Confessions of a Southerner (Like a Southern Drawl, This May Take a While)

You may know that I’m from the South.  It takes about two seconds for my Tennessee accent to let the cat out of the bag.

Coming out of that great American “family” holiday of Thanksgiving,* I’ve been thinking recently about “where I’m from” and its impact on my life and work.  Place and storytelling are so central to life in the South that it is not surprising that many of the early and influential historic preservationists came from the region, beginning with South Carolina’s Ann Pamela Cunningham who led the campaign to save Mount Vernon.

I have always lived below the Mason-Dixon line; have worked to preserve many of the region’s buildings, towns, and landscapes; and have long been fascinated by Southern storytelling. To state it clearly, I love the South. But the region comes with a troubled history, including slavery and racism, that continues to inflict damage on our civic life today. I’m asked on a regular basis about the appropriate response to saving places and communities that were first taken from Native Americans and then often built on the back of enslaved African-Americans at unfathomable cost to those men, women, and children; not to mention the enormous moral cost to our nation.  The monuments to the false narrative of the Lost Cause that exist all across the country are also highly problematic to those insistent on understanding and honoring the more richly layered American story. Retired General Stan McChrystal just addressed that particular challenge in a pre-Thanksgiving Washington Post op-ed that called for the nation to move beyond icons like Robert E. Lee and move toward our full potential.  Next year is often recognized as the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans at Jamestown.  But as Dr. Michael Guasco has written, focusing on this date and place creates another false narrative:

“. . . the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day. . . .

We shouldn’t ignore that something worth remembering happened in 1619. There are certainly stories worth telling and lives worth remembering, but history is also an exercise in crafting narratives that give voice to the past in order to engage with the present. The year 1619 might seem long ago for people more attuned to the politics of life in the 21st century. But if we can do a better job of situating the foundational story of black history and the history of slavery in North America in its proper context, then perhaps we can articulate an American history that doesn’t essentialize notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (in the broadest possible and various understandings of those words). That would be a pretty good first step, and it would make it much easier to sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.”

These are tough issues for all Americans, and as a Southerner I find them especially challenging.  It is important to get the narrative right, or as right as we can in this day and age.  Narrative—or storytelling if you wish—sits beside place in my mind as the other key component to preservation. Storytelling is also another constant in the South.  A recent New York Times article entitled “What is a Southern Writer, Anyway?” speaks to how many of those who tell stories about the South today are also at work to shape a better narrative. The author, Margaret Renkl, asks “What if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural tropes or lyrical prose or a lush landscape or humid heat so thick it’s hard to breathe? What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave? Of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee?”

Renkl, who edits a website on Tennessee literature (yes, there is such a thing!), notes that she may be wrong.  “For one thing, Southerners don’t hold the copyright on a close connection to home, and there are many exceptions to the rule anyway. Historically, African-American writers tended to leave the South as fast as they could, and for obvious reasons.”  I don’t think Renkl gets it completely right, but I think she’s on to something about why people—in the South and elsewhere—care about the past and tackle hard issues in order to shape the narrative in a way that is relevant today and into the future.  Her take of these writers loving a damaged and damaging place is similar to Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s observation that “emotions flow through place.”

The editors of The Bitter Southerner note that there is a shame that comes with recognizing that too many Southerners are still “kicking and screaming to keep the old South old.” That is balanced in knowing that “many others, through the simple dignity of their work, are changing things.”  It is that work that is so important.  I would argue that it isn’t the refusing to flee part that is critical to Renkl’s definition, but it is, instead, the unwillingness to paper over the troubles of your homeland.  I’ve spoken all across the country about the fact that my beloved grandmother—she of the way with words that still rings in my ears—was a lifelong member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and subscribed to a false story about history.  When I’m working to tell the full American story, I feel it is one way I’m making a small contribution to begin to undo the wrongs her “Lost Cause” narrative brought to so many.

I can do my part in the work to change the narrative about places in the South and, in the process, keep the past engaged with the present as we look to the future.  I see that work in changing narratives to ensure that the history of contrabands is central to the story at Fort Monroe.  In saving the sacred places at Shockoe Bottom.  In recognizing the extraordinary Pauli Murray, who grew up in the most ordinary of houses in Raleigh, and keeping both her story and home alive and relevant in the 21st century. In honoring those marchers who gathered in Memphis’ Clayborn Temple with their “I Am A Man” placards. In raising up the story of Bunk Johnson from the gardens of Shadows-on-the-Teche.  There are so many extraordinary places with rich, layered stories to tell, and I’m humbled that I get to work with my colleagues in this endeavor.

Pauli Murray Mural

Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC

 

Pauli Murray House

Pauli Murray House before restoration (2015) and after exterior work (2016) (Photo credit: Pauli Murray Project)

As I stand and look around our office, I see many whose connection to their place is very different from mine.  But it doesn’t matter if you come from upstate New York, New England, Los Angeles, or are a child of an immigrant to the U.S.: there is still work to do, in your time and place, in “giving voice to the past in order to engage with the present.”  I believe with Michael Guasco that only when we do that can we “sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Of course, the narrative around Thanksgiving in America is also deeply flawed…something General McChrystal notes in his op-ed.  But coming out of this weekend you probably knew that.

Our Year in Photos – 2018

Family along Monterey Coast

The Browns along the California Coast

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, I continue my tradition of posting family photographs from the past year on More to Come…. We have much for which to be thankful in 2018.

This was yet another year unlike any other in the recent history of our country. The level of vitriol coming from some of our so-called leaders has put many on edge and has driven others to do unspeakable horror.

In spite of the turmoil in the world and some significant changes in our lives, we were blessed again this year with good health and good friends. Each of us is doing well.

Shortly after Thanksgiving last year, Candice and David traveled to Providence to hear Andrew solo with the Brown University Chorus in Messiah.  While there, we took advantage of the trip to visit some of our favorite haunts in this food-friendly gem of a city.

CCB at Ellies

Candice at our favorite Providence bakery and cafe: Ellie’s

Of course, each December brings a special celebration of Andrew and Claire.  The twins’ birthday is always a major highlight, but given that they reached the 25-year-old milestone in 2017, it was a special event for all of us.  We also celebrated the holidays together in Washington, seeing good friends and visiting special places like the evocative Museum of African American Culture and History on the National Mall.

25th birthday celebration

Celebrating 25 years of Claire and Andrew – one of the great achievements of 2017!

We all have our passions.  David has his sports and writing; Candice her cooking and friends; Claire the outdoors and children; and Andrew his music and travel.

Nats Jacket

Sporting a New Jacket and High Hopes for the Nats

 

Claire at Lake Tahoe

Claire with her roommates at Lake Tahoe

 

A typical pose for Andrew

A typical pose for Andrew

 

Caps Win the Cup!

Caps Win the Cup!

Summer brings baseball (and more baseball) along with the Bach Soloists Festival in San Francisco.

2018 All Star Game with Andrew

2018 All Star Game with Andrew

 

Cathedral Tour

Andrew, on his stained glass window tour of the National Cathedral

 

Claire at A's game

Claire joins her roommates at an A’s game this summer – rooting for a team that actually MADE the playoffs!

 

Bach Festival

Andrew and fellow musicians at the San Francisco Bach Festival

We loved our vacation time together as a family at Pacific Grove, California.  It was a respite from the hustle of the year.

Lone Cypress

Candice and DJB at the Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach

 

Yoga with Andrew and Claire

Yoga with Andrew and Claire at Pacific Grove

 

Claire and Blair at the Bixby Bridge

Claire and Blair at the Bixby Creek Bridge along California’s Highway 1

 

Claire Whale Watching

Claire Whale Watching

Fall brought transitions in life for everyone.  We gathered with long-time friends, saw Andrew off to graduate school in London, and said good-bye to David’s boss of the past 8 years.

DJB Fly Fishing and casting

A fly fishing beginner learns to cast in the Yellowstone River

 

Andrew tattoo composite

Andrew with his tattoo, along with the inspiration

 

McCain's Funeral

Andrew singing at Senator John McCain’s state funeral

 

Whirlwind weekend

A whirlwind weekend: the McCain Funeral, a special evensong, and then off to London

 

Staunton Friends

Staunton Friends – Bizzy, Mary, Margaret and Candice – at the National Gallery of Art

 

DJBwith SKM

David and National Trust President Stephanie Meeks at the 2018 PastForward conference in San Francisco (credit: David Keith)

 

Candice and Tom

Candice and our friend Tom Mayes at the PastForward 2018 Conference in San Francisco

 

DJB at PF Final Luncheon

David speaks at the Final Luncheon of PastForward 2018 in San Francisco (credit: David Keith)

 

At Filoli

David, Candice, and Claire enjoying the Holiday decorations at Filoli in Woodside, CA

 

MAAHC Visit

At the Museum of African American History and Culture in December 2017

Our family continues to be blessed, and for that we are incredibly thankful.  We remain grateful for each of you and the friendships we share.  Happy Thanksgiving to all.

More to come…

DJB

Be Thankful Every Day

Why do we often wait until an individual or team completes a major project to offer thanks?  Last week’s PastForward 2018 national preservation conference in San Francisco certainly falls in the successful major project category in my work, and I do want to thank our core team of Susan, Farin, Rhonda, Colleen, Alison, Nicky, Lizzy, Diana, Michelle, Reagan, Sandi and Priya.  They helped lead us through an inspiring week.

I’ve often thought we shouldn’t wait for a holiday such as the one we are celebrating this week in the U.S. or only at the end of a project like PastForward to recognize others.  A few years ago I became intentional about saying “thank you” to someone every day.  It is one of the smartest things I ever did as I get so much more out of life since I began that practice.  If for no other reason, it reminds me how much I depend on the kindness of others.

I believe there is a distinction between gratefulness and thankfulness.  If we are fully aware, fully mindful, we will often be grateful when we see something that connects us to things beyond ourselves, to a sense of belonging. When we turn our minds to how to respond to those connections, then that thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness.

My brain was nudged from gratefulness to thankfulness after seeing so many colleagues and friends in San Francisco last week. I hope I say this more than once a year, but now seems like a good time to pause and reflect upon how much I depend on the work and kindness of my colleagues—specifically those on the Preservation Division staff at the National Trust. First, I am thankful for our management team.  These individuals support me and all our staff in ways big and small, and when we are successful I know it is because of the work they do every day.  Thanks to those who manage our 27 historic sites all around the country.  Being at Filoli this past week reminded me once again (if I needed it) what remarkable places these are and how lucky we are to steward these buildings, landscapes, and collections for a few short years. Our team in Field Services is amazing, doing the hard, long work of saving incredible places—and then they often deflect the praise to others when we take an amazing step forward as we did last week at the Natatorium on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. The really smart people in our Research and Policy Lab and Government Affairs offices are working at the forefront of the 21st century preservation movement.  I was so proud to see that work highlighted again and again last week. The staff in Preservation Resources takes our work across the country and shares it with others outside the National Trust every day…not just the week of the conference.  The Business Operations Team literally keeps us running on-time and on-budget.  Of course, we couldn’t do this without the collaboration of our colleagues in every other division—Development, Finance, Law, Marketing, and the Executive Office, as well as our NTCIC and National Main Street Center subsidiaries.  It truly takes a village.

Holidays at Filoli

Pool and Garden House during Holidays at Filoli (credit: Claire Brown)

Take time this week, dear friends, to be fully mindful of the things beyond yourself.  I suspect you’ll also see that thoughtfulness become thankfulness.

Happy Thanksgiving.

More to come…

DJB

Remembering Dr. William J. Murtagh: Keeper of the Register, Preservation Pioneer

(NOTE:  My appreciation of the life and legacy of William J. Murtagh was first published on the Preservation Forum Blog on November 2, 2018.)

Bill Murtagh, who passed away on October 28 at age 95, was among the most visible and effective preservation leaders in the middle of the 20th century, when the movement was expanding its focus from historic sites, museums, and teaching to the emphasis on people and community that we recognize today.

To those of us who came to preservation in the 1970s and ’80s, Bill was seemingly in the middle of everything. He served two stints at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, first as President Richard Howland’s assistant in 1958, later returning for several years as vice president for Preservation Services. He was a member of the committee that outlined the principles at the core of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. He was a key figure in the establishment and growth of preservation education programs from Columbia University to the University of Hawai‘i. His “Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America” was one of our first textbooks.

murtagh__002_.jpg
Credit: Lisa Berg

But it was as the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places that Bill is best known, and that is where he made such an indelible mark on the field. First, the job title itself was evocative, and Bill worked to live up to the lofty aspirations it suggested. More importantly, he brought a democratic and expansive view of what the federal government should recognize as worthy of preservation. Where others may have been stingy in recognizing the places that matter to communities, Bill approached people on the local level to help them identify places and articulate the meaning of those places to tell the full American story.

This generous view of what makes America unique is what I remember from first meeting Bill Murtagh while working as a preservationist in Virginia in the 1980s. Bill, who had enormous national and international influence, worked tirelessly with his neighbors to ensure that the historic buildings, landscapes, and streetscapes of Alexandria, Virginia, were preserved, protected, and loved. He also served on the board of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, providing instant credibility as we advocated for the importance of historic places to the commonwealth’s economy and future.

Bill was always looking forward. In the fall 1999 issue of the Forum Journal, he took the time to contemplate what preservation would look like in this century, calling for renewal, retraining, and recommitment.

The National Historic Preservation Act is now more than a generation old. A renewed commitment to human resources is still needed. In my considered opinion, that includes retraining existing professionals and improving the training of newcomers to the field even in many of the programs that now exist in academia. … Of primary concern is that there now seems to be a thin or non-interested grasp at all levels of government as to why our 20th-century preservation laws even exist and to what stimulated their passage. Preservation concerns still need to be part of the curriculum at the preparatory school level. ‘Civics 101’ needs to be reintroduced into school systems.

Bill was ever hopeful for the day when America would have a national land-use policy and a cabinet-level post of cultural affairs to help recognize and protect our heritage for future generations. He encouraged us all to think about what mattered in our communities—and to find ways for the private and public sectors to protect and reuse those places. We all stand on his shoulders, and he will be missed.

More to come…

DJB

An Education in the Obvious

In the midst of one of the most turbulent weeks in our recent civic life, I attended the play Lincolnesque last Saturday at Washington’s Keegan Theatre.  First released in 2009, this new production couldn’t have come at a better time.  Here’s the synopsis:

“Leo has more on his plate than he can handle. He is a speechwriter for an endangered mediocre Congressman, in the final month before a do-or-die mid-term election. His new boss Carla is a dominating message maven who has been brought in from the corporate world to try and save the campaign. And his brother Francis is a psychiatric outpatient recently released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, despite having a powerful delusion that he is Abraham Lincoln. Desperate for inspiration, Leo turns to Francis for help writing “Lincolnesque” speeches, hoping that Lincoln’s transformative oratory will revive his boss’s career.”

Playwright John Strand uses humor and plot twists to bring Leo and Carla to the point of stealing Francis’ “Lincolnesque” citations for the final campaign speech that puts the Congressman over the top.  The power of idealism (or E&I as Francis calls it, for Ethics and Integrity) is clear, even when the staff take the low road and end up, as one reviewer noted, in the “inevitable aftermath.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about our political conversation these past few weeks and how it affects my work and life.  I suspect that many of you are having the same thoughts.  Political conversation is a measure of the civic health of our country, and right now that health is fragile.  Lincoln was not a perfect human, as Strand points out time and again in Lincolnesque.  The same can be said for Thomas Jefferson, the other American president whose words have inspired across decades even as his flaws as a person have been identified and examined in detail.  However, even in today’s understanding of history, author Thomas Reston writes that Barack Obama could note that, “’Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,’ . . . even as he (Obama) pointedly recognized that Jefferson’s household was built and maintained by slaves.”  What Lincoln and Jefferson did best was to focus on big ideas and big politics, not policies.

Studio Lincoln

Studio Lincoln by Daniel Chester French at Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site (credit Carol Highsmith)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said:  “It seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.”  While we don’t need leaders who steal “Lincolnesque” citations, we do need the same clear thought about what it means to be an American. An education in the obvious, in other words. Historian (and National Trust Honorary Trustee) David McCullough has said, “What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition.”  Speaking to the National Trust conference in Providence after the 9/11 attacks, David reminded us that as a country:

“We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”

That strikes me as what’s missing in today’s course discourse. Just like playwrights and other artists, historians and preservationists dedicated to telling the full American story and linking it to our present and future can help provide that “education in the obvious.”  It won’t be easy to be heard over the noise of today’s discourse, but I believe we have to try.  Our nation’s political health may depend on it.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Good Trouble

Congressman John Lewis is a hero to many.  A hero whose skull was cracked more than fifty years ago while working for justice.  So in June when he sent out the following on his twitter account, it was a message worth hearing that day and every day:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Lewis wasn’t calling for a “don’t worry, be happy” type of response to the issues of our times. Instead he knows—from more than five decades in the trenches—that despair creates apathy, and apathy destroys activism.  One activist who was in Lewis’ training camps in Mississippi in 1964 notes that “Giving in to despair is lazy surrender.”

Makers in the Mansion

The dining room table at Woodlawn as envisioned by Hadiya Williams as part of the “Makers in the Mansion” exhibit

A few years ago, when the National Trust conference was held in Nashville, John Lewis challenged us to believe in the idea that “my house is your house.  My story is your story.  The history of my people is the history of all Americans not just African Americans.”  Hearing, understanding, and honoring the full diversity of America’s story is a lifetime of work that helps provide the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves.  As American Express Foundation President Tim McClimon recently wrote in Forbes, “Historic preservation may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of activism, but it actually is one of the longest-running and most successful activist movements in the United States.”

Whatever your life’s work, whatever activism is triggered by your passion, it is likely that Lewis’ admonition fits.  Few things worth doing take less than a lifetime, and it is easy at times to get lost in a sea of despair. But think about what “good trouble” would look like for you…and then don’t be afraid to go make some noise.

Have a good week.

DJB

Music Row’s historic character is disappearing. Here’s what we can do.

NOTE:  My op-ed for the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the future of Music Row ran in today’s Nashville Tennessean.  You can see the original here.

 

Balance.

Harmony.

Character.

These are essential elements of any great song or musical composition. They are also essential to any great neighborhood. Unfortunately for Nashville, the Music Row neighborhood is out of balance right now. In the last five years alone, 43 historic buildings that housed music related businesses – the lifeblood of Music Row – have been demolished. Only one single threatened building – the venerable RCA Studio A – has been saved from demolition. And that “save” was achieved not by public policy or by city initiative, but solely through the efforts of private citizens intent on preserving irreplaceable heritage.

Forty-three to one is not balance. High-rise residential condominiums in a neighborhood of small-scale business is not harmony. Demolishing five more historic buildings in the heart of Music Row is not the way to protect neighborhood character. It is definitely not the way to celebrate the unique and extraordinary cultural heritage that still exists on Music Row, nor how to ensure that the neighborhood remains a thriving cultural campus filled with creative people, talented artists, striving songwriters, and  myriad businesses that support, promote, and share their work with the world.

Music Row Treasures announcement

Music Row announcement as a National Treasure, with musician Ben Folds

Music Row’s past is deep, rich, and complex. It evolved into a singular ecosystem of musical production – a one-of-a-kind neighborhood that became the physical manifestation of the “business of making music.” It is the place where music emerges from the thoughts, dreams and experiences of songwriters, musicians and singers. It is the place of more than 200 recording studios, record labels, promoters, licensing agents, and a host of other small (and not so small) businesses dedicated to the singular and profound purpose of making our world a brighter, livelier, and more engaging place through music.

There is nowhere else like Music Row, period. The good news is there are solid strategies that Nashville can use to stem this current tide of demolition and keep the music on Music Row. We stand with Historic Nashville Inc., the hundreds of fans of Music Row who gathered at Bobby’s Idle Hour on July 24, and the many more who signed our petition in urging Mayor David Briley, the Metro Council and Metro Planning Commission to take immediate, specific steps to support and save Music Row:

  • Create a Music Row Cultural Industry District. This designation—the state’s first–would serve to strengthen, develop, and promote music related businesses in Music Row through the use of incentives, branding, promotion, historic preservation, infrastructure investment, and other tools.
  • End Specific Plan Exemptions. Currently Metro Planning Commission is approving Specific Plan exemptions for the Music Row geographic area. By consistently approving larger and taller buildings than allowed by current zoning, Metro is encouraging demolitions that destroy music-related buildings to make way for generic apartment buildings.
  • Develop Incentives to Support Music Row’s Music Industry. Although large companies are routinely awarded incentives to locate or operate in Nashville, no such benefits exist for the small music businesses. New incentives, including much-needed preservation tools, can help keep music businesses on Music Row and preserve the area’s historic buildings.

It is not too late. But the clock is ticking, and the song is growing ever more discordant. We call on city leaders to take immediate action before this unique cultural industry district is lost forever.

The public is encouraged to sign our petition to Nashville’s key elected officials at www.savingplaces.org/savemusicrow.

More to come…

DJB