A Q&A on Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation’s Potential as A Path for Equity

By Priya Chhaya posted 10-20-2020 11:53


The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently released Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation’s Potential as a Path for Equity, a report that seeks to elevate emerging ideas, research, observations, and questions on the critically important issues of equitable development, social justice, and the practice of preservation. At the heart of this report is the central question: How can preservation be a force for advancing equitable development and social justice in African American neighborhoods and other communities of color?

This is a project which began over three years ago alongside the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, and has evolved over time with shifts in goals, format, and process. Katherine Malone-France, the National Trust’s chief preservation officer states in her forward, “during the long incubation of this report, the National Trust itself has confronted both its own limitations in how to approach and study the issues of displacement and gentrification and, even more broadly, our own place in the structural racism and inequity inherent in historic preservation, both as a cultural movement and a professional practice.”

While not intended as a definitive research study or comprehensive analysis, this report reflects both past and current progress, and explores, uncovers, and advocates for expanding the role that preservation and cultural heritage can and should play in the equitable growth of our communities.

In order to provide some additional context, Di Gao, senior director of research and development answered a few questions for Preservation Leadership Forum about the genesis and evolution of the report, how we hope it will contribute and push the conversation forward, and what’s next for the overall project.

Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation’s Potential as a Path for Equity, was funded by the Ford Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

What was the genesis of Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation's Potential as a Path for Equity? Why did the National Trust decide to look into these issues?

Consistently in our work across the country, equitable development remains a central priority for those engaged in strengthening communities through preservation. While every place is unique in terms of its history, regulatory framework, and market context, there are widespread similarities influencing how neighborhoods change that continue to drive this national focus on the need for equitable development. Through our work with the Action Fund and beyond, we’ve partnered with communities in places like Portland, Oregon; Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Miami. In these cities, we have seen similar issues around the need to balance economic revitalization with the unintended impacts of gentrification and displacement, which often disproportionately impact communities of color.

Preservation is also often included in discussions around housing shortages and is perceived by many as being an elitist practice. There is a sense in many places that preservation is not relevant to the lives of working-class Americans. These are critically important issues that need to be addressed thoughtfully, intentionally, and with nuance and care. Communities and advocates need more resources to make informed decisions about the future of their neighborhoods and the preservation of their cultural heritage. We must show that growth can be managed equitably without sacrificing values like culture, identity, and heritage.

We developed this report to engage the Preservation field on these important issues, and hope that the research and insights in Preserving African American Places will push these existing conversations forward. We hear a strong desire from the field and the communities we work with to develop a deeper understanding of the role that preservation can play through new research, partnerships, and collaboration. Many communities we work with wonder, what are other cities and places doing to build more equitable futures? What’s working?  We see this work and subsequent discussions as vehicles for sharing more of these ideas and inspiration for broader action.

How has this project evolved over time?

This project started a few years ago, as a research study on the drivers of gentrification and displacement in historically African American neighborhoods in 10 cities across the country. While this was an honest effort to develop a data-driven understanding of the impacts of various neighborhood characteristics on change in African American communities, the research team confronted various methodological challenges. The process also revealed difficult decisions ranging from the very definitions and metrics used to measure displacement, to the appropriate time frame of study to capture displacement trends across 10 cities, among other data constraints.

Subsequent conversations we conducted with state and local partners further shed light on the limitations of using high-level, multi-city, publicly available data to understand complex locally driven issues. We found that the data did not sufficiently capture or account for the influence of past and current public policies, economic conditions, the presence of local community organizing and activism, nor that of cultural and individual preferences.

We realized that we still had a lot of unpacking to do around the core issues. Ultimately, we felt that before we zeroed in on the issue of displacement—while a critical issue impacting the culture, heritage, and preservation of many communities—we needed a new approach. An approach that allowed us to identify structural barriers and opportunities and engage the field in a more nuanced and holistic conversation on racial equity.

How do you hope readers will react to the report?

I hope readers will approach this content with a shared sense of responsibility to acknowledge and address what work needs to be done, and how we can continue to grow as a movement. Many across the movement have grappled with these issues in their own communities, and I hope readers will bring their own perspectives, experiences, and knowledge from their practice areas to critically engage with this content. I hope we will collectively continue to identify gaps, barriers, strategies and priorities, and potential for partnership with allied fields. I hope more readers, as many across the preservation movement are already doing, will continue to think expansively about the preservation movement in terms of what constitutes as preservation, who practices it, and who it benefits.

How should readers use the different sections of Preserving African American Places?

We would like to see readers use the lexicon, the historical context, the mapping and analysis, and the case studies from the field as they are intended—as a jumping off point for deeper discussions and collaboration with the ultimate goal of translating these discussions and emergent priorities into actions and measurable outcomes. More specifically, we want readers to use this report to:

  • Empower broad and diverse participation in preservation as a path toward equitable development;
  • Foster ongoing and inclusive discussions around how the benefits of preservation can be leveraged by African American and other historically marginalized communities;
  • Help elevate and contextualize Black cultural heritage and places in our national narrative;
  • Expand partnerships for strategy, support, and cross-disciplinary action to address systemic issues;
  • Deepen understanding of the systems of unjust policies and practices that continue to drive disparities today, and the role that preservation can and should play in mitigating them;
  • Gain exposure to preservation-based approaches to advance equity in diverse communities; and,
  • Continue to investigate how preservation can align its tools and practices to be relevant to the lives of all Americans.

What are some of the next steps for the project?

We are developing a plan for follow-up engagement on this initiative to keep the conversation going. Ideas so far consist of virtual listening sessions, webinars, and Forum content. We welcome ideas and suggestions from Forum members for additional ways people would like to engage and keep the conversation going.

At PastForward Online 2020 (October 27-30), we will be hosting a Town Hall on Equity and Preservation—an interactive session where we hope to hear more perspectives from people in the field on these issues. During the long incubation for the report, we explored several research topics that required further study, but ultimately did not make it into this iteration of the report. We plan to release some of that content on Preservation Leadership Forum, along with material geared specifically towards more targeted audiences. The intention being to allow for deeper conversations around implementation of the many ideas that are being discussed around the country.

To discuss takeaways in Preserving African American Places, join us on Forum Connect.