(Note: This post originally appeared – in a slightly edited form – on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Forum blog.)
2016 was a time of reflection and anticipation for many Americans, including preservationists. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, but we also used this year to anticipate the future. Moving past those milestones, we have the opportunity—some would say the obligation—to rethink preservation and seek our place of relevance in the changed political and social climate of 2017.
Many people contributed to our convenings on the future of preservation. Out of those conversations, we envisioned a preservation movement that grounds its work in human needs and aspirations:
“A people-centered preservation movement empowers people to tell their stories and to engage in saving the places that matter to them; plays an increasingly important role in creating sustainable, resilient, equitable, and livable communities; and works collaboratively with a wide range of other fields to fulfill fundamental human needs and achieve essential social goals.”
Change is one of the constants of our work, and it happens at every level. In his new work, RETHINK: The Surprising History of New Ideas, Steven Poole speaks to the art of rethinking and rediscovery. While it is easy to picture ideas as static packages of thought that can be definitively judged, Poole explains that is not very accurate:
“If we are not constantly rethinking ideas, we are not really thinking. As the French say, “reculer pour mieux sauter”—if you step back first, you can jump further. The best way forward can be to go in reverse. And the best new ideas are often old ideas.”
What might this mean for rethinking preservation? The creation story for contemporary preservation turned from a focus on high-style architectural landmarks to a grassroots and activist movement in the mid-20th century. Jane Jacobs in Greenwich Village, Barbara Capitman in Miami Beach, and others led tens of thousands of citizens across the country to push to control the nature and pace of change in their neighborhoods. And while that instinct to shape the communities we want—instead of accepting what others conceive for us—remains, many do not connect it with preservation practice today.
To democratize preservation—to build a people-centered movement—we must move the protection and reuse of older and historic environments away from the purview of select experts and back to work that all of our citizens can embrace. And to empower people to tell their stories and engage in saving the places that matter to them, we must work in different ways and perhaps outside our comfort zone.
Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his work has included the telling of difficult stories. In the introduction to his 2014 book, Just Mercy, Stevenson explains the need for proximity by quoting his grandmother: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” As our nation tries to understand recent events and reconcile them with our full story as Americans, it is easy to decide to step away. But as people who care about what the past can tell us about the future, we have to get close, and we have to accept the challenge Bryan Stevenson issued in his remarks at PastForward 2015:
“I think that our efforts to concretize, to mark, and to indicate what is important about who we are … are critical not only to our history and our understanding of that history, but to the issues that we are dealing with on a daily basis. I believe very strongly that identity matters. And you can tell the identity of a space, of a nation, by what they preserve, what they honor.
One of the challenges I see in this country is that we’ve actually done a very bad job of creating an American identity reflected by our landmarks, our memorials, our spaces, that tells a very honest story…. It’s like the struggles that created all the issues we are still dealing with don’t matter…. There is power in identity, and I believe we can say something to the rest of this country about what’s important that can help this nation move forward.”
A number of participants in our future of preservation convenings spoke to the need for connecting our work to wider community objectives and goals that extend beyond design and aesthetics. The challenge is to involve preservationists in something bigger—and, conversely, to show those working to shape the future of our communities the range of what preservation brings to the table.
I have been reflecting on the subject of connections in an age of specialization since finishing Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, which looks at the growth of science in the Romantic Age. Holmes tackles this broad topic with a blend of history, biography, art, science, and philosophy. He has said that he wrote this book because:
“The old, rigid debates and boundaries—science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics—are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.”
I love that idea of a “wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.” As the old African proverb states, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Making those broader connections in our age of specialization—and repurposing old ideas for today’s times—are critical to building a new, people-centered preservation movement.
This is work we each must do. Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” And, just as Bryan Stevenson looks back to the wisdom of his grandmother, I never forget the times that my own grandmother told me: “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental!”
Rethinking preservation for 2017 and beyond is useful work that we all can do together.
More to come…