New Collection of Essays: Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation in the United States

By David Brown posted 08-09-2016 15:19


The 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)—the cornerstone of preservation practice in the United States—has spurred conferences, articles, and celebrations throughout 2016. One of the most lasting and influential looks to the future to emerge from this year could well be a new work from the University of Massachusetts Press, Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation in the United StatesEdited by Max Page and Marla R. Miller, professors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Bending the Future features visions of the next five decades from some of the nation’s leading preservation professionals, historians, scholars, activists, and journalists. The editors invited “provocations,” and they certainly received a few. But what is almost universal across these short essays are thoughtful and insightful examinations of the roots of preservation and of where those foundations can take us in the future.

There is more agreement among the authors than I would have expected. As the editors note in the well-conceived introduction, there is strong agreement that we need “once more to nourish preservation as a grassroots movement.” The professionalization of preservation is recognized as an outgrowth of the passage of the NHPA, but many contributors point to the shortcomings of a field that relies too heavily on experts and misses the passion of those who care about the special places in their communities. California State Historic Preservation Officer Julianne Polanco sees intangible heritage as a key to this new focus. Na Li—who is at the forefront of efforts to establish public history in China—proposes a “culturally sensitive narrative approach” that “prioritizes oral history as a tool to understand neighborhood preservation values.” There is also a strong call for preservation to focus on helping make communities more economically vibrant and socially just. Gentrification and displacement are key issues for a number of contributors, including Suleiman Osman, an associate professor of American Studies at George Washington University, and Japonica Brown-Saracino, an associate professor of sociology at Boston University. Brown-Saracino’s call for preservationists to advocate for affordable housing and for longtime residents’ businesses and institutions is echoed by other writers in Bending the Future.

Because the contributions are arranged in alphabetical order by author name, it is pure luck that the book begins and ends with powerful essays that force us to think deeply about the underlying assumptions that are part of the legacy of the NHPA. Michael R. Allen’s opening essay, “What Historic Preservation Can Learn from Ferguson,” tackles the way we should remember and preserve sites of the very recent past—such as the place where Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. When Allen notes that, “Preservationists may be the last people to acknowledge the historic associations embodied by unlikely landmarks, and that is to our shame,” he calls on all of us to recognize that sites such as these are where “real, unresolved, and difficult history unfolded.” Among the lessons Allen feels we should take from Ferguson is to “listen to and support communities that ask open questions about the future of sites, not walk away when communities choose preservation plans that do not fit our models.”

The final essay, “Put on Your Hipster Hat,” from University of New Mexico Professor of Cultural Landscape Studies Chris Wilson, calls on preservationists to become “conversant with the principles of urbanism” and look for ways to “reconcile them with preservation practices.” This is more difficult than it may seem, Wilson notes, because preservation orthodoxy calls on us to preserve the most significant buildings and districts of every era, including suburbia and mid-century modernism. Wilson asserts that, “Facing the contemporary challenges of sustainability, resilience, and global climate change, we can no longer simply preserve the most significant remainders of every era that has passed the fifty-year cutoff.”

Wilson’s assertions—and those of other contributors—are sometimes contradicted by other authors in the book. That’s fine, as the editors were not seeking a manifesto, but instead were challenging all of us to dig deep and challenge our assumptions as we look to the future. I would have liked to see more Native American voices and a few more practitioners sprinkled among the academicians. There are also a few contributors—public or  architectural historians, architects, sociologists, or other professionals—who make every issue look like a nail to be hammered by their particular discipline. (And yes, Rem Koolhaas really does begin his essay by asserting, “Architects—we who change the world—have been oblivious or hostile to the manifestations of preservation.”) But by and large, there is a wideness and optimism to the thought in Bending the Future that bodes well for the next 50 years. Recommended.

David J. Brown is the executive vice president and chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the interest of fairness, he has not referenced the four essays in Bending the Future that were written by employees of the National Trust.

#ReUrbanism #preservationhistory #whypreserve #Diversity

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