Using Historic Preservation to Honor a More Diverse American Story

By Special Contributor posted 04-27-2018 13:28


By Saima Akhtar

Editor’s note: Preservation Month is coming up in May, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation encourages you to celebrate the important places in your community. Can building a more inclusive, people-centered preservation movement—as well as the other key concepts outlined in Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future—help you save the places that matter to you? Let us know what the future of preservation means to you: download the "This Place Matters" toolkit, and share your photos on social media with #ThisPlaceMatters.

Americans have a peculiar relationship with history. We often think that, compared with other places in the world, we have very little of it. But, in fact, we are surrounded by important physical reminders of our past: prehistoric landmarks and Puebloan settlements of the American South, 17th-century African burial grounds once hidden under the dense urban network of Lower Manhattan, national monuments like Bears Ears or Muir Woods, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Chaco Culture Park and the Statue of Liberty.

African Burial Ground National Monument in New York | Credit: Image by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

All of these places can be found on the National Register of Historic Places, which was created by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in the interest of allowing the public to designate sites of significance. The NHPA, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, was instituted as a measure to protect historic sites against the onslaught of urban renewal projects that characterized the ’60s. To open up the process to the public, the NHPA instituted a nominations process whereby each entry is reviewed using one of four criteria: a site can represent broad patterns in American history, a notable person, artistic values, or historic significance. Listing a site on the National Register qualifies it for a number of protections, including tax and loan incentives that can be used toward preservation efforts, even when the resources needed for protection or demolition may not be immediately available.

The NHPA has done much to raise awareness about historic preservation in the United States and create economic value for the field of preservation. However, there is room for debate about its success in democratizing the field. Historians have argued that early preservation movements uplifted some histories over others or created revisionist pasts. Studies of the late-19th-century American South demonstrate that architecture and planning were used as “spatial strategies of white supremacy” and then institutionalized through Jim Crow legislation. We can see holdovers of those strategies today, in redlining or discriminatory housing practices that continue despite the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and in the conversations that followed the violent white supremacist rally over the planned removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. More recently, the NHPA has also revealed competing values for place. Developers and real estate agents may view preservation efforts as a way to slow urban development or tourism, while neighborhood activists and tribal entities have stated that industry executives use the NHPA to subvert local planning processes.

Given the subjective and contrasting values that various groups bring to preservation, the need for a democratic, people-centered movement is more evident now than ever. These differing values raise questions that are fundamental to the future of preservation: what tangible or intangible aspects of our history and heritage are worth preserving? And what power does the general public truly have in deciding what is saved and what is let go?

Young people imagine new programs for the Goffe Street Armory during the "Excavating the Armory" exhibit | Credit: Elihu Rubin

Widely available technological tools, like the digital devices that many of us hold in our hands, are one strategy for encouraging a more people-centered preservation movement. At Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, I have been working on open-access, interactive platforms that provide the public with tools to not only learn about social, material, and urban histories but also amend or add information based on their own knowledge or experience of a place.

Currently, I am working in collaboration with Elihu Rubin and the School of Architecture to create a publicly sourced platform called the New Haven Building Archive (NHBA), which aims to broaden the inclusion of marginal, underrepresented voices and stories in mainstream narratives about New Haven, Connecticut. The NHBA, which is currently in beta form, is a wiki-style database that will eventually allow community members to log in and contribute information about a landscape, street, building, or complex. Users will be able to enhance or edit these entries—whether their own or others’—over time. Each entry will provide an option to upload photos, archival documents, oral interviews, or soundscapes, along with a list of verifiable sources. The NHBA’s landing page already features a visual interactive map of the resources in the database, and as it becomes more populated, users will also be able to group entries according to era, social function, neighborhood, material composition, and so on.

The creation of the NHBA was spurred by the desire to connect ongoing research about the built environment with community-based planning. In another such project, Rubin worked with Yale architecture students to research and document the New Haven Armory, a disused landmark. The project, Excavating the Armory, involves local communities in thinking about ways to adaptively reuse the building as a civic space. It started as an interactive installation in the armory itself and builds on ideas described by Andrew Hurley in his book, Beyond Preservation—specifically, it seeks to empower local communities to express their personal connections to a building and (re)imagine its future.

Screenshot of the New Haven Building Archive. 

Initiatives like these have the potential to shed light on our environments, built or unbuilt, and encourage critical thinking and learning. They offer us ways to publicly debate whether to curate decay or decline as reminders of our industrial past or decide which oral histories will inform our cultural traditions or recollections of a place. As the United States continues to invest less than any other developed country in early education and our national monuments undergo some of largest land rollbacks in history, there isn’t a better time to engage in preservation as an act of recording history for ourselves and future generations. The events in Charlottesville revealed one way in which historic preservation has been used to protect symbols and historical markers in the service of unequal power structures. But in response to such events, we should highlight the role that preservation can play in rectifying inequity to create a more just future. As active citizens and makers of history, this is something Americans must care about.

Saima Akhtar is a postdoctoral associate between the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and computer science at Yale University, where she is also a Public Voices fellow.

Also Read: Plays Well with Others: Preservation Work Through Partnerships and Building a People-Centered Preservation Movement in Atlanta