To Learn Something New (About Old Places), Bring in New Partners with Different Perspectives

Cooper-Molera Garden

Garden View at Cooper Molera prior to the beginning of rehabilitation (credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

At the National Trust for Historic Places, where I work, we believe that historic sites are fundamentally places of intersection. When we allow them to share their stories, historic sites are dynamic spaces where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  One very important way they intersect is with community.

About ten days ago, I visited Cooper-Molera, one of our National Trust historic sites where delight and enjoyment are at the heart of our community intersections.  Cooper-Molera is a two and one-half acre property in the heart of downtown Monterey, California’s historic commercial district. There we are implementing a new model that combines commercial uses and interpretation in creative ways.  We will have a bakery, restaurant, and event center in adaptively used historic buildings operating in collaboration with museum uses in one of the adobe residences to reinvigorate the site, sustain it financially and engage audiences that might never visit a historic site or house museum. Those are the people we should all want to meet at this intersection.

We call this a shared use model for historic sites, because the commercial, for profit, museum, and nonprofit entities all share the same space and support each other.  This shared use model itself is an intersection with the local community, developed through intense engagement with local preservationists and long-time supporters of the site and with unexpected partners including a for-profit developer and community institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Rehab at Cooper-Molera

Rehabilitation and New Construction underway at Cooper-Molera

 

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

There is a great story that emerged from one of our recent conversations with a group of Latino leaders in Monterey.  The “Cooper” in Cooper-Molera was an American sea captain, John Cooper, who moved to Monterey when it was part of Mexico and developed a robust business as a trader and merchant.  In the past, we would have focused almost exclusively on his story and we were surprised when this focus group of Latino leaders said we should focus on it again as one of the main stories we tell.  But they had a different spin on it.

John Cooper, they reminded us, immigrated from the US to Mexico when he came to Monterey and he did so without papers—as an undocumented immigrant.  He came in search of economic prosperity, he converted to Catholicism and married a woman named Encarnación Vallejo, who was the sister of General Mariano Vallejo, arguably the most powerful man in Mexico at the time.  He and Encarnaciόn had children and in 1830, John Cooper became a naturalized citizen of Mexico. We’ve been telling this story for years, but never framed this way.  Our focus group urged us to tell this old story in a new way that would highlight its ironies in the current political climate, focus on the central role of Encarnaciόn de Vallejo Cooper, and allow Latino audiences multiple ways to see themselves in the history of this place.

As is true in so many aspects of life, we never fail to learn something new—in this case about old places—when we bring in partners with different perspectives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Emotions Flow Through Places – Thoughts After Charlottesville

Last week I referenced Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s book Root Shock with a story that spoke to how emotions flow through places.  I wrote before the events in Charlottesville—and the reactions to that weekend—brought place, memory, and emotion to the forefront of our national conversation.

Stephanie Meek’s statement on Confederate memorials and the confronting of difficult history speaks to how emotions that arise from place are not always built upon strong, positive memoriesOf course, Dr. Fullilove understands this all too well.  Root Shock is focused on the difficult history of urban renewal, something seen in Charlottesville’s destruction of the African-American community of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s.  At the Trust, as Stephanie notes, “we believe that historic preservation requires taking our history seriously. We have an obligation to confront the complex and difficult chapters of our past, and to recognize the many ways that our understanding, and characterization, of our shared American story continues to shape our present and future.”  That is especially true of our Civil War history, and the fact that many of these statues and symbols were erected well after the war “to vindicate the Confederacy at the bar of history, erase the central issues of slavery and emancipation from our understanding of the war, and reaffirm a system of state-sanctioned white supremacy.”  I am a Southerner with a grandmother who was a lifelong member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  When I see symbols used to support hatred and divisiveness, the confrontation of the difficult chapters of our past is personal as well as professional.

Two notes I received following last week’s post referenced, in different ways, how our emotions are inextricably tied to place.

The first one shows how difficult it can be for preservationists to support the removal or destruction of places from our past. Yet, there are many among us who have reluctantly reached that conclusion when it comes to Confederate memorials in their specific cities.  A friend and professional colleague who has spent her life working on the preservation of cultural landscapes also happens to sit on the City of Charlottesville’s Historic Resources Committee (HRC).  She has long supported contextualization of the city’s downtown parks and the statues.  But she wrote late last week saying that while she still believes that the city “could have led the way with the addition of powerful design and new interpretation,” her thinking has evolved with the charged emotions of the issue. She shared that evolution with me as well as with the members of the HRC.  In explaining her thinking, she noted that “the political situation locally, statewide, and nationally post-August 12 would make it difficult for any local political leaders to be effective and continue to support such a nuanced position or for our city to begin to return to any semblance of normal governance.”  She adds that this is a difficult decision professionally, but that she does not see “another way forward for Charlottesville at this time.”  She ended her thoughts to the HRC by noting “I hope that Charlottesville will continue to address this issue legally and with appropriate strategies for relocation of resources that have local, state, and national designations that come with various degrees of responsibility for continued conservation and mitigations.”  This is very much in line with Stephanie’s statement that these decisions should be made “on a case by case basis at the community level.”  These are conversations where we as preservationists are engaged, and removal of these symbols should not stop the necessary conversations about how the “understanding and characterization of our shared American story continues to shape our present and future.”

In the second instance, a friend of mine (and fellow blogger) responded to last week’s post with a note that I believe speaks to why much of what we save from our past has such meaningful and moving impacts on our lives today. As a priest, she focused on the preservation of sacred space, which I found insightful and applicable in ways beyond her reference. I want to share her note with you.

In response to Mindy Fullilove’s words, my friend wrote:

“This is one reason that I think it is important to set apart dedicated sacred space. When I was in New Jersey, a megachurch start-up rented the ballroom of our neighboring hotel each Sunday. They grew like wildfire. I would look across the street from my office in a colonial-era church, where maintenance costs were eating us alive, and sometimes I would be green with envy. And yet, our buildings let us do things they never could: let us feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, advocate for the immigrants to came to us for legal help. And one thing I knew: the air in those ballrooms would never be thick with prayer. At the end of Sunday morning, their folks would pack up and go, to be replaced by wedding parties and conventions and business meetings. But in our building, the walls held the prayers of all who had wept or rejoiced or begged in that place for hundreds of years. The difference was palpable.”

Sacred places

Sacred places (photo credit: Claire Brown)

Sacred places have long been landmarks which evoke emotions and generally point us towards our better natures.  They may be places protected with the help of the National Trust’s National Fund for Sacred Places or sites such as Mount Taylor, sacred to as many as 30 Native American tribes and which the Trust has fought to protect through our National Treasure campaign.

Two different ways of seeing the importance of place and the ties places make to our emotions. Both made me think, and I hope you’ll find in one or both something of value.

Have a good week.

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

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

Who Tells Your Story

"Hamilton" Playbill

“Hamilton” Playbill

The full story of America can be seen, told, and appreciated at so many places and on so many levels…if one only cares to stop and listen.

Candice and I are in New York City for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend.  New York is the poster child for how our rich national story is a blend from so many different people, both ordinary and extraordinary, and it is timely to be here this weekend.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is among the most powerful examples of an extraordinary person who fought to ensure that the full talents, opportunities, and stories of all Americans would be supported and recognized.  In the first 24 hours in the city, we saw, heard, and thrilled to various aspects of the story that it truly American.

We are staying in Greenwich Village, which counts among its many notable former residents Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and urban activist Jane Jacobs.  Neither was seen as anything other than ordinary, until they put pen to paper, spoke truth to power, and changed the American story.

Last evening we went uptown from the village, as we were fortunate to have tickets to the extraordinary musical Hamilton, at the Richard Rogers Theatre.  And yes, to quote the reviews, it really is that good.

Stage of Hamilton

Stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical” which looks like a period-appropriate tavern

“A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, “Hamilton” is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals. And it does so by insisting that the forms of song most frequently heard on pop radio stations in recent years — rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads — have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison — they’re all here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure. So are Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette….But these guys don’t exactly look like the marble statues of the men they’re portraying. For one thing, they’re black or Hispanic. And when they open their mouths, the words that tumble out are a fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address….And you never doubt for a second that these eclectic words don’t belong in proximity to one another. In mixing a broad range of references and rhythms in one percolating style, Mr. Miranda — who wrote the book, music and lyrics of “Hamilton,” which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography — does what rap artists have been doing for years. It’s the immoderate language of youth, ravenous and ambitious, wanting to claim and initial everything in reach as their own.

Which turns out to be the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation.”

History has seldom been told in such a lively, thrilling, and “oh-so-appropriate for the moment” way.  We buzzed about the show and its meaning until well past midnight (and well past our normal bedtime), so this morning we slept in late and then walked a few blocks to the West Village for a brunch at Joseph Leonard.  Candice and I felt right at home – because other than us, all the other patrons were just about Andrew and Claire’s age!  (We joked with our waiter that we got a table because it was still before noon…and most 20-somethings were just getting out of bed on a Saturday morning.)

 As we looked out the window in this wonderful neighborhood gathering place, I realized we were at Christopher Park, and right across the street from the Stonewall Inn.

Christopher Park

Christopher Park and the Stonewall Inn

 

Stonewall National Monument

Stonewall National Monument

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, supported President Obama’s designation of Stonewall as the nation’s first gay-rights National Monument last year.  Because of the actions of those patrons of this ordinary-looking place back in 1969, millions of Americans gained the freedom to love the person of their own choosing, and to tell their stories proudly as part of the fabric of American life.

Hamilton at the Rogers Theatre

The crowd gathers for Hamilton, as we waited in anticipation of hearing new voices tell the American story

The last song in Hamilton “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” – had such resonance with both Candice and me last evening.  Why?  Perhaps because the relevance would come up so quickly today when – at the beginning of the MLK weekend – civil rights hero John Lewis was attacked in another of the tweets which are becoming all-too-familiar, in an attempt to silence his story.  We were reminded in real time why we must stand strong in ensuring that our American story is told truthfully and fully.

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

Relevance

Art of Relevance

The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon

Nina Simon, the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, gave a powerful TrustLive talk at the recent Houston PastForward conference on place and relevance.  She defines relevance as a key that unlocks meaning, opening doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, and bring value into our lives.

In her book The Art of Relevance, Nina applies two criteria to all the stories she tells about relevance.  First, how likely new information is to stimulate a positive cognitive effect – to yield new conclusions that matter to you.  Second, how much effort is required to obtain and absorb that new information.  The lower the effort, the higher the relevance.  As those of us who heard her speak know, she frames this work in terms of doors and keys that help different groups access rooms of information.  To understand individuals different from us, we have to go outside our rooms and look – with empathy – at the views of the community outside the door.  We have to learn from other rooms and people outside of our comfort zone.

As we think about relevance in all we do, we need to recognize that it is a process and – Simon asserts – a moving target.

“Your content (or work, or information) can be relevant to different people at different times for different reasons – or not.  Even at institutions that have undergone radical reinvention, change doesn’t stop.  As Will Rogers said, ‘Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.’”

We can approach the shifting tides of relevance in three ways: by embracing them, fighting them, or equivocating over them.  You can imagine which response Nina Simon suggests.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB