practices present an either-or proposition rather than a continuum. Either a property has integrity or it does not. It is a Pass/Fail system: you either get an A or an F. He suggested degrees of integrity and I find this idea intriguing.
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Whattya think? A C+?

How do you measure how well a property conveys historical significance that has little to do with architecture? Where Lincoln died, or where the Declaration of Independence was signed, for example? ALL sites of historic significance require interpretation, yet we judge their ability to convey significance by the same standards we use for sites exemplifying great architecture or craftsmanship. Shouldn’t the sites listed under Criterion A for History have a different relationship to integrity than those sites listed under Criterion C, where their significance REALLY is contained in their architectural fabric?

We need to recognize that not everyone is trained visually. We don’t all see the same thing, because our eyes (and other senses) have not been trained equally. I began my career as an historian, and I can actually remember a time over 30 years ago when I did not yet SEE the architectural world around me. My eyes were opened. It was a dramatic transformation.
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The other issue that ALSO affects buildings of architectural significance is the one of “period of significance.” A building’s initial construction is usually where the period of significance begins, but even within the architectural world this can change: these houses were built in a Federal or Italianate style but heavily altered in the 1920s to a completely different style. What is their period of significance?
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linc pk w Meno rehab2s

These buildings actually DO convey their significance: the rehabilitation of the Old Town neighborhood by artists in the 1920s. They actually convey the story BETTER due to their lack of integrity because you can see the transformation that occurred. The convey the history of community preservation, of people fixing up houses and promoting their historic neighborhood.

This is not to say that standards should be discarded. As fellow paneliest Irvin Henderson pointed out, their is a healthy give-and-take in the debates over integrity between the expert preservationists and the community activists: we don’t EITHER side to simply do what they want. But we need a more precise, sliding scale of significance that filters the concept of integrity differently when faced with different kinds of significance.


November 25, 2010

One of the National Trust Committees I serve on is the Diversity Committee, and through that work I have learned a lot about diversity as a goal, in employment, in outlook, in project development, and in society as a whole. I was thinking about another definition of diversity, the one community developer Charles Buki brought up in his speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin when he charged that too many of our developments – city, suburb, whatever, were “monochromatic” and thus lacking diversity. This is of course a different kind of diversity than the ethnic/racial/gender diversity we so often focus on, but they can be related. A monochromatic built environment can exclude ethnic and racial diversity. The “whitebread suburb” and the “inner-city ghetto” are both monochromatic communities culturally, but what of their architecture? I remember being shocked two decades ago by the built environment of “Boyz In The Hood”, the lawns and bungalows of South Central LA. I grew up thinking that inner-city ghettos had a different built environment. But they don’t. This building could be in a suburb all fixed up, but it isn’t.

It seems the old High Modernist idea of environmental determinism does not seem to be working. You can find Victorian neighborhoods that are fully gentrified and ones that are disinvested and crime-ridden. You can find suburban tract communities that work and – increasingly – ones that are sliding into desperation. Turns out it isn’t the buildings’ design that determines what kind of community it is. At the same time, diversity in buildings – certainly a sort of planning diversity that encourages a range of uses and types – would seem to provide more opportunities for stability that an architectural monoculture.

We have had interesting discussions in the Diversity Committee, and one of the more revelatory was when we discussed job descriptions and how the wording could exclude a more diverse pool of applicants. The normal response is to add language to such a description encouraging diverse applicants. But the problem is usually the language of the description itself, written in a culturally monochromatic way. How we describe what we do, how we talk, how we relate to people and environments carries a lot of cultural baggage, even – especially – when you don’t notice it. “Where do you live?” means the same thing as “Where do you stay?” but different people use different terms.

All of this leads to discussions about how we can make heritage conservation/historic preservation more diverse and we look at disappointing statistics and envision reaching out to youth and working to make our message more inclusive. These are all good and essential things but it reminds me how long we have been doing this. I first attended the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in 1992 in Miami, which was the first time there were Diversity Scholars invited to join the sessions. This program continues to be a great success. I then went to the 1993 conference in St. Louis and for the first time presented a session as part of a panel on “Inner City Preservation”.

The premise of the panel was something like “How do we get more diverse inner city communities involved in preservation?” My response and my presentation was basically: “They already are – get involved and support them.”

I talked about several projects that Landmarks Illinois had been involved in since the early 1980s and my general experience as an advocate. I would get calls all the time from every kind of neighborhood in the city and people wherever they lived and whoever they were had an investment – emotional and financial – in their community and an interest in how it developed. That is a straightforward algorithm that exists everywhere. Whether the community is architecturally or socially monochromatic, that algorithm is there, and that algorithm as to the future of the community always has a community preservation angle. Because preserving the built environment is a decision about the future of the community, and if the community itself has a say in that decision, it is a MUCH more frequent choice than demolition and redevelopment.

I had numerous Chicago examples to tout back in ’93, and the one that had just come to fruition was the North Kenwood Multiple Resource District, where I had worked with the community for about five years as they fought to save their historic buildings. It was a typical inner-city community in some ways – it had lost about half of its buildings and a larger percentage of its population in the 1970s and those residents who had hung on amidst drugs, gangs, prostitution, violent crime and other ills were tired of city policies that treated those ills by demolishing buildings. Which is sort of a dumb solution anyway – how can you get rid of drugs crime and gangs by tearing down buildings? Do you lock them into the building while you are tearing it down? Don’t they just move down the street?

The community advocates fought even after they secured Conservation District status and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks proposed a Multiple Resource District protecting over 170 properties. It wasn’t enough for the community advocates, and they went back and forth with the Commission for 18 months before finally getting a district designated that included 338 properties, almost twice as many as the landmarks staff had proposed. I wrote this all up five years ago in Future Anterior in an article called “Race Against Renewal”.

The bottom line: people like to save their neighborhoods, and as they say, the only color that counts is green. Preserving the built environment of a community is a common, frequent impulse for anyplace that feels ownership of the community. One of the people trying to fight the landmarking accused the advocates of having “middle class aspirations.” HUH? Of course they do – who in history doesn’t?
Of course, North Kenwood today has gentrified, and the generation that saved the district has been supplanted by a new generation, and tons upon tons of new construction that has made it a success, and technically more diverse, since it is no longer ethnically monochromatic.

But the efforts go on. There are bungalow preservation efforts in Auburn-Gresham just as there are in Mayfair. People are always trying to save their houses of worship, sometimes because the congregation has moved out of the neighborhood. It happened with the Italians and the Ukrainians and the African-Americans and the Bohemians and the Mexican-Americans and even the Flems and Walloons and it keeps happening.

A new development is by its nature, by its genesis, by its financing and by its marketing, monochromatic. The inherited built environment of the inner-city or the inner suburb is diverse. The buildings themselves don’t carry the weight of cultural bias – I have seen people with no ethnic connection get excited about the old ethnic associations of a building they now steward. Why? Because they are the steward, the owner. They OWN that history as much as their own.

I said it 17 years ago and I will say it again. We don’t need to foster diversity in preservation as much as we need to find it and help it succeed.