By Lizzie Mekonnen
“In America, the history of racism is taught like this: 'There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it's done.’”
Editor's Note: For more on historic preservation and equity read Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation's Potential as a Path for Equity.
—Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
In the summer of 2021, as the equity research intern with the Research & Development department at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I conducted research on the barriers to equity and inclusion in preservation and identifying replicable strategies, tactics, and resources that would broaden the relevancy and participation of underrepresented communities in the field.
As part of my internship, I participated in a working group within the National Trust that are developing case studies and recommendations to the National Park Service (NPS) to revise its guidelines and regulations regarding historic preservation. A major focus of the working group was examining how the National Register guidelines and regulations have affected underrepresented communities.
The NPS guidelines are one of the major social justice barriers to a more inclusive preservation field, specifically its integrity standards. As designation is a major driver in preservation and cultural resource management in the country, it is important to examine how this barrier affects underrepresented communities and their ability to preserve their heritage. I examined several case studies from across the nation that demonstrate how integrity standards have consistently stood as a barrier to underrepresented communities.
Equity and Historic Preservation
Over the last two decades, historic preservationists have faced the reality that the field’s past and current policies and practices have not equally benefitted or addressed the needs of underrepresented communities. The field’s enduring focus on the architecture and aesthetic value of buildings has served to preserve the heritage of white, wealthy property owners to the neglect, destruction, and erasure of the histories and places associated with underrepresented communities. Underrepresented groups are often ethnically and racially marginalized, as well. Underrepresentation in the preservation field and in society is intersectional, though. It includes those who have been underappreciated, underserved, and discriminated against, which also includes LGBTQ communities and women.
Evidence has shown how consistently underrepresented communities are often at the lower end of the economic spectrum1. Those on the upper end of the economic spectrum are often white and have possessed both the wealth and power to claim spaces and preserve their heritage. Underrepresented communities have also been historically oppressed, displaced, and discriminated against.
Institutional and structural racism has prevented marginalized groups from maintaining and owning property, which has led to the decreased integrity of their built environments and cultural landscapes, effectively preventing them from receiving the visibility and protection in the preservation movement. To put it simply, race and wealth have played a factor in communities' abilities to take advantage of the resources and tools in orthodox preservation practices. As these case studies will show, the ability of underrepresented communities to preserve their historic landscapes and resources has been impeded by a legacy of discriminatory practices and policies that has served to uplift the history of white, wealthy people while disempowering and neglecting the contributions and voices of underrepresented communities.
The Town of Princeville, 1885 (North Carolina)
Princeville was established by a group of freed slaves and is the oldest Black incorporated town in the United States. Since its establishment, Princeville has faced many challenges of inequity, disinvestment, and structural and environmental racism that have contributed to its inability to maintain its historical assets. For example, state and federal policies and practices, including race-based zoning, chronic devaluation of Black-owned property, and government-backed segregation, resulted in a lack of public investment, effectively preventing the town from maintaining its infrastructure and economy. The altered landscape of Princeville has led to a lack of integrity, which has made it difficult to be formally recognized as historically significant in the preservation field.
The Talbot Avenue Bridge (Silver Spring, Maryland )
The Talbot Avenue Bridge, completed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1918, linked Black and white neighborhoods and was especially significant to the historic Black neighborhood of Lyttonsville. The bridge was considered a “lifeline” to Lyttonsville residents, as it was their gateway to the amenities that lay on the other side. The bridge was considered eligible under Criterion C for design and construction.
The announcement of the Purple Line (which is a project of the Maryland Transit Administration) and the potential demolition of the Talbot Avenue Bridge raised concerns with Lyttonsville residents who believed the significant cultural and social value of the bridge had not been properly recognized by the preservation professionals. The lack of investment in maintaining the bridge, which resulted in a deteriorated, integrity-bereft bridge by the time it was considered for demolition, also demonstrates the inequity that has historically plagued predominantly Black neighborhoods.
The past disregard of Lyttonsville, as seen with industrial rezoning, residential displacement, and inadequate infrastructure, to name a few issues, not only contributed to the county’s neglect of the bridge for years but the diminution of the voices of the community in planning and designing the future they imagine for their neighborhood. In the end, the Talbot Avenue Bridge was demolished in 2019. It will be replaced by a new two-lane bridge, carrying the Georgetown Branch Trail extension of the Capital Crescent Trail to Silver Spring. Despite its demolition, the memory of the bridge has been recognized and celebrated through a variety of efforts including a centennial celebration, paintings, a documentary, and more.
The Liberty Bank (Seattle)
The Liberty Bank was the first Black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest and was founded as a community response to redlining and disinvestment in Seattle’s Central District. The process to nominate the Liberty Bank to Seattle’s Landmarks list was contentious. Seattle’s Landmark List is overseen by the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. During the nomination process, community members and activists emphasized the social and cultural significance of the bank, but the board was focused on the building’s integrity, “particularly to the significant alterations made to the building that removed or covered up most of the character defining features that would make it readable as designed in the international style, like a section of windows taken out and replaced with brick.” This led to the decision that the building did not retain sufficient historic integrity for designation
Designation is important because listed properties become eligible for protection and funding. Designation also can raise the profile of the neighborhood and attract tourists. By deeming sites ineligible based on strict integrity standards, localities, states, and the federal government are continuing to solidify the inequity in preservation.
The case to include the Liberty Bank on Seattle’s landmark list shows that not only on the federal level but on the local level, as well, integrity is often prioritized and valued over social and cultural significance. Additionally, it displays how the insistence on integrity can inhibit the recognition and protection of significant sites that have played a critical role in shaping our nation’s narrative.
Southeast Texas Counties – Postbellum Sites
A study of late 19th- and early-20th-century archaeological sites in southeast Texas was undertaken by scholar Kerri S. Barile of the Dovetail Cultural Resource Group. Barile’s study aimed to determine the importance of historical context on National Register eligibility. Her study revealed the issues of bias and inequity in how white and Black sites are determined eligible or ineligible.2
Additionally, it showed how in archaeology, like in preservation planning, the histories that are saved and deemed eligible for the National Register are often connected to class and race, where white people, who historically have held the most wealth and resources, are more likely to benefit from the traditional preservation tool of designation than African Americans.
Integrity as a Racial Equity Issue
These case studies illustrate that integrity is a racial equity issue, as underrepresented communities have been subject to unjust policies and practices that have supported a system that has continued to benefit the growth and prosperity of white people over marginalized communities.
Orthodox preservation practices have played a part in this with policies like the integrity standards, which have affected the protection of sites associated with underrepresented communities, as seen in cases like Lyttonsville and Princeville. In Princeville, for example, the treatment and protection of Black landscapes must be examined differently, as environmental racism has historically placed Black communities in the most dangerous, marginal, and vulnerable spaces.
Their landscapes are dynamic and ever-changing and cannot conform to traditional preservation standards that necessitate cultural landscapes remain intact, in their original location, and with their original features in order to be eligible for protection. Therefore, the NPS historic integrity requirement must be adjusted or revised to ensure that the sites that are important to the histories of underrepresented communities but lack sufficient integrity according to current standards can take advantage of the benefits that come with designation, including protection and funding.
The National Register guidelines and regulations are an NPS policy that can more easily be changed than federal regulations.
A trend seen across these case studies is how often the social and cultural significance of buildings is overlooked in favor of an emphasis on architecture and an insistence on integrity in the National Register eligibility and designation process. The NPS guidelines make evident that social and cultural significance of a property is not enough to qualify for nomination, but that integrity is required for inclusion. This disregard of the social and cultural significance of buildings also reveals another major social justice barrier in the field: the lack of an inclusive planning process.
Further, these case studies have affirmed how prioritizing certain values like integrity over other aspects of tangible and intangible heritage can have a detrimental effect on communities and the preservation and management of their cultural resources.
This has been discussed in international charters like the Burra Charter (1979).3 The Burra Charter states, “the conservation of a place should identify and take into consideration all aspects of cultural and natural significance without unwarranted emphasis on any one value at the expense of others.” In United States preservation practices, several scholars have critiqued the high architectural standards informing the National Historic Preservation Act, pointing out the ways the preservation regulations subordinate local and cultural significance to criteria rooted in architecture.4
Despite the historic discriminatory policies and practices, communities like Princeville, Lyttonsville, and Seattle’s Central District have found ways to preserve and celebrate their heritage. For example, though slated for redevelopment, the legacy of the Liberty Bank Building was honored through an equitable planning process. This process prioritized the needs of the Black community by providing affordable housing and commercial spaces for minority-owned small businesses to help correct the historic displacement and disenfranchisement of the community. They also leveraged art, interpretation, and architecture to help preserve the Black culture of the city.5
Incontestably, American public policy has contributed to the disinvestment, discrimination, displacement, erasure, and/or destruction of the landscapes and built environments of marginalized communities. As a result, preservation practices must recognize that historic integrity is a racial equity issue; the landscapes and environment of underrepresented communities cannot continue to be evaluated the same way.
Preservation must adopt flexible or revised standards that recognize these inequities and embrace new policies that acknowledge the values and meanings of the places that matter to underrepresented communities. To be relevant to all Americans, preservation must serve to uplift and meet the needs of underrepresented communities by centering their voices in the process of planning and preserving their heritage in the neighborhoods and places that matter to them.
- Wells, Jeremy (2020b, September 21). Who does preservation benefit? [Lecture and audio file]. Retrieved from https://umd.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=7a95b736-e705-4fc1-ad6f-ac3d00ed8e81
- Barile, K.S (2004). Race, the National Register, and cultural resource management: Creating an historic context for postbellum sites. Historic Archaeology 38 (1), 90-100
- The Burra Charter, art. 5, para 1.
- Roberts, Andrea (2020). Preservation without representation: Making CLG programs vehicles for inclusive leadership, historic preservation, and engagement. Societies 10(3), 1-17.
- Jeremy Wilkening (personal communication, July 12, 2021).
Lizzie Mekonnen is a 2020 Mildred Colodny Diversity Scholarship recipient and a dual degree masters student in urban planning and historic preservation at the University of Maryland.