2017: A Year of Challenges, A Year of Change

By Priya Chhaya posted 12-29-2017 10:46

Going into 2017 we know that we’ll be facing a number of challenges to saving places… We, as advocates, will have to work harder and more creatively to tell the stories of the people and places that comprise our diverse historical fabric and to ensure their protection.

While I couldn’t see into the future when I wrote these words, I knew that the coming year would ask a lot of us. In 2017 preservationists across the country have worked tirelessly to save places and communities they care about while also responding to new trials and uncertainties. From threats to the historic tax credit (HTC), to the ongoing recovery from and mitigation of natural disasters, to an ever-shifting political landscape, it has been a challenging year—but also a rewarding one.

National Marine Sanctuaries: Protecting History Underwater by Sharee Williamson | Credit: National Marine Sanctuaries

In May, we released “Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future,” which asserts that:

A people-centered preservation movement empowers people to tell their stories and to engage in saving the places that matter to them; plays an increasingly important role in creating sustainable, resilient, equitable, and livable communities; and works collaboratively with a wide range of other fields to fulfill fundamental human needs and achieve essential social goals.

This has been the basis of our work in 2017. While we were prepared for challenges and loss, we knew that our best response would be to focus on the fundamentals of preservation: buildings, communities, neighborhoods, and people. This work impacts us all.

So, as in past years, here is a look back at 2017. Many conversations, like those initiated at PastForward in November, will continue into 2018, while some campaigns reach a conclusion.

Federal Preservation Law and Programs

2017 challenged some of the strongest tools we have for preserving historic resources. We fought to protect the federal HTC, a vital economic tool that helps preservationists work with developers rather than against them. Last week we saw the culmination of that five-year fight when Congress passed a tax reform bill that retained the HTC, albeit with an altered structure. It was a hard-fought battle, and we are proud of our role in ensuring the survival of this critical program.

On another front, the historic preservation movement continues to monitor and respond to the mounting threat to the Antiquities Act. In 2017 we worked with recreation and public lands advocates to defend our oldest preservation law, which has protected millions of acres of American land and countless historic resources. Following an unprecedented proposal to revoke protections for several national monuments, the National Trust has filed a lawsuit to fight for Bears Ears National Monument. We will continue our advocacy, fervently opposing any attempts to weaken the Antiquities Act.

In both cases, Preservation Leadership Forum has kept our audience updated on the work being done and put out critical calls to action. From blog posts to webinars, we provide a platform for experts to share background information and supply tools that organize our community’s support for these important preservation laws into effective advocacy.

Interpreting Harriet Tubman's Life on a Silent Landscape by Anne Kyle  | Credit: Harriet Tubman Byway

Building an Inclusive Movement

The hashtag for the new African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, launched at PastForward 2017 in Chicago, calls on us to #TellTheFullHistory through our preservation work.  This work is not easy, but it is necessary. We must ask fundamental questions about how our past has shaped our present and seek to elevate a diversity of stories to create change in our communities.

We have asked ourselves those hard questions. In the introduction to our blog series about social justice, heritage conservation and urban planning scholar Andrea Roberts wrote:

We remain challenged by the concept of social justice in preservation because social justice work asks something more of us. But what is the “more”? How does the practice of historic preservation become social justice practice?

We’ve also worked to convey a fuller history—and address contemporary issues—through a variety of other avenues, from publishing a blog series about women’s history and preservation, to creating space for the critical conversation about Confederate memorials, to hosting a webinar about the legal landscape of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For an even deeper dive into this subject, Forum members can turn to the recent issue of Forum Journal about preserving difficult histories.

Two Years Later: Impact of the Vacant Home Tour on the Community by Marlee Gallagher | Credit: Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation

Your Work in Your World

We’ve also seen and shared many stories of innovative, exciting, and instructive preservation work at the state and local levels. This year’s stories have examined the new branding that is helping Preservation Utah better communicate its mission and goals, emphasized the role that equity plays in historic preservation planning in Baltimore, acknowledged the hard work and innovative approaches of the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources, and even explored how a novel approach in Pittsburgh can save a community.

Digging Deeper

We’ve also spent the year asking preservationists to dig deep on important issues. On the blog we’ve covered climate change through our America’s Eroding Edges series and put forward an evolving approach to social media. We have also examined in detail the PastForward 2017 themes—health, technology, and ReUrbanism.

The most recent issue of the Forum Journal continues the conversation from Chicago with a thorough look at Reurbanism. (Note: If you aren’t a Forum member yet, you can now access the “Activating Historic Spaces” issue for free.)

And whether you saw them live or not, you can always review our old webinars—like this one about the shared-use model work at the Cooper-Molera Adobe—in our webinar archive. And if you’re looking for motivation going into the new year, review the webinar about how to save heritage businesses in your neighborhood.

Building a Community

Finally, this year we have been expanding our community at Forum. Six months ago we launched our online community, Forum Connect. It has already hosted more than 500 conversations for a broad range of preservationists—58 percent of our Forum Connect members aren’t full Forum members. 

If you haven’t joined the conversation yet, make it a resolution for next year! Forum Connect is a great way to network, get your questions answered, and engage with your preservation colleagues. Current conversations cover everything from easement work, to zoning and segregation, to a popular one about historic preservation films. (Did I miss anything in my recap? Let us know on Forum Connect!) 

How PBS Digital Studios Uses Digital Storytelling and Virtual Reality to Evoke a Sense of Place by Priya Chhaya | Credit: PBS Digital Studios

After the new year, we’ll hear from Susan West Montgomery, vice president for preservation resources at the National Trust, about where we hope to go in 2018. But, regardless of what the coming year brings, we know this much: We are bound to face further challenges, and we will rise to meet them and to protect the places and the histories that matter to all of us.

Have a happy new year, and we’ll see you in 2018!

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.