Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Who Will Care in the 1990s? Ethnic Diversity Will Play a Greater Role in the Preservation Movement, Particularly in Urban Neighborhoods 

12-09-2015 17:35

Who will participate in the preservation movement at the dawn at the 21st century? Will they have more money to spend in promoting preservation, or to travel to historic sites? What impact will a more diverse ethnic mix have upon the future of our urban cultural heritage? Where will these people reside? Where will the greatest need for and activity in preservation be found?

A quick look at current demographic trends can provide some answers. Simply put, many of us involved in the preservation movement today will also be participants in the future. But overall the characteristics of those committed to the field will change, just as the population as a whole changes. Let`s take three population groups--the elderly, the so-called baby boomers and the youth:

The elderly. More and more of the elderly will be healthier longer than their counterparts today and will control a significant amount of the nation`s assets and discretionary income. It is highly likely they will travel to their former homesteads or historic sites; they will contribute significantly to tourism becoming, as some experts predict, the largest business activity by the turn of the century. Senior citizens with the time and resources to follow traditions and pastimes will continue to strengthen the preservation movement.

The baby boomers (persons born between 1946 and 1964 who make up about one-third of the total U.S. population). Does the appeal to boomers, who have deep roots in special interest organizations, spell increased income for nonprofit preservation groups and historical societies? Unfortunately, probably not, because their financial future is clouded. Many will be in debt due to the increasing costs of providing housing, educating their children and caring for their parents. Where they may make a difference, though, is in city hall; their skepticism of government has already led to a belief in reform, particularly concerning environmental issues.

The youth. This will be the smallest but most ethnically diverse group. It has been estimated that by the year 2000, 24 percent of all Americans under the age of 18 will be Black, Hispanic or Asian.

This increased ethnic diversity--of the young and, in lesser proportion, of the baby boomers and the elderly--will alter the direction of preservation efforts in the future. This will affect not only who does the "bricks and mortar" work of preservation, but also who becomes involved on the street defending the turf. The influence of Black, Hispanic and Asian leadership in major metropolitan areas cannot be overemphasized. The Black mayors and city council representatives, for example, in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Atlanta already have a tremendous amount of our nation`s cultural heritage in their care.

In the next decade the preservation of inner city neighborhoods will be almost totally dependent upon the role minorities play. Coalition politics will be necessary to save the cultural heritage of many inner cities.

The economic and cultural characteristics of immigrant residents in an older neighborhood are linked to the maintenance of the building stock. Is an incoming population likely to understand the cultural aspects of the physical environment they are moving into or to have the means to maintain it? For example, as the predominantly elderly, Jewish population decreases in the Art Deco District of Miami Beach, will the Haitians, who are projected to move in, appreciate its uniqueness?

Each segment of the ethnic population potentially represents different levels of interest and involvement in preservation. Among Hispanics, for instance, the well-educated Cuban middle class is most likely to have a significantly higher income than Hispanics from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Central America and certainly will have the means to become involved. Among Asians, the Koreans have the highest rate of business ownership of any immigrant group, far greater than the rate for all Americans. The Asian Indians, Japanese and Chinese are also more entrepreneurial than the average American and in some areas have already accumulated enough capital to control historic buildings and considerable amounts of surrounding real estate.

The rate of population increase is largest in the mountain states, although the Pacific coast states had the greatest increase in numbers. Recent projections have shown that the rate of immigration to the West has slowed somewhat, welcome news to those who have been promoting a stronger policy for controlling growth. Whereas California, New York, Texas and Florida are the most populous states at present, by the turn of the century Florida will have surpassed all but California, largely due to immigration.

It is impossible to determine the number of people who are committed to a preservation ethic, because there is no one group to which everyone belongs. The majority of these preservationists--who likely belong to the National Trust or the Association for Preservation Technology--live and work on the East Coast or in large metropolitan areas. Their social image is a well-educated, white, suburban, upper-middle-class group. Thus membership development by the established preservation movement among the senior citizens and middle-aged baby boomers is likely.

Less likely is that the rising number of minorities will become involved, regardless of their economic status. Those minority groups, however will become important allies to the preservation movement; the increasing political support of Blacks and Hispanics and the rising financial resources of some Asians will be critical for any group or individual interested in cultural resources. In short, in the next decade preservationists will be required to do an increased amount of coalition building if they are to be successful in inner-city politics.

The key to success lies in educating both ourselves and our future coalition partners. The preservation community partners should plan ahead by accelerating its understanding of the cultures being planted and expanded on our shores. Preservationists by virtue of relative security, education and interests are among those uniquely equipped to lend a hand at making minorities feel at home.

In the past a new preservation group would be founded whenever the need arose to protect a cultural resource, and the established groups were unwilling to become involved. Will this pattern continue so that more new groups are established that are dedicated to the conservation of the cultural resources of every ethnic culture? Perhaps. The parallel situation is already evident in the museum field, where Blacks and Hispanics in particular have moved to establish their own facilities.

At the same time the rising number of minorities in the inner city must be taught the importance of the heritage of the sites they occupy. Over the course of the next decade, the need for preservation guidance will remain the greatest in California, Florida and Texas, because those states will experience the largest population growth. Yet cultural education that recognizes the nation`s diversity and special qualities of local history must be undertaken at all levels, broadening awareness and appreciation of the built environment.

Publication Date: Winter 1989-1990

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Author(s):Michael A. Tomlan
Volume:3
Issue:4