I Am Not Invisible

Last evening I spoke in Athens, Georgia, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.  The topic was the future of preservation, and I took segments from remarks given by my colleague Tom Mayes at the recent EDRA conference on Why Old Places Matter and combined it with the basic elements of our recently released Preservation for People:  A Vision for the Future.

The first key concept from the vision is that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story.

I built on this concept by noting that,

“The recognition of our stories and the capacity to see yourself and others in the American narrative has a profound effect on our sense of identity.   A few years when the National Trust conference was held in Nashville, Congressman 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.’”

The Well-Tempered City

The Well-Tempered City by Jonathan F.P. Rose

I followed that with a quote from The Well-Tempered City, by Jonathan Rose, the visionary developer, urbanist, and former NTHP trustee.  In that work he notes that cities emerge from the interdependence of related parts.  He says, “compassion is essential for a city to have a healthy balance between individual and collective well-being.”

It is my belief that hearing, understanding, and honoring the full diversity of America’s story helps provide “the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves.”

After my remarks, a member of the Foundation’s board came to speak with me.  Linda Davis is a civic and business leader in Athens, a member of the local school board, and African American.  She told me that the vision is right in line with what she has been supporting in Athens in her five years on the ACHF board.  She said, “I am not invisible” and this future is “exactly what I hope for preservation.”  Her comment was straightforward, yet poignant.

Americans have conveniently forgotten most of the people whose lives are part of our layered history.  At this time of deep division in our national life, I believe—more than ever—that we each have to do whatever we can to hear, understand, and honor the stories of those who might have been forgotten in the past.  We have to make sure they are not invisible.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Places Teach Us, If We Let Them

I have just finished reading two books about the American West that were written in 1987 and 1994. As I finished the second one on a rainy Sunday afternoon I thought, “I hope I age as well.”  The older of the two—which I actually read second—was the first book cited by the author of the 1994 work in her “Sources” chapter.  Both are written by women I greatly admire as writers and thinkers.

So enough of the cat and mouse games.

Savage Dreams

Savage Dreams by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit‘s Savage Dreams:  A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West, was republished in a 20th anniversary edition in 2014, with a new preface by the author. I’ve been on something of a Solnit kick lately, as she is one of the most thoughtful of writers exploring a wide variety of issues across the American landscape. This early work is often hailed as a foundational work of environmental thinking.  However, I saw this more as a book about place and unacknowledged history, and the title of the post comes from her 20th anniversary preface.

At the end of Savage Dreams, Solnit lists her sources and calls out Patricia Nelson Limerick‘s The Legacy of Conquest:  The Unbroken Past of the American West for special inspiration.  I have come to know Patty Limerick a bit from recent work we’ve undertaken together, and this book has been on my bookshelf since the early 2000s, which I first heard her speak in Denver.  She is unquestionably one of the leading scholars of Western history.

What I found enlightening about both works was the timeliness of the issues they discuss some 25-30 years later.  Immigration, the dominance of the military-industrial complex, the “owning” of the historical narrative, the complex layers of history that are the reality underneath our myth making of exceptionalism and manifest destiny—all are as present and divisive today as they were as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.

I could delve into so much in these two works, but will be content with a synopsis of each and some quotes that may lead you to want to explore them on your own.  Solnit and Limerick are easy-to-read writers who take a different path in getting to their conclusions.  Solnit’s work here is more of a meandering conversation that, amazingly, arrives at its destination at the end of each chapter and feels very satisfying.  Limerick did not rely on original research in her ground-breaking work, but pulled together strains in New Western study with a style that is easily accessible.

Solnit’s work is actually two books, although they do connect in surprising ways:

“In 1851, a war began in what would become Yosemite National Park, a war against the indigenous inhabitants. A century later–in 1951–and a hundred and fifty miles away, another war began when the U.S. government started setting off nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. It was called a nuclear testing program, but functioned as a war against the land and people of the Great Basin.”

In her preface to the 20th anniversary edition, Solnit notes that she was writing as a period of “making visible, of rewriting history” was underway. She is in the parking lots at Yosemite ten years after her book was written and noticed that the signs had changed, with a “massive reimagining of native America” as the old language of discovery was mostly gone, and the idea of virgin wilderness was seen as outdated.

Right from the beginning Solnit notes that “it’s important to remember that this was not inevitable change but was the work of scholars and tribal spokespeople, activists, and storytellers.”  That is so important in today’s charged political environment, where thoughtful scholarship is often under attack. As she notes, “the people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”

I found this most compelling in the Yosemite story (not to downplay the importance and terrible nature of the test site history).  But as we think about hearing, understanding, and honoring all stories in historic places, I was especially taken by the stories of eradication of the Native American people and story at Yosemite right from the beginning of its conquest by white Americans.  As one small example out of many, the kind of plants growing in Yosemite Valley in the 1850s was largely the work of its original inhabitants.  So when “Bunnell, Olmstead, and their peers rode into the valley and wondered at it for its resemblance to an English landscape garden, it resembled such a garden because it was one.”  Since Yosemite is often considered an American Eden and a touchstone for wilderness, it is surprising (to many) to find that it was an “artifact of generations of human care.”

Legacy of Conquest

Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Nelson Limerick

Solnit’s is an activist’s book, which is “about how understanding history and making it are not really very different” to quote one reviewer.  Limerick’s activism is of a different sort.  She seeks to take the story of the “settling” of the American West as “a series of quaint, violent, and romantic adventures—most with happy endings—and a process that came to an end with the ‘closing’ of the frontier in the 1890s” and turn that on its head.  The west is not a process, but a place.  It is a place where competition, profit, loss, uneven business cycles and—always—conquests are what ground its history.

Limerick’s book is also divided into two sections.  First, “The Conquerors” followed by “The Conquerors Meet Their Match.”  In today’s fight over immigration rights, the antagonists on each side could do much worse than read Limerick’s chapter entitled “America the Borderland.”  Limerick notes that this antagonism has been with us from the beginning of our country.

“…some New England Puritans brooded over the presence of Spanish Catholics far to the south; the ‘New World’ seemed less than pure if the papists had a more sizable empire than the Puritans.  Two centuries later, Anglo-Americans moving into the borderlands encountered long-term Hispanic residents.  Much modified by the environment, time, and contact with native populations, northern and southern Europe met in odd circumstances and conflicts between them, unresolved since the Reformation, surfaced again.”

SE Utah Cliff Dwellings

Cliff Dwellings in the Bears Ears area of Southeast Utah, where centuries-old conflicts over the West are still present today

One of the more difficult parts of our past to square with the American myth is the treatment of Mormons. Today’s hatred of “the other” has—it appears—deep historical roots. Limerick dives in here as well, to make the point that just when the reader thinks race is a key factor in dividing people in the West, we come face to face with the Haun’s Mill Massacre.  As she says, this attack by a Missouri militia on a poorly defended settlement, where seventeen were killed and fifteen wounded, “restores one to a realistic confusion.”  All of the victims of this 1838 massacre were white—and Mormon.  She examines the prejudices behind the 1857 Mormon War, which is extraordinary in that the U.S. Army was deployed against a church primarily composed of U.S. citizens.

There is so much here I could explore, but suffice it to say that both Rebecca Solnit and Patty Limerick have written books that are as timely today as they were some 25-30 years ago.  That’s a remarkable place for writers to find themselves.  In these challenging times in which we live in 2017, we do well to remember Limerick’s point that we need to think as anthropologists, because “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.”

Recommended!

More to come…
DJB

Living at the Intersection of Past, Present, and Future

James K. Huhta

James K. Huhta

(Note:  I made the following remarks at the funeral of Dr. James K. Huhta on Monday, May 8, 2017, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Jim was the founder of the Historic Preservation Program at Middle Tennessee State University, an early mentor in the field, and—along with his wife Mary who died 11 months earlier—a dear friend.)

I thought I would start my remarks with a history joke…but they’re all too old.

Feel free to groan, because I will keep on with the bad puns and jokes if you don’t.  Just as Jim would have done.

In recent days, I have talked with people who knew Jim from all walks of life. We all acknowledge the deep pain of the past year to the family, friends, and this community. But like these friends and colleagues, I want to reflect today on his many accomplishments and his impact on others, before the inexplicable challenges of recent years became too much for him to bear.

Several people recounted how Jim’s optimism for the future set them on a path which they only now recognize as life-changing. His leadership positions in the preservation field were mentioned time and again. Some had personal stories of Jim, Mary, Becky and Suzanne.

But every single person I spoke with mentioned the puns.

It was the articulate humor “with which he approached all of life’s challenges,” as his Advisory Council colleague Tom King phrased it, that was the endearing feature that touched all.

Longtime U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon, who worked closely with Jim on what is now this city’s nationally regarded greenway system, told me that Jim’s most lasting accomplishment was “Holding the world’s record for most puns made as chairman of the Greenway Commission.”

I think Bart was only partially kidding.

Peabody award winning journalist Krista Tippett has written about the link between a sense of humor and wisdom in her book Becoming Wise.  She says,

“I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself….There is a science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections, and leaning into them with joy.”

The Jim Huhta I want to remember today had a wise sense of humor and a wisdom that made unlikely connections, which he leaned into with joy. His professional accomplishments were numerous.  He was one of the pioneers of preservation education, a visionary working in a multi-disciplinary history program at a time when many of the other schools in this field were focused solely on preservation through an architecture and architectural history lens.  Jim once told a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean that “historic preservation is history outside (the) classroom, and it seeks to use our cultural heritage in a variety of ways…for future generations.”

As a pioneer in the field, Jim was sought out for leadership positions here in Murfreesboro, in Tennessee, and across the nation.  Locally, he chaired projects to restore the Rutherford County Courthouse as well as open the Stones River and the Lytle Creek Greenways.  Jim and former Mayor Westbrooks were the driving forces behind the bicentennial project at Cannonsburgh.

At the state level, Jim authored the plan for a National Heritage Area on the Civil War in Tennessee. When opportunities arose at the national level, Jim was there as well.  He was a founder and early chair of the National Council on Preservation Education, served as an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and on the board of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to two terms on the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Jim’s record of accomplishments runs to five single-spaced pages and is a testament to his vision, his indefatigable energy, his love of people, his sense of public service—and his wisdom.

But I want to focus on the intersections of Jim’s life.  Just as thriving Main Streets or exemplary historic sites are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways, Jim Huhta lived those intersections of past, present, and future in a very personal way.

Jim had a family heritage that he loved to showcase.  It didn’t take long to figure out that Jim was the son of first-generation Finnish immigrants.  Usually that information would come out after he told you not to fly on a Finnish airline, because he heard that they sometimes disappeared in Finnair.

I know of students who took pilgrimages to Ashtabula, Ohio, simply because they heard him talk incessantly about his hometown.

But Jim knew that not everyone had a way to connect to their personal past, so he worked hard to get people to look—and treasure—what was around them.  In that same Tennessean interview from 1980, he noted that “Most of us have very little feeling for family, community, and local history. But if we would look at the history closest to us, we would have more pride in our communities.”

Jim wanted to know about your past, but more importantly, he wanted you to know about your past.

Understanding the past is important, but only if it connects and is relevant to the present and the future. How one lives right now in community was central to Jim’s understanding of preservation and public service.  One colleague who worked with Jim spoke to the “broadmindedness and focus on community” that he brought to historic preservation.

I saw this personally, as Jim pushed this young undergraduate to tackle challenges out in the real world. While students who came into his classroom were often scared by the large pile of books and multi-page syllabus he displayed on day one, once he weeded out those who didn’t want to work, Jim quickly led those who were left out of the classroom and into the community.  He had a very robust sense of public service, and Jim worked to instill that same value in those he taught.

But the past and present are still missing a key component if we do not see their connections to the future. I have been working with colleagues across the country on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act to prepare a vision for preservation’s future.  In reviewing this work, I’m pleased—but not surprised—to see how much of this vision comes from what I learned 40 years ago from Jim Huhta.

A preservation movement that puts people first is right in line with Jim’s insights that places from our past, reused today, have positive impact on our spiritual, social, and economic well-being in the future. Jim also believed—and lived it in his life and work—that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the American story.

As he talked about Becky and Suzanne, and later his granddaughters Olivia and Catherine, Jim made it clear that he was working at the intersection of the past and present for future generations – future generations where he had a strong and loving personal investment.

People were central to Jim’s life and work, as those of us who made frequent visits to see Jim and Mary at the yellow house can attest.  He had a familiarity with people from the past—including those who had often been under-represented—that has resonance today.

As the writer Rebecca Solnit has suggested in writing about indigenous communities, “The people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”  With his work to ensure that the lives and stories of those associated with places such as the segregation-era Bradley Academy were not lost, Jim clearly grasped and shared this concept.

My recollections of Jim always include the people he loved the most—Mary, Becky, and Suzanne—and a wide, generous view of family. Like many students after me, I spent hours talking not just with Jim, but with the family. Jim hired me to help with the landscaping at the yellow house while I was in school, and since he knew that my parents were Baptist teetotalers, he always offered up a beer after the job was finished.  When I moved away from Murfreesboro, my mother—who worked at Linebaugh Library where Jim and Mary were among her most faithful clients—would all but encourage me to make a run over to the yellow house when I returned for a visit, so I could enjoy an adult beverage and get caught up on what Jim and Mary were doing. In later years, I would hear of how the Huhtas stopped by to chat politics with my father at his regular table at the City Café. For me and many others, Jim would write exemplary letters of recommendation that would make you blush, but after he sent them off he would bring it back down to earth by telling a bad joke or three.  In his own way, Jim let you know that he understood you as a person with a past, present, and future that he embraced and celebrated.

This is a family to which I am clearly indebted, and to which I hold close as they struggle to make sense of that which cannot be understood on this side of life. I can only say that Jim’s life included a large measure of work to hold both people and place dear.

To paraphrase the writer Madeleine L’Engle, these are places filled with people living over centuries of time.  Places where a richness of experience permeates the rooms and life is lived to the utmost. Where we experience birth and death. Joy and grief. Laughter and tears. And bad puns.

Jim’s life was meaningful, consequential, and full of wisdom for a better future. And now, the fullness of that life will be in this place and in all of us.  May both Jim and Mary rest in peace.

More to come…

DJB

Clarity of Vision

We all benefit when we are clear about what matters.

I  have always admired the clarity of vision that comes through the work and writings of Morris Vogel, the retiring president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  Morris is one of my colleagues at the National Trust, and I value our professional relationship.  On a personal level, Morris is someone I look to for both advice and inspiration.

In these days when the nation is – once again – struggling with its checkered history on immigration, the Tenement Museum has stepped time and again into these conversations in ways powerful, relevant and timely.  I found the following statement, which Morris recently shared with his board and staff, a great reminder of how clarity of vision and mission is so important in finding one’s voice.

“Tenement Museum leadership in the museum field means that our colleagues at other institutions regularly ask how we handle difficult issues, and we’ve recently fielded requests for information about how we determined our pro-active response to the government’s refugee ban. The answer is that the Board of Trustees had already adopted a mission statement, strategic plan, and vision statement that spoke with clarity about the Museum’s role and purposes. Our mission statement calls for the Museum to “forge emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhance appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.” Our strategic plan calls for the Museum to “provide leadership to the national and international historical museum community by demonstrating how institutions can utilize the past to illuminate key issues of the present.” And our vision statement calls for the Museum to “demonstrate to visitors and the larger public, viscerally and intellectually, that America’s open society, democratic institutions, cultural creativity, economic vitality, and ability to accommodate difference owe to our experience as an immigrant nation.” That kind of clarity allows us to offer powerful historical programs and to speak effectively about present-day immigration to the broader public.”

In three sentences around mission, vision, and strategy, you have an incredible example of how understanding what matters can direct one’s life work.  Morris then continued with this call to relevance:

“The fact that a nation could build and continually renew itself through the hopes that brought uprooted peoples to our shores has never been more important than it is now. The stories of those dreamers form the heart of the Tenement Museum. Let me know if you want to visit with us—in these unsettled times—to renew your commitment to America’s enduring values.”

I have always been proud of the National Trust’s association with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and never more so than during these unsettled times.  We will miss Morris’ presence at our meetings when he retires this summer, but something tells me that this clear voice for justice and the importance of our past stories to life today will continue.  Thank you, good friend, for reminding us of how to be clear about what matters.

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum (photo credit: LESTM)

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Problem Solvers

Mia Lehrer MICD

Mia Lehrer speaking to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston

I spent much of last week with eight mayors, and seven other resource panelists at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston, South Carolina.  The mayors – two women and six men – came from cities as large as San Bernardino, California, and as small as Juneau, Alaska.  Three of the cities were state capitols, at least two were located on historic Route 66, they spread from coast to coast, every community had a historic core that the mayors saw as vital to their identity and future, and all were ethnically diverse. The political leanings of the mayors – and those of their cities – spanned the spectrum.  Some had been in office for several years, others were relatively new to either the mayoral office and/or public service.  One was a writer on social justice.  Two were accountants by training, while another was a banker.  One had spent much of his career running YMCAs.  As befits the mayor of a city that abuts Canada, the mayor of Juneau had worked for the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection service for many years.  Another was a Main Street business owner.  In other words, their backgrounds were as varied as their cities and their politics.

We all came together as part of the 66th gathering of mayors and architects, planners, developers, and other professionals to address major civic challenges through design. As you can see above, none came in with a design or planning background, yet they embraced the notion that how our cities look and work can have profound effects on issues as wide ranging as housing, transportation, social justice, financial sustainability, environmental challenges, and much more. Mayors tend to be quick studies who, of necessity, have to grapple with a wide range of community concerns.

MICD Charleston

Speaking at the Mayors’ Institute of City Design in Charleston, March 2017

I had several revelations from the discussions we held around a design challenge in each community, but I want to focus on two.

First, mayors are problem solvers.  Yes, they come at those problems from different points of view. One spouse said that her husband, the mayor, “saw through the eyes of his heart” in his empathy for all his constituents, while others, dealing with serious financial crises, had to focus their minds on stabilizing their cities’ very shaky financial foundations.  Yet whatever the challenge they presented, they sought to make a difference in people’s lives. As I watched the thought process they brought to the eight challenges before them, I was reminded of Albert Einstein, who said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”  These mayors were open to seeing new perspectives and formulating the problem in different ways to get to the right solution.

Problem solving can be in short supply in today’s political world, where scoring points can appear to be the primary goal.  That leads me to the second revelation from my time with the mayors: these conversations gave me an optimism for our public discourse and civic life that I’ve been missing in recent months. Public service for the public good is alive and well in America. Our mayors are facing tough problems while they are grappling with noisy interest groups, shrinking resources, politicized state and national governments, and much more. Yet they are plugging away, listening to different voices, shaping problems in new ways to reach healthy solutions.  That’s both comforting and reassuring.

It is easy to complain and obstruct.  My week with some of America’s mayors has challenged me to drop any easy path I may take towards complaint and worry and instead roll up my sleeves and get to work solving the problem.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Those Who Do Not Know Their History…

Panama Hotel

Seattle’s Panama Hotel

The recent executive order temporarily banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries brings to many minds an earlier, ugly incident from American history.  As is often the case, those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it.

An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times spoke to this earlier, discriminatory ban.  When Lies Overruled Rights tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Seventy-five years ago on Sunday, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes and report to incarceration camps. Two-thirds were American citizens. Fred Korematsu, my father, then 23, refused to go. A proud and loyal citizen, he had tried to enlist in the National Guard but was rejected and was wrongly fired from his job as a welder in an Oakland, Calif., shipyard He was arrested and tried for defying the executive order. Upon conviction, he was held in a horse stall at a hastily converted racetrack until he and his family were moved to a desolate camp in Topaz, Utah. My father told me later that jail was better than the camp.

He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. In his case, and in cases brought by Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi — among the most infamous cases in American legal history — the court in 1944 upheld the executive order. Justice Frank Murphy vehemently opposed the majority decision, writing in a dissenting opinion, “Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.” In the hysteria of war and racialized propaganda, my father’s citizenship did not protect him. For him and the 120,000 other Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II, there was no attempt to sort the loyal from the disloyal.

The entire op-ed is worth a read.  And I’m pleased to note that the National Trust has been working to save one of the places that tells the stories associated with the Japanese-American experience: the Panama Hotel.

Japanese Bath

Japanese Bath at the Panama Hotel

The Panama Hotel, an early 20th century five story brick structure, is an outstanding example of the single-room occupancy hotels that characterize Seattle’s pre-World War II Nihonmachi (Japantown). Constructed in 1910 and designed by Seattle’s first Japanese American architect, Sabro Ozasa, the structure, building design, materials and uses are remarkably intact. The basement includes the Hashidate Yu, the best surviving example in the U.S. of an urban Japanese-style bath house or sento. Also, in the basement is a large storage area containing the belongings of Japanese Americans incarcerated in World War II as well as remnants of the early operations of this commercial building.

Bath House sign

Bath House sign

The Panama Hotel is a place that speaks to the true resilience of the American spirit. It is a poignant place that reminds us of what happens when lies and fear take precedent over our constitutional rights. This is a historic place as relevant today as it was 70+ years ago.

More to come…

DJB

A Wider, More Generous, More Imaginative Perspective: Preservation in 2017

DJB in Cedar Mesa

The Bears Ears National Monument (thank you President Obama) in Southeast Utah

(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.

Seattle PiP Launch

A People-Centered Preservation Movement

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…

DJB