I wrote recently about The Institute of Texan Cultures, a unique museum created in the Texas Pavilion after the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio. The Conservation Society made Page 1 in the local paper with our announcement that we will be listing it on the National Register of Historic Places.
While the focus of the Conservation Society remains on reusing the building itself, the Institute, operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio, has over the years celebrated a diversity that most outside of the state – and many inside it – are unaware of.
For many Texas seems to be quintessential American (“Murican”) culture – pickup trucks, country music, ridiculously large portions, and of course oil fields and ranching. Many are also aware that Texas was Spain for over a hundred years and Mexico for another twenty, so there is an awareness of something called “Tex-Mex” and if you are in San Antonio, Fiesta – a 131-year old event that borrows heavily from Spanish and Mexican culture.
Then there are the Germans. If you came to San Antonio in 1850, Germans were almost a quarter of the population, just behind those of Mexican descent at 30% and well ahead of the American and French at 15% each. Many of the surrounding communities like Castroville, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg and Comfort were settled by Germans and have retained many cultural traditions to this day.
I remember Dominic Pacyga describing the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago where there was spatial integration but social segregation between the many (mostly European) ethnic groups that lived and worked there. In San Antonio, there is a culture of blending. This goes back to its founding as a series of missions designed to convert the indigenous people living here into Spaniards. Founded by syncretism, every major event in San Antonio history centers on the idea of a confluence of cultures, a mestizo blending inherent throughout the Western Hemisphere, but not always as celebrated as it is here.
This is not to paper over a long history of racism and oppression of people of color, that would be foolish. It happened here as it did throughout the state. San Antonio was quicker than other Texas towns to shed the worst trappings of segregation and racial oppression, as the Conservation Society explored in its videos on the 1960 lunch counter Sit-In movement.
When the Riverwalk was designed in 1929 and built a decade later, it’s goal was to capture the spirit of landmark cities along the Mediterranean, and the La Villita reconstruction undertaken at the same time (1939-41) had as its goal the unification of the countries of the Western hemisphere that had thrown off the European yoke, naming its principal places after Simon Bolivar, Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo and promoting historic preservation of La Villita as a way to celebrate this shared heritage.
The Conservation Society’s event A Night In Old San Antonio(R) was created in 1948 and has over a dozen areas each representing part of the city’s cultural heritage, including Spanish, Mexican, African-American, Asian, French, German and even Cowboy.
Some other examples of the syncretic nature of culture in San Antonio include the Alameda Theatre, perhaps the premier Spanish language cinema of the postwar era, developed by an Italian immigrant known for cowboy boots and designed by a Russian Jewish architect.
The mestizo nature of San Antonio continued in the 1960s. The theme of HemisFair ’68 was literally A Confluence of Cultures in the Americas. That’s puro San Antonio. We still have two murals celebrating that.
There are so many other cultures that have become part of San Antonio it is dizzying. We have the largest Martin Luther King Day march in the country and the largest Diwali celebration. Don’t even get us started on Dia de los Muertos.
I took this picture in the United States.
For several years I have been working on a problem: the “Diversity Deficit” in the National Register of Historic Places. 95% or more of our historic sites have as their primary significance the story of a male of European descent. You can see some of this year’s blogs on the topic here and here. Continue Reading
Two weeks ago I spoke during the meeting of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation regarding the Future of the National Register of Historic Places, which will be 50 years old next year. I detailed some of the shortcomings that have emerged over that time, including a startling “Diversity Deficit.”
Less than 5% of the buildings listed on the National Register evoke the nation’s diverse history – the rest chronicle white men, who are much less than half the country. I also detailed many of the challenges in preservation practice that we inherited from an architect-driven 1960s practice, one that has a tendency to focus too much on the formal.
The photo is one of may favorite examples, from St. Nicholas Avenue in Hamilton Heights, New York, the building lacks architectural integrity. But Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man there in 1947, a book more relevant than ever today. The building is authentic but does not have integrity. The problem is not the building but our practice – we adopted the architectural concept of “integrity” in 1966 instead of the international concept of “authenticity.” Continue Reading
Lockport, Illinois, part of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor
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. Continue Reading
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. Continue Reading
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. Continue Reading