When Does Historic Preservation Become Social Justice? Public Art and Cultural Heritage Preservation

By Priya Chhaya posted 07-26-2017 15:52


Last week the Forum blog began a series that responds to the question: When does historic preservation become social justice? In this next post we talk to three artists about where preservation, place, and art intersect with this important question.  Interested in starting a discussion about the series? Sign up for Forum Connect.

Public art—music, painting, or sculpture that expresses the history and culture of a neighborhood—tell the stories of the community’s past and its people. Public art can be a powerful tool for highlighting inequity and filling in the gaps in the dominant narrative of American history. In her report, “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change,” strategic planner, program developer, and consultant Holly Sidford states:

Culture and the arts are essential means by which all people explain their experience, shape their identity and imagine the future. In their constancy and their variety, culture and the arts allow us to explore our individual humanity, and to see our society whole. People need the arts to make sense of their lives, to know who they are. But our democracy needs the arts, too. The arts animate civil society. They stretch our imagination. They increase our compassion for others by providing creative ways for us to understand and deal with differences. The arts protect and enrich the liberty, the human dignity and the public discourse that are at the heart of a healthy democracy.
 The Checker Café at 2125 Ridge Avenue.  | Credit: Ashley Hahn

In her introduction to this series, Andrea Roberts wrote that, “Historic preservation that is seeking to authentically engage with social justice must address both the institutions that perpetuate identity-based inequities and the resistance to such systems.” To that end, artists whose work is concerned with placemaking and preservation should acknowledge how their art contributes to changes in neighborhoods, both negative and positive.

To explore the intersections of art, preservation, and social justice, we interviewed:

  • Faye Anderson, a lifelong activist; advocate for cultural heritage preservation; and the director of All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project documenting Philadelphia jazz sites;
  • Dana Saylor, a creative event manager, published author, public speaker, and entrepreneur whose work links people, placemaking, and the built environment in Buffalo, New York; and
  • Dee Hibbert-Jones, an Academy Award–nominated, Emmy award–winning filmmaker and artist, who works collaboratively with Nomi Talisman on film, new media, and fine art projects that examine power and politics: the regulation of behavior and the blinding cover of privilege.

How does your work as an artist/arts advocate connect historic places with community activism?

Anderson: I love old buildings. I love even more the stories that old buildings hold—they are places where history happened. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, “if walls could talk” they would tell stories of faith, determination and triumph. For me, historic preservation is about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story.

My first foray into historic preservation was in 2007. I was living in Park Slope and got involved with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a community-based coalition organized to block the proposed Atlantic Yards Project. The coalition was concerned about the project’s impact on the historic fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods, and I shared those concerns. I was also outraged that the proposed basketball arena would be named Barclays Center, given that Barclays Bank (previously Heywoods Bank) financed the transatlantic slave trade.

Fast forward to 2014: I am living in Philadelphia, and my journey as an “accidental preservationist” is beginning in earnest. My “aha!” moment about the intersection of historic preservation and social justice was triggered by the Billie Holiday historical marker, which reads in part, “In this city, she often lived here,” referring to the Douglass Hotel.

Credit: Faye Anderson

The Showboat, a legendary jazz venue, was located in the hotel’s basement, and the repurposed building now holds the stories of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and McCoy Tyner—as well as stories of disruption and defiance.  In “black and tan” nightclubs such as the Showboat, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Thus, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that served as a steppingstone to the Civil Rights Movement. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called jazz “triumphant music.”

The Douglass Hotel was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to help African Americans navigate de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North. The hotel also provided a car service that enabled African Americans to “ride without discrimination or segregation.” Lady Day stayed there because black Americans were excluded from hotels that catered to white guests. If walls could talk, they would link past struggles with the present.

As an arts advocate, I connect these past struggles to contemporary issues like gentrification and displacement. Racial segregation not only limited African Americans’ choice of hotels but also where they could live. Now, as historically black neighborhoods in South Philadelphia gentrify, longtime residents are being displaced and our cultural heritage is erased. From the church where Marian Anderson learned to sing to the theater where Fats Waller sang about “misbehavin,’” places that tell our story have fallen victim to the wrecking ball.

But I believe to my soul that one person can make a difference. Indeed, writer and social critic James Baldwin observed, “You don’t need numbers. You need passion.” I am passionate about the ancestors. They have already done the heavy lifting, so the least we can do is preserve the buildings that hold their stories. I use my blog and social media to share information that will empower community activists to get involved and to hold elected officials accountable for the loss of our historic sites.

Saylor: Everything I do, from paintings to event planning to preservation activism, is about historic places. I believe that emotional connection with place is the foundation of all community activism. People will only become invested or involved if they feel something or think of a place as meaningful. With this in mind, my artwork seeks to point out the details of historic buildings, their hidden stories, and their connection to the community. I try to show how places can become relevant again and how history is our future. For example, my work with Painting for Preservation, a group that documented threatened or important buildings across the city of Buffalo through art, took place concurrently with efforts to save the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building. This work took on a new dimension when I understood that my illustrations of historic structures could give people an emotional connection to place.

The Finks Art Train was one of the projects at CITY of NIGHT 2014 a project organized, in part, by Dana Saylor. | Credit: John Carocci

When I post a painting or drawing online, I often include a narrative about the background of the place—the people who lived there, those who left, and those who remain. Such posts consistently garner greater engagement than those that feature artwork without context. My entire way of living, socializing, and engaging, along with the handmade works I produce, is my art—and it is intentionally geared toward authenticity, meaning, and profound connections.

Hibbert-Jones: In my work, I attempt to unearth hidden narratives through dialog. I’m interested in the politics of public space, how place enshrines or buries memory, how we remember, and who and what remains visible or hidden. I love Doreen Massey’s description of place as “a pincushion of a million stories,” which suggests that each place contains multiple identities and is delineated by shifting borders—permeable notions of inside and outside.

Historic spaces are frequently contested spaces, marked by invisible or underrepresented memories and counter-narratives. The stories enshrined at historic places can have shifting meanings because they are activated by communities. The artist’s role is to engage communities and hear a multitude of stories—particularly those that haven’t been heard—by asking about what has been remembered but unspoken.

I’ll give an example from early in my artistic career: ORLO, a nonprofit environmental arts organization based in Portland, Oregon, commissioned works about the “urban boundary line” in Portland from a small number of artists, myself included. This project was intended to engage the community in dialog about the urban boundary line—an invisible line drawn in Portland in the early 1970s in an attempt to control urban sprawl. This contested line is visible only on maps, but it has impacted Portland tremendously, causing property price hikes and housing shortages and limiting growth. On the other hand, it has conserved Portland’s wildlife and natural space.

I proposed and built a human-height, spiral, rammed-earth structure at a wetlands preserve on the urban boundary line. This was my very first attempt to engage a community in dialog about a historic site or place, and the impact of my work grew through the workshops, art tours, discussions, community events, and local press that it activated.

The structure lasted just a few days in the pelting rain of a Portland spring, disintegrating back into the earth as I had proposed, albeit rather faster than I had intended. It was an attempt to depict the fragile balance of nature, man, and demarcations of place, but more importantly, it was an opportunity to engage the public in conversation about the urban boundary and the role of environmental protection in shaping community. When what remained of my structure was just a few feet tall, I came across a person lying inside of it, straining to read the plaque I had embedded into the walls, which said “The earth is surrounding you.”

How do you highlight history and inequality in your art and/or your fight to protect the story of places?

Anderson: The built environment reflects racial inequalities. For instance, Philadelphia’s Society Hill was not “preserved.” Instead, it was frozen in time as a result of disinvestment and abandonment. Over the decades, it became a majority black working-class neighborhood. In the 1960s city planner Edmund Bacon launched an urban renewal plan to restore the neighborhood’s colonial homes to their 18th-century glory. In the process, African Americans were pushed out. The historical markers that dot Society Hill tell a story that is not reflected in the homogeneity of its current residents. When I lead a “walk and talk,” I go beyond the historical markers and tell the neighborhood’s hidden history. Opened in 1934, the Checker Café—the name of which evokes the black-and-white pattern painted on the building’s ground floor—employed a teenage Pearl Bailey as a singing waitress, and today Bailey’s image dominates the storytelling mural on the building. When the café came under new ownership in the 1980s, its name was changed to the Checker Club. The nightspot was later renamed the New Checker Club. Thus, the extant New Checker Club sign is a testament to the building’s association with the neighborhood’s jazz history.

Advocates stand in front of the old Checker Café building. | Credit: Kayla Watkins

The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) wants to replace the building that once housed the Checker Café with “open space”—read: a vacant lot—which would erase from public memory the three-story Victorian that has anchored the southeast corner of Ridge Avenue and West Oxford Street since 1891. During the Section 106 review process, I documented the property’s historical significance: it is associated with African Americans and with the fashion and cultural aesthetics they shaped through their music and sensibilities. And the Checker Café was about intersectionality before the term had been coined: the nightspot played host to female impersonators such as the “sepia Gloria Swanson.”

The State Historic Preservation Office found that the property may be eligible for listing on the National Register. Thus, pursuant to the Programmatic Agreement, which I signed as a concurring party, the PHA must stabilize the building. So, the last vestige of the storied Ridge Avenue jazz corridor is saved—for now. I urged everyone who participated in my walk through Ridge Avenue’s jazz history to get involved in preserving places that matter to them.

Saylor: My creative practice, which includes a good deal of writing and social media engagement, frequently points out hypocrisies or inconsistencies and asks the public to hold themselves and our leaders accountable. Recently I asked my network to chime in on the removal of historic but controversial Confederate monuments in New Orleans, spurring a meaningful conversation. Some argued that removal doesn't go far enough, while others advocated for sensitive interpretation.

My most recent art show, Confluence: Collision of Form, highlighted Buffalo’s Midcentury Modern architecture. Knowing my distaste for this style, a mentor had challenged me to depict it. As I painted, a series of Paul Rudolph–designed public housing projects were being demolished here in Buffalo. This forced me to confront my prejudices against buildings I had judged ugly or unworthy and to consider their social and cultural context. I hope that by shining a light on these issues, I will encourage others to reconsider their preconceived notions and recognize the historic value of not only buildings but also the narratives and people connected to them.  

Hibbert-Jones: Can we consider disintegration as a metaphor for remembering place? I grew up in England with the commons—green spaces in the center of the town deeded in the 17th century as public land with rights of access that could not be changed. Long ago kings bestowed rights allowing market sellers to set up stalls there on Saturdays, allowing travelers and the annual circus to pitch their tents. The commoner’s—or everyman’s—story is one of change, resistance, and humor. It is also a story of resilience and disintegration, of personal escape and physical mobility, and of loss.

A few years ago, I returned to install a public art project, Methods of Escape, in which I asked members of the public in the Lake District—one of the most famous holiday districts in the United Kingdom—to describe their method of escape, however they defined that word. My favorite responses were, “To sit on the toilet and read until my legs go numb” and “Walk across the border into Scotland.”

Methods of Escape exhibit in the Lake District, United Kingdom, in 2008. | Credit: Dee Hibbert-Jones

What began as a project exploring communities’ relationship to place, home, tourism, and storytelling became a commentary on survival as the economic crash of 2014 unfolded. I drew the responses as codified messages displayed in public space throughout Northern England; printed in newspapers; put up on buses, in telephone boxes, and on ferries and trains; and displayed on billboards and beer coasters. My goal was to bring community into conversations about our rights to public space—to belonging, to memory, and to memorializing. I am asking who has access, who remembers, who is invisibly belonging? Furthermore, can a heavily surveilled landscape truly still be defined as public space? What happened to the commons?

In Zilina, Slovakia, Talisman and I made Blue Print of Power, a short animated film that combined drawn architectural forms and film representations of place that describe Zilina’s turbulent history to explore notions of place as socially constructed and founded on acts of exclusion. The work is barely community activism but flows out of a desire to reexamine history.

How does your work as an artist address social justice?

Anderson: Ten years since my first involvement with historic preservation, I have come full circle. I live in North Philadelphia, where a town-and-gown coalition called the Stadium Stompers is fighting to stop Temple University from building a stadium that would be wholly out of context with the historic fabric of the neighborhood. The group is mindful of past attempts to rebrand the Cecil B. Moore community as “Templetown” and embraces Franz Fanon’s admonition that, if you destroy the culture—the spirit of the place—you destroy the people.

Community historian Jacqueline Wiggins speaking at a rally in Philadelphia on July 26, 2016. | Credit: Philly Coalition for R.E.A.L. Justice

Jacqueline Wiggins, a leader of the Stadium Stompers, says:

I really hadn’t anticipated being in a righteous fight with Temple University at age 67, but I, along with community residents and activists, Temple students, religious leaders and working families, learned and decided that we were ‘in it to win it’ with respect to saying No to a 35,000-seat sports stadium being built in our beloved North Central Philadelphia. The proposed site is in a residential neighborhood whose life and cultural legacy is part of a national trend called gentrification.

North Central Philadelphia remains home to many of us who grew up in this historical and cultural haven. A short list of people, places and institutions associated with this community includes Jessie Redmon Fauset (novelist, poet, educator); Robert Purvis (abolitionist); Henry Ossawa Tanner (painter); Cecil B. Moore (civil rights activist and attorney); Sister Rosetta Tharpe (singer, songwriter, guitarist); Berean Institute (founded in 1899 as Berean Manual and Industrial School); Universal Improvement Association (founded by Marcus Garvey); and Opportunities Industrialization Center (founded by Rev. Leon Sullivan).

The preservation of this historic and iconic community deserves greater respect than it is receiving or has received from Temple University.

When historic preservation is rooted in community struggles for social justice, we can identify accidental preservationists and close the diversity gap in the preservation movement. To bring new partners to the table in this city, we must embrace John Coltrane’s Philadelphia just as much as we do Benjamin Franklin’s.

Saylor: Sometimes I paint a watercolor of a house that is soon to be demolished or one that has been allowed to deteriorate in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. These artworks ask open questions: “How is it that we, as a society, have allowed this? What does it mean? How do we change?”

My involvement in Painting for Preservation—a Buffalo group of artists documenting historic and threatened places—was not as simple as I wanted it to be. Community members whom we approached would ask us, “Why are you coming here to paint? What do you hope to achieve? Are you aware of the consequences of your attentions?” These pointed questions and criticisms were indicative of our ignorance regarding what the neighborhoods in which we were working face. We must remain vigilant, ensuring that, when we work in distressed areas, we reach out to residents first to avoid any unintended effects of our actions.

Hibbert-Jones: My work addresses social justice because I tell stories or ask others to tell their stories and then bring those stories to larger audiences. I use animation, objects, and metaphor to tell and make visible a variety of stories. Occasionally, larger audiences broaden the impact of my work and expand the conversations.

In 2016 Talisman and I directed and produced Last Day of Freedom, an Oscar-nominated animated documentary that tells the story of one man, Bill Babbitt, deciding to stand by his brother, Manny—a veteran returning from war to face criminal charges, racist discrimination, and ultimately the death penalty. When Bill realized that Manny had committed a crime, he turned his brother in to the police to protect his family and community, only to be rejected and cast out of the family. Yet Bill was the only family member present at his brother’s execution, and he has since dedicated his life to speaking out against the death penalty.

We made this movie in collaboration with the families of prisoners on death row and the Community Resource Initiative, a resource center working to support those families. It is a film about history, place, and belonging—and also about being outcast, rejected, and reviled and still belonging. The film was recently part of the World Coalition to End the Death Penalty in Helsinki; featured at a mental health forum at the University of California, Los Angeles; and played in Atlanta at a Race Forward conference on racial reconciliation.

I believe that remembering, demarcation, and preservation are integral to our sense of self and understanding of place, access, and human rights. I am reminded of the Equal Justice Initiative’s national memorial to victims of lynching, a remarkable example of connecting historic places and community activism. It’s hard to believe that no prominent monument or memorial previously existed to commemorate the African Americans who were lynched in the United States. Equal Justice Initiative has documented 4,000 racial terror lynchings of black men, women, and children, who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. This memorial connects historic places with community activism and inspires me by remembering through placemaking, storytelling, and building monuments to the everyday and to all parts of our histories.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian and the manager for online content and products at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Follow her on Twitter @priyastoric.

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