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How far does the "full story" go?

  • 1.  How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-23-2019 00:46
    Recently, I have been following the ongoing litigation regarding El Paso's Duranguito, as well as the contestation over the treatment of the remains of African-American victims of the convict leasing system in Sugar Land, TX. These stories provoke me to re-examine what it means for us, as preservationists, to tell the "full story."

    Often, in Preservation rhetoric, telling the full story is qualified by acknowledging the diversity of people represented at a historic site or landscape. However, as I have seen in my experience, it is important to go beyond recognition of, and interpretation at, historic sites. It is equally important (if not, arguably, more important) to seek out, acknowledge, and actively work to change laws, rules, regulations, and practices (both within the field of Preservation and in other fields) that work to marginalize places connected to the lives and legacies of people of color (which, ultimately, leads to the continued disenfranchisement of POCs). After all, cases such as the ones in Duranguito and Sugar Land are not unique or isolated, nor are they recent phenomena of the last few decades.

    So, my questions are:

    What are some laws, rules, regulations, and practices (both within Preservation and in associated fields) that you have observed which have been traditionally used to marginalize places associated with people of color? What are some of the methods you, or other people/groups you know, have used to combat these injustices? How would you address these issues going forward?

    Important Note: I fully recognize that many of these laws, rules, regulations and practices can be subtle, or are legally codified, but this issue still needs to be addressed. Let's talk about it.

    As always, looking forward to the discussion,

    Jamesha Gibson

  • 2.  RE: How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-23-2019 20:13
    Hi Jamesha. This doesn't directly relate to your questions, but in my years of work in planning and community development, I saw, and have to admit was involved in, several projects that were viewed as beneficial to their communities, but could only occur at the expense of neighborhoods that were historically local centers of minority housing and culture. These projects were not always the usual suspects of upscale housing and mixed-use developments, but were often projects that were truly of benefit to the community, like neighborhood revitalization, affordable housing, or nonprofit medical facilities. In my experience, these projects were typically carried out not with hostility to the history of the places that were eradicated, but, rather, without consideration or knowledge that anything of value was being destroyed.

    This is not to say that the local governments, funding agencies, and private developers involved in these projects should be held blameless because they were ignorant, but to say that often this destruction of poor and minority historical places was the result of an unthinking proclivity for development to follow the path of least resistance, which, in most  communities, are the places where the most disadvantaged have historically lived.

    Jim Sparks
    Glasgow KY

  • 3.  RE: How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-24-2019 19:25
    Hi Jim,
    For the most part, these methods are carried out without malice and, as you said, with development trying to follow the path of of least resistance. But as we, as practitioners, continue to see a pattern toward this proclivity,  it is important to begin asking why it keeps happening and what are the root causes? We should ask why theses places aren't considered part of the community benefiting from development? Why aren't people connected to these places at, or represented at, the table during the revitalization planning process? Is there a legacy of barriers (cultural, linguistic,  economic, legal, social or political intimidation, etc.) that excludes them from the process?
    I think once we start asking these questions and holding practitioners, including ourselves, responsible for not challenging these patterns of exclusion, we can begin to change the outcome of these practices.

    Jamesha Gibson

  • 4.  RE: How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-24-2019 09:50

    Dear Jamesha,

    This is an important topic and points to one of the fundamental principles that has long been followed in conservation of historic places-the doctrine that all the historical layers of a site should be respected, and that when one layer is proposed to be sacrificed in order to restore or reveal an earlier layer, the value of the layer lost must be of clearly minimal value compared to that of the layer to be restored. Judgment is required, often based on artistic or historical reasons. 

    Your question points out how assessments of the relative value of different sources of cultural significance can impact issues, such as class, race, religion, ethnicity, etc. Histories of exclusion or oppression may have contributed to a lack of awareness (if not outright intentional disregard) of the cultural value of a place to a non-privileged community. As historic preservation worldwide focuses more on "intangible heritage" and sites outside the category of conventional "historic monuments," questions like "Whose heritage are we preserving?" will continue to arise.  If, as UNESCO says, "The heritage of each is the heritage of all," we need to focus on how that plays out in practice at actual sites. International experience may be a useful guide here. The Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter is a good reference. 

    One category of laws that have contributed to unjust conditions in the built environment is the typical suburban zoning law that often precludes accessory dwelling units or multiple-unit residential buildings in areas zoned for single-family houses. These can have the effect of excluding poorer, older, or younger potential residents and limiting the supply of affordable housing (to say nothing of the damaging environmental effects of sprawl.) Similarly, while historic districts can be excellent tools that benefit a wide variety of communities, in some cases they may have been used to exclude categories of people or accelerate displacement of current residents. These effects need not occur if the districts are properly nominated and regulated. Not surprisingly, intentions and consequences are rarely simple, but your question is one we all need to consider and talk about. I hope you'll pursue this. 

    Steven Semes
    Professor of Architecture
    Director, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
    University of Notre Dame
    Notre Dame Indiana

  • 5.  RE: How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-24-2019 11:42
    Preservation programs that rely on economic incentives to encourage private owners to participate in recognizing and preserving sites often are most successful at preserving sites associated with the economically advantaged - and usually white - population. We need to develop tools and incentives that aren't economically based.

    Heather Bratland
    Historic Resources Officer
    City of Winston-Salem
    Winston-Salem NC

  • 6.  RE: How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-24-2019 18:28
    Edited by Sarah Marsom 01-24-2019 18:31
    @Heather Bratland, great point! IMO There are two reasons for a historic designation: 1.recognition/documentation and/or 2. access to financial opportunities.

    It is difficult to rationalize the cost associated with historic designations, unless there are financial incentives at the end of the tunnel or a grant at the beginning. I would posit that this is partially because historic designations as they currently operate are essentially documents that sit on shelves and hopefully are digitized (and then maybe easy to find on a website... maybe).

    Historic designations should be reimagined in a way that is more outwardly facing, so that they can be used as a tool for empowerment and education. What is the purpose of the research that goes into a designation if people do not know about the history discovered?

    Some historic designations lead toward heritage interpretation, but I think if we were to look at the statistics of National Register of Historic Places nominations that have some form of education attached... the percentage would be small.

    Sarah Marsom
    Heritage Resource Consultant
    Tiny Activist Project

  • 7.  RE: How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-24-2019 19:44
    Edited by Jamesha Gibson 01-24-2019 19:45
    @Steven Semes,
    Your comment about suburban zoning resonates with a post by April Johnson titled: ​Missing Middle Housing & Its Potential Effects on Traditional N'hoods. I think as preservationists it is important to look at all of the tools available to us to change the way we approach the issues in our field--particularly as it relates to how we (in conjunction with our work with other fields) think about and engage with traditionally disenfranchised groups.​

    Jamesha Gibson

  • 8.  RE: How far does the "full story" go?

    Posted 01-25-2019 10:10
    A good and valuable discussion. Gibson's questions was at the center of an NPS100 Symposium at the National Council on Public History annual conference in 2016 - which considered how the Park Service could de-colonize interpretation and preservation.

    If the question is about the subtle or overt discrimination of preservation codes - the clearest one is the 50 year age provision of the National Register eligibility requirements. Many structures that are inhabited by marginalized communities do not last that long, or if they do - do not maintain "integrity" that allows them to become listed on the NR and thus become eligible for most state level tax credits. The simple fact is that structures that last 50 years AND maintain integrity tend to be more expensive and usually white owned to begin with.

    For example, many African American families had great difficulty securing housing loans during the 20th century thanks to discriminatory lending practices which were codified in FHA policy and "red lining" practices. This however, did not deter many from building their own homes and claiming middle-class status. For example in a neighborhood outside of Detroit black families bought land and built homes that tended to be 1. comparatively temporary and 2. continuously evolving. In the end, many of these houses were torn down because the land was more valuable than the home as these neighborhoods became gentrified. There is a really important "full story" within this about African American agency and pursuit of middle-class aspirations (which is the subject of Nicole Perez's research at Loyola Chicago), but that story necessary cannot be preserved in the structural landscape under existing federal preservation guidance (without a criteria consideration and lots of additional effort, etc, etc). That sort of story is not exceptional by any means, and I think demonstrates the degree to which preservation law saves white and wealthy history while silencing and eliminating crucially important stories of discrimination and exploitation which undergird the modern social order.

    Dan Ott
    Public Historian and Lecturer
    University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
    Eau Cliare WI