Preservation Becomes Social Justice: Storytelling and Writing

By Special Contributor posted 08-18-2017 10:11

  

By Danielle Del Sol

The Forum Blog is publishing a series that responds to the question: When does historic preservation become social justice? In this post we examine the connection between historic preservation, social justice, and faith-based community organizing. Interested in starting a discussion about the series? Sign up for Forum Connect.

This article briefly mentions events surrounding Confederate monuments in New Orleans. It is not intended as a response to the current national conversation sparked by the recent events at the University of Virginia. For more on that subject, read "After Charlottesville: How to Approach Confederate Memorials in Your Community."

As municipalities continue to grapple with the question of what to do with Confederate monuments, conversations about the power of storytelling and the physical manifestations of history have come into the national spotlight. After New Orleans proposed removing four prominent statues this spring—three of Confederate leaders and a fourth honoring a white supremacist insurrection—public discourse turned hostile. Even within the preservation community, we debated: Whose history should be publicly and prominently honored and why?

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The Whitney Plantation in New Orleans. | Credit: Liz Jurey

The monuments came down, but the debate has continued and gained increasing national attention. And I see only one answer. Whose history should be celebrated? Everyone’s. Why? Because all are worthy of appreciation and respect. 

The city of New Orleans is the product of centuries of the beautiful blending of people and traditions. First the area was populated by Native Americans: the Chitimacha, the Choctaw, and the Houma Nation. Then the French and Spanish colonists, African slaves, and free people of color from Haiti and elsewhere arrived. German, Italian, and Irish immigrants settled whole neighborhoods. Acadians, Vietnamese, Latinos, and others mixed in. From architecture to culinary traditions to musical heritage, the heart, soul, and economy of New Orleans is based on the traditions and innovations of a truly diverse group of people.

As editor of Preservation in Print, the magazine of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans (PRC), I have a unique opportunity to curate a monthly publication that can simultaneously foster an appreciation of the city’s blended past and promote the celebration and restoration of its diverse heritages in order to unify and strengthen the community.

Preservationists have much to save in New Orleans. There are the buildings: its elegant streetscapes are filled with significant structures, from Classical, European-inspired mansions to delightful rows of bright, tropical shotgun homes with ornate details. But there are also the stories of the skilled craftspeople—millworkers, plasterers, masons—who literally built the city, and of the residents who have brought vibrancy to it for nearly three centuries. The PRC has worked for decades not only to honor the contributions of the city’s diverse residents but also to revitalize blighted neighborhoods whose residents doubted preservation could help them.

Expanding the Reach of Preservation

In New Orleans, as elsewhere, preservationists are not always popular. At best, we’re labeled as obstructionists—anti-progress, ornery, and probably old. At worst, we’re elitist WASPs working only to protect our own heritage.

I take exception to these stereotypes not only because I’m a young-ish Latina American who doesn’t fit them but also because I know they’re wrong—the field has evolved. Last year’s Forum Journal issue about diversity, for example, was an exciting primer on where the field should be going and why. Preservationists are individuals of all races, creeds, and economic backgrounds who value history, see the countless benefits of saving places, and are able to interpret the past into power.

But in order to fulfill its democratizing potential, preservation must be accessible to people of all races and socioeconomic statuses—and be more intentional about reaching historically underrepresented and traditionally oppressed groups. Preservation professionals must listen to and elevate the voices of these groups and must value their histories, neighborhoods, and communities in a real way. The more inclusive preservation becomes, the more people can access the tools that it offers and use them to transform and uplift their own communities, whether through storytelling or neighborhood revitalization. It is vital that we abolish the misconception of preservation as an insular practice.

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Margaret Carr and her daughter, Teresa Thomas, in front of the bank building they rehabilitated and transformed into a community center. | Credit: Liz Jurey

I attempt to do this through Preservation in Print. Most of our readers are subscribers who have already bought into the virtues of our organization and field. The magazine allows us to keep them engaged and informed. However, a small but important subset of people pick up Preservation in Print at their local café or doctor’s office—we distribute 2,000 copies per issue to sites across the metro area. They might not know what historic preservation is or may not find it relevant. But they love New Orleans—its historic streetscapes, the flavors and feel that are distinct to this place—and they are interested in learning about the careful revitalization of the city. Once the magazine helps them connect the dots, these readers find that they appreciate the work of preservationists—they may even be preservationists.

Preservation in Print can also change perceptions of who preservationists are. By regularly featuring articles about the preservation efforts of African Americans, Asian Americans, women, the LGBT community, and the many other groups that comprise New Orleans, the magazine showcases the diversity of the preservation movement and affirms the value we place on all residents’ history, stories, and self-directed futures. Moreover, sometimes sharing people’s stories garners fresh interest and support for their projects. And articles about people renovating homes and coordinating with neighbors to make community improvements are meant to disseminate best practices and inspire action.

Preservation in Print broadcasts lost histories, profiles the work of diverse residents, and brings accessible technical assistance to the communities that need it the most. The magazine seeks to promote the work of the PRC and of the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, which is a sponsor, and to advance readers’ interest in and commitment to historic preservation.

Documenting Diverse Preservation Efforts

In a recent article, I profiled the restoration of the Rosette Rochon House in the beloved Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. The home was constructed in the early 19th century by Ms. Rochon, a woman of color who had been born into slavery and, upon being freed later in life, amassed a fortune as a real estate mogul and owner of the first chain of grocery stores in New Orleans. When she died at age 100, she had more than $100,000—which made her the equivalent of today’s millionaire.

The article started as a chronicle of the restoration of her Creole cottage by its new owner, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, but Ms. Rochon’s story captivated me and gave me new appreciation for the contributions of free women of color. I learned that these women, strong and vital in a time of great adversity, had played a large part in developing the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. The population of free people of color in New Orleans was a prosperous group—lawyers, doctors, musicians, artists—that contributed immeasurably to the city. What an incredible history to celebrate.

In an earlier article, I also wrote about Le Musée de f.p.c. (free people of color), seeking to simultaneously educate readers about the innumerable contributions of free people of color and to raise awareness about this small but rich museum, this time in the Tremé neighborhood.

The magazine also focused on Tremé in an article about dynamic mother and daughter duo Margaret Carr and Teresa Thomas, who invested everything they had and spent months convincing banks to lend them the extra funds they needed to buy a blighted old bank building and transform it into an event space and community center. They weren’t experienced in renovation, but they were invested in Tremé and committed to the neighborhood. They completed the project last year, and their small business now hosts weddings, parties, and performances. Their dedication to rehabilitating the building and revitalizing the surrounding community was inspiring, and it is particularly exciting when the magazine is able to promote good work that can benefit from broader recognition.

Other articles are written simply to celebrate the good work of community leaders. Recently, the magazine has profiled Bernard “Bunny” Charbonnet Jr., whose work as the New Orleans Public Library Board chair is ensuring the return of a long-lost neighborhood library branch to the historic 7th Ward; Winston Ho, whose passion for researching the history of Chinese Americans in New Orleans is bringing that community’s forgotten contributions to light; and Leona Tate, whose foundation is working to acquire the Lower 9th Ward school that she and two other six-year-olds integrated in 1960, and transform it into a Civil Rights museum.

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Leona Tate is working to transform the school she integrated as as a child into a Civil Rights museum. | Credit: Liz Jurey

Chronicling the Diversity of PRC Projects

Reporting on PRC’s projects allows the magazine to impart new information while also driving public interest. One recent example is our coverage of PRC’s acquisition and ongoing rehab of the Straight University Boarding House and Dining Hall, the last remaining building from the first three African American Universities in Louisiana. Straight University was established to provide higher education and enfranchisement for newly freed people after the Civil War. The double-gallery, Greek Revival–style hall, built between 1866 and 1871, had been forgotten in plain sight for decades, deteriorating on a busy thoroughfare, its lot filled with trash. PRC’s purchase and rehabilitation of the building, and efforts to honor its history, will be the cover story of our October 2017 issue.

That story will detail the challenges PRC’s staff faced while working to rehab the building, from raising funds to rethinking architectural designs to mitigating construction issues. Articles that describe these challenges can be instructive to those who might undertake similar projects.

The April 2017 cover story chronicled the incredible obstacles in the rehabilitation of the Pythian Building downtown. The building is a landmark to African American achievement—when it was constructed in 1908, it was the biggest, most impressive high-rise built by and for African Americans in the United States. During its time as the headquarters of the Colored Knights of Pythias, the building was the site of innumerable financial, social, and even musical achievements by African Americans. A commitment to honoring that history, as well as an unflinching belief in the development’s eventual success, kept the building’s owners motivated despite financial difficulties, design challenges, and even disagreements with the National Park Service. The building has just celebrated its grand opening and the revival of its rich African American history.

Some of our articles challenge what we think we know about our difficult past. In 2016 and 2017, Preservation in Print published a series chronicling the evolution of several plantations to include more accurate representations of slavery in their exhibits and tours. The staff at Laura Plantation completed years of painstaking research to tell the stories of the people who were enslaved there. Whitney Plantation was developed from scratch as the nation’s first slavery museum, and our article explains how creator John Cummings decided on the structure and presentation of the space.

Narrative Therapy for the Nation

The articles we publish have the power to uplift groups that haven’t traditionally been included in preservation and to connect them with the preservation community. Our field has come to recognize the importance of oral and written histories, heritage, and cultural identity as well as the impact of inclusion on physical and mental health.

In a lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst a few years ago, professor Ned Kaufman, author of Race, Place, and Story, noted that groups outside the mainstream had previously been “expected to lose their cultural identity as a prerequisite to social advancement.” Until recent decades, assimilation was an immigrant’s number one task. This allowed for a relatively easy white-washing of history, downplaying the contributions of this country’s incredibly diverse population.

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A former Chinese church in New Orleans. | Credit: Winston Ho

“Dominant groups have strong narratives, and lots of historic sites to reinforce them,” Kaufman said. “Marginalized groups have weak narratives—narratives of subjugation, of not belonging.” Kaufman points to narrative therapy, a technique used by psychotherapists. “They believe identity is shaped by stories we tell about ourselves, and that we can repair dysfunctional behavioral patterns by building stronger narratives,” he explains. By rebuilding cultural identities and strengthening the narratives that people are able to tell about themselves, their families, and their communities, we shift from injustice to empowerment.

The stories we tell hold power. By shaping the past, we shape the future. There is healing power in listening and learning and in the collective celebration of our individual heritages. Now is a crucial time in our field, and in our nation’s history, to seek such unity.

Danielle Del Sol is the editor of Preservation in Print.

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  • Inclusion
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