People And Places And People

December 6, 2017 History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (0) 82

This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places.  “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one.  That is wrong.

My friend and colleague Ted Lee Eubanks posted a bit along these lines just this past week:

I attended a “new urbanism” luncheon yesterday where the speaker spent 45 minutes talking about city planning without mentioning the words history, heritage, preservation, or conservation. She was quick with “equity” and “gentrification,” but completely incapable or unwilling to accept that cities are first and foremost about people, not objects (such as public spaces, buildings, or roads).  (See the full blog HERE)

This is more than just an effort to democratize and diversify the upper-middle-class white world of historic preservation. It is an attempt to actually follow through on the basic premise of preservation, which is process. I have written about this more times than I can count but it boils down to the Burra Charter and the need to involve community in EVERY step of the process, from what is important to how it is saved.

Which is exactly what I am saying here.  November 2006.

The same can be said for city planning. The only areas where technical and scientific expertise take precedent is when it comes to the chemistry of conservation – you DO need an expert to tell you what happens when you slap elastometric paint on your adobe gymnasium.

Hint: don’t.  Hunter Gymnasium, Marfa, TX

You also need the architectural historians and zoning folks and easement attorneys and land use experts – within the process, not outside it.  Knowledge and expertise is essential, but community must be in control because they are the ultimate stewards of heritage.

People Saving People Places: Jane Addams Hull House, Chicago

The National Trust unveiled a new African-American Historic Places Fund at the conference, which helps address one of the most important elements of People Saving Places:  People whose places were subdued or erased.  Just as the Romans destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 70 AD, majority cultures have deprived minority groups not only of votes and rights, but even heritage.  Yet it remains in memory and story even after it has been expunged from place.

2017 Louis DuPont Crowninshield Award winner Bob Stanton, National Park Service

It has been 25 years since the National Trust first brought Diversity Scholars to its national conference (that was my first national conference – Miami 1992), so the effort to diversify has some history despite the amount of work yet to be done.

But there was another shift I noticed this year.

Historic Preservation is Dead.  Long Live Historic Preservation.

Chris Morris, Eleanor Gorski, Brian Goeken, Jim Peters, Chuck Thurow.

Above is a panel of the last four directors of the Landmarks Division in Chicago, a group whose tenure stretched back more than a quarter century. Chuck Thurow spoke about the consolidation of the formerly independent Commission on Chicago Landmarks Staff into the Department of Planning and Development in 1992, a move I opposed as Chicago Programs Director of Landmarks Illinois.

During my Inspector Gadget with a mullet days…

I went up to Chuck and told him I was wrong. The fear that staff standing up for historic preservation would be swallowed up by pro-development planners was real. But he had created an opportunity as well – now historic preservation had access to decision-makers, and the legacy of preservation achievements since 1992 proves the point – all of Michigan Avenue, Motor Row, Wrigley Field, and several commercial districts.

Historic Michigan Boulevard.  The facade of the entire downtown.

Despite the curious case of the planner Ted Lee Eubanks mentioned above, the historic preservation ethos has grown in the last quarter-century.  It underlies more of the architecture, planning, real estate, landscape, environment and public history fields than it used to.  Before the Chicago Landmarks panel, we watched a video of a mayoral forum in Cincinnati where every single one of 15 candidates said they were a preservationist.

In San Antonio we have been doing this kind of thing for many decades….

No, back in the late 80s and early 90s everyone would say they were a preservationist but what they meant then was that a couple great architectural monuments ought to be museums.  Thousands of re-used landmarks and revitalized downtowns and coveted historic districts later, you are hard pressed to find anyone dealing with the built environment who doesn’t see preservation as a basic land use principle.

Preservation education has also shifted.  We are seeing more interest in preservation certificates within other fields (like architecture, planning, landscape, public history) than in traditional graduate preservation degrees.  While this could be read negatively, it could also be read in the way my longtime friend, colleague and frequent contrarian Daniel Bluestone reads it:  our goal is to make heritage a natural fundamental of every field, not a field unto itself.

Room for everyone under this tent.

In the 1960s planners and architects and developers had a philosophy that largely opposed preservation.  Now they have a philosophy that largely adopts it.  Yes, there are still conflicts and a need for advocates and experts, but how we build PLACE has changed.  Now we know about how blank facades affect dopamine levels; the market value of historic districts to residents and tourists; the embodied energy of existing buildings; and the wisdom of mixed-use.

Not to mention why all of the best restaurants are in former gas stations…(Bliss, San Antonio)

I love buildings because I love design but I also love buildings because I love stories.  I love uncovering the people stories in design decisions and rehabilitations and alterations – figuring out what happened forensically.

And what’s in the attic…

And we are in a new era – the era of Heritage Conservation, not Historic Preservation.  It has been eight years since I blogged about that.  Heritage includes a whole range of places about people and for people, and the participation of the people in making those places true heritage sites, not museums where things are static, but places where history keeps taking place with every new day and every new generation.

Some of the Matachines at Mission Concepcion last Sunday.

 

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