This week I am discussion leader for class, so my discussion will be twice as long as usual. Our readings were all about preservation.
In The Power of Place, Hayden argued that historic preservation needs to be more diverse and inclusive. She also argued for a need for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.
She began by outlining a public argument between a sociologist and an architect over the state and nature of preservation. She broke down the ways in which their different disciplines result in complete failure of communication—not only do they have different priorities, they also attribute different meanings to the same words (ex. vernacular). This highlights the need for collaboration and understanding between the disciplines (especially in a field like preservation which is so interdisciplinary) and sets the stage for the rest of her book. I think these are valid points, and that we have become more interdisciplinary over time. However, I think we still struggle to compromise or accept other viewpoints when they challenge what we think is important (social history, for example).
Hayden continued by explaining what the power of place is—or what it could be. Although focused on urban places specifically, she argued that a powerful form of memory is preserved in the built environment, and we can use that memory to generate interest in history while promoting respect, diversity, and inclusion by reinforcing common membership in urban American society. She saw preserved places as a space to build shared civic identity, and criticized preservation for only preserving more elite spaces to the detriment of poorer communities (who then lose that shared identity). She suggests we preserve more varied building types (ex. union halls) and implement creative interpretations. I like the idea of building shared civic identity, and I agree the built environment is an excellent place to do it, but it definitely comes in conflict with other historical prerogatives. Viscerally telling the true tale of slavery, for example, would be very divisive and create two very different civic identities. What are we ultimately accountable to: history, or the consequences of the way we tell it? I hope there’s a way we can tell controversial history without the potential negative repercussions for society.
Next she addressed the how of interpretation of places. She advocates community-based public history projects where the academics share authority with the community. One way to do this is via oral history, such as that conducted in the Brass Valley project. She also suggests partnership with artists and environmentalists. She concludes that while community projects come with a difficult set of challenges, they ultimately don’t need to be expensive and they have a broad reach. I am concerned that in areas with new immigrants, this might not work at all. What connection do they have to 1900s buildings other than currently living there?
In Bending the Future, Page and Miller compiled essays from many specialists in preservation or fields relating to it. They provide an overview of responses in their introduction.
At the beginning, the authors highlighted some of the themes they saw in the essays, including a new focus on social justice, the role preservation played in creating current problems and ways to address that, concerns and ideas on how to open, expand, and/or democratize preservation, as well as how to modify or confront existing laws and regulations regarding preservation. I know most historians and preservationists have good intentions, but sometimes we are blind to the current realities of the ground. I worry that sometimes by leaving history and moving into social work we enter an arena we aren’t trained for and because of that our good intentions can easily produce bad results. Then again, I may be wrong, but I’m not sure if we ever stop to think about it.
Other concerns discussed refer back to Hayden’s concerns involving inclusion, grassroots projects, and a worry about the centrality of architecture as a reason for preserving buildings. There is a concern that the demographics of the profession do not reflect the demographics of the public. I’m not sure if it is possible to make the demographics reflective. We can’t force people to be interested in preservation careers—we could offer incentives, but as it is we already lack extra cash. Plus, doesn’t the process of academic training make them elites anyway?
They also discuss some interesting and unique proposals. One suggests a system of rotational preservation: a city completely preserves certain sections for an amount of time, then rotates those sections to allow demolition and construction. Creative, but no one would allow a system that permits destruction of places like Independence Hall. It does raise the issue of when we should let buildings die. Another radical idea suggests we take the power of demolition away from property owners and require them to obtain government permission first. I hope this is just an exercise in being provocative; otherwise, it seems very dangerous to the economy, and to preservation—a fear of buying property might result in a retreat from cities. Buildings which might have been reused or even just maintained, without owners, fall into disrepair.
Much like Hayden’s, Hurley’s work, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities recounts his inner city public history projects, and agues for community-based, inclusive preservation work. While very similar to Hayden in his initial arguments, Hurley introduced the idea of pubic archaeology as another tool (alongside oral history etc). He also placed priorities on inner cities, but his wording brought up another issue: what about suburbs? Levittowns, for example, had a major impact on the development of the middle class and suburbia. Should they be preserved?
Hurley cited College Hill in Providence and Georgetown in Washington DC (p7) as places where preservation ordinances caused gentrification. I doubt they could be the sole cause for this change. As he mentions in the case of Georgetown, the old houses were going to be demolished instead of restored. Gentrification was going to happen anyway; at least we saved some buildings.
What I found most interesting about these readings is they were all published across a 20 year timespan, yet they all raise similar issues. Is preservation now a static field?