Forces of Nature, Misconceptions and Changing the Rules

I think it might be best to start discussing Thursday at the National Preservation Conference by talking about the “Next American City” general session. During this presentation we heard from Kennedy Smith (of CLUE group, and an expert in community revitalization and main street development) and Charles Buki whose foci includes neighborhood revitalization.

For those of you who read my blog and aren’t plugged into the preservation movement are probably asking what this has to do with preservation and history. Think about it as a means of preserving where we live, and stopping neighborhoods and cities from becoming in-distinctive, and a one-size fit all look. It is a part of preserving Americana in a different way.

The two panelists posed three questions:

  1. What are the major forces driving development?
  2. If we could rewrite the rules what rules would you rewrite
  3. If you could change one misconception about Historic Preservation what would it be.

While Kennedy looked at the continued need to save each community’s distinctive character (she had a great presentation that included images along roadways in 5 different American communities, that all looked the same, cluttered with McDonalds, gas stations, Pizza Huts etc. Her point: you cannot tell where you are just by looking at the street). Buki came from the perspective that “he is not a preservationist” (though many in the room, including me disagreed, but we’ll get to that later). His main assertion was an encouragement of diversity in development and the recognition that sometimes we revitalize/rehabilitate/re-develop and end up creating neighborhoods and places where the old inhabitants no longer feel welcome.

He says for any neighborhood development one should ask the following question: What is the extant to which the project you are working on will be useful to your customers when they are at 60% of their income. Considering the economic recession it isn’t a question to be taken lightly.

So let’s talk about identity, since I found, through my following three sessions, that preservationists are looking—not necessarily to re-define our mission and our goals—but to let the outside world know that we are more than a steward of historic sites.

I think my favorite conversation about asserting our identity more loudly and proudly was in the panel on “Solar Panels, Wind Turbines, and More: Is Preservation Ready.” Val Talmage, from Preserve Rhode Island put up two lists of adjectives. The left side included words like entrepreneurial, visionary, inventive, flexible; while the other list included adjectives like rigid, inflexible, obstructionist. Val asked the audience: “What list do you think we ourselves as being, and what list do you think others perceive us as.”  Then she asked what list represents the public perception of environmentalists or those supporting green building. The answers are fairly obvious.

It came up again in the Habitat for Humanity session, albeit in a different way. Instead of outwardly talking about changing how we act this session showed how we as preservationists can pro-actively work with new partners and show that we are not what everyone expects us to be. Make sure to check out the amazing case studies that show how Habitat for Humanity is working with preservation organizations on new ideas that stray away from their typical model.

The first session of the morning was a breakout directly related to the general session entitled “Everyone Wants to Live Within Walking Distance: What Does this Mean for Preservation?” The panelists included rockstars like David Dixon, Mary Means, and Roberta Gratz and looked at the principles of Jane Jacobs. Gratz at one point posited the following quote of Jacobs:

“You cannot build the ovens and expect the loaves to jump in.”

Development equals the ovens, and Preservation includes the Loaves. You can construct the building, but without a preservation ethic you cannot build, or bake a community. That is we have a responsibility to put the loaves (er preservation) into the developmental process instead of just expecting them to think of us. We have to stop sitting on the sidelines and yelling stop and start taking initiative. Again, in another session (the one on Solar energy), Val Talmage said that what she would love to see is preservationists aggressively going after a plan to cut the carbon footprint of America’s heritage and then going after projects to build a bank of case studies and best practices. So then we have something to point to and say—look, yes we can.

Before I go one more word on identity. I think it is interesting that we as preservationists are trying to tell those in the conservation, environmental, and green movement that we are one of them. It is a conversation that I heard in the halls of the National Council on Public History conference earlier that year—that preservationists are public historians, but that a lot of preservationists don’t identify as public historians. (Though I did appreciate that as preservation moves a little bit further away from the preserving “history” in the purest sense, that in the Solar Panels session we got a great quick history of energy development in America). Buki asked if it was possible for us to “be in two places at one time.” I think we can—we all do wear many hats, and we have to stop waiting to be asked to the table and jump in.

Click here to check out my pictures from last night (including a few from the Candlelight House Tour. Make sure to look at the image below which is from the Max Bickler House. Apparently the architect chronicled his life in pencil on the underpart of the stairs. Here is the notation from the surrender of Japan in 1945.

Etching from the stairway beneath the Max Bickler House

Up Next: Next American Landscape Day! National Preservation Awards! Mad about Mod Party!

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