Preservation Perceptions and Moving Forward

By Special Contributor posted 01-30-2015 11:36


By Lawana Holland-Moore

 The James Armstrong House, one of the town's oldest, constructed in 1905. | Credit: Lawana Holland Moore
The James Armstrong House, one of Fairmount Heights oldest, constructed in 1905. | Credit: Lawana Holland-Moore

Recently, I wrote a preservation plan for the small town of Fairmount Heights, Maryland, one of the first African American suburbs in the D.C. metro area. With fewer than 1,500 residents, Fairmount Heights is still a predominately African American community with its own National Register-listed historic district. Yet the town lacks sufficient resources and the infrastructure to maintain many of the buildings in the district. I sat down with the town’s enthusiastic mayor and showed her a list of every contributing and non-contributing historic resource in the district. During our conversation, however, I soon realized that there was a disconnect between her perception of historic preservation and what historic preservation actually is and what it can do for a community.

But why does this disconnect exist?

In 2009 the U.S. Census Bureau projected that in the next 40 years, the United States will experience a “minority-majority crossover.” This means that the size of the minority population (particularly among Hispanics/Latinos) will increase to the point that this population will soon represent the numeric majority.

What does this mean for historic preservation? It means that preservationists will need to reassess the very tenets of preservation practice and philosophy. They will need to ask tough questions about the future of preservation and how it will be perceived by this new minority- majority. It is not enough to say that historic preservation is important and needed. It is a matter of showing communities why preservation is important—especially if community members are doing historic preservation work but not calling it that.

Preservation Perceptions

 William Sidney Pittman, first African American architect to receive a federal commission, and his wife Portia, daughter of Booker T. Washington | Credit: Library of Congress; file: Wm Sidney Pittman
William Sidney Pittman, first African American architect to receive a federal commission, and his wife Portia, daughter of Booker T. Washington | Credit: Library of Congress; file: Wm Sidney Pittman

Part of historic preservation’s mission is to preserve and interpret culture, but whose culture is being referred to? Historic preservation has long been perceived by some as Eurocentric and exclusive of underrepresented groups and their histories. This has contributed to an element of suspicion and disillusionment, or historic preservation being seen as telling only part of the story.

Another question that needs to be asked is what do we mean by “preservation”? The very word itself can be divisive, especially when we must ask what resources are being valued as worthy of preservation. And amid questioning about basic concepts regarding what should or should not be preserved, and how to do that, it may be unclear what to preserve in the first place.

Any discussions about the perceptions of preservation should also include the topic of gentrification. For some—especially those living in areas targeted for redevelopment—there is a perception of historic preservation and the restoration of older buildings as synonymous with displacement. The traditional residents of these neighborhoods tend to be predominately minority, lower-income, elderly, or a combination of those groups. There can even be a sense of disconnect between the architecture and the current residents. In a 2007 paper written for the Georgetown University Law Center, Sarah Conde stated that in working-class neighborhoods, “preservation of old homes is not always attractive to residents. Frequently, the houses’ builders were very unlike their current residents.” Also, the expense of a restoration project may not be among residents’ priorities. Historic preservation often becomes perceived as the opposition, pitted against the existing community and its basic needs such as safe streets and good schools.

There are positive perceptions of preservation as well—especially as a force for improving neighborhoods, job creation and income generation. Unfortunately, the negative perceptions tend to overshadow those gains or progress in thinking and actions.

Moving Forward

 The 1928 bungalow-style Doswell Brooks House in the historic district. | Credit: Lawana Holland Moore
The 1928 bungalow-style Doswell Brooks House in the Fairmount Heights historic district. | Credit: Lawana Holland-Moore
Introducing historic preservation to a younger generation within underrepresented groups can help with understanding and start to mend this disconnect. By training new preservationists who can work within these communities, we can work toward avoiding these misunderstandings and perceptions that have come to characterize preservation negatively to underrepresented groups.

For preservationists themselves, listening and understanding is key. Not only informing community members about preservation issues they could potentially affect, but also including them in the dialogue and hearing their viewpoints is important. Also, being aware of, and sensitive to, residents’ perceptions of historic preservation can help organizations hone in on concerns and think ahead before matters escalate beyond the point of collaboration and open discourse. As our country becomes more multicultural, historic preservation must become more mindful of inclusiveness and telling a more complete American story through its work, community outreach and interpretation. As the field goes forth into a multicultural 21st century, its challenges remain to be seen, but it is acknowledging that it must tackle them and make those changes from within.

Editor's Note: If you are looking for more examples on how preservation can be more inclusive visit the diversity category on the blog, and if you are a member read the Forum Journal on how we can create a more inclusive preservation program. 

Lawana Holland-Moore is the 2014 National Trust Colodny Scholar and served as a member of  the National Trust Internal Diversity Working Group, where she acted as a representative for Decatur House. She is working on her master's degree in historic preservation at Goucher College in Baltimore.


#DiversityScholarshipProgram #Diversity

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