(This post was written as part of PreservationNation’s coverage of the National Preservation Conference, October 2-6, 2007.)
From "Root Shock" to root vegetables, the two keynote speeches of the 2007 National Preservation Conference's Closing Plenary differed in their respective topics, but at root (do you get the theme here?), Dr. Mindy Fullilove and Arlin Wasserman shared a key value that is also near and dear to the preservationists sitting in the audience: the critical importance of place.
As we filed in to the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning (past many of our familiar colleagues clad in some very unfamiliar attire: straw hats and bandannas. Hmmm, could all of these people have lost a bet, or was it a collective overreaction to Garrison Keillor's admonition that preservationists need to lighten up? More on this mystery in a minute), we were looking forward to an interesting double-bill.
Dr. Fullilove is a social psychologist who focuses on the psychological harm done to individuals when their community is dispersed and their social networks are disrupted. Wasserman, whose work focuses on "terroir"—French for "the taste of place"—is a self-described "foodie" who travels the globe tasting some of the world's greatest food. Wasserman's work forces him to drink Champagne in France, sample arugula in Cuba, and seek out iced cider in Quebec.
First up was Dr. Fullilove. Much of her research has focused on the destructive role urban renewal played in breaking apart social networks by destroying neighborhoods. In her book "Root Shock," Dr. Fullilove explored how social networks among the primarily African-American residents of Pittsburgh's Hill District became casualties of urban renewal's destruction. "Once this community was dispersed, those social networks were lost forever," she said.
Fullilove sees a disturbingly familiar pattern playing out in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where the diaspora of Katrina refugees continues to wrestle with rootlessness, lack of a sense of place, and loss of the human networks that once bound them together. Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, often states that the devastation Katrina wrought on the Gulf Coast is both a human and a cultural tragedy, an observation that really hit home during Fullilove's presentation. Preservationists and psychologists may seem like strange bedfellows, but after hearing Fullilove, you get it: Social psychology asks the question "how does society make us well or ill," and Fullilove noted that stable homes and neighborhoods are the cornerstones of a functioning society. Helping to rebuild the historic neighborhoods of New Orleans—i.e. repairing the cultural damage—is preservation's way of helping to repair the psychological damage that was inflicted on the city's residents when the storm hit.
Now, the undercard. We've all heard a lot about the local food movement, and while Arlin Wasserman's work explores similar themes, his take on the topic is far more nuanced than what you may have read. "Food persistently expresses the place where it is grown," he states, arguing that "soil, climate, sun and slope all affect the taste of food." And wine. Drinking and analyzing wine is a big part of Wasserman's work, and anyone who can make that claim had a better high-school guidance counselor than I did.
Terroir, he says, explains why a chardonnay made from grapes grown in California will not taste the same as a chardonnay made from French grapes, even when both are derived from the same variety of grapes. Same with arugula grown in Cuba versus arugula grown in the Pacific Northwest, or carrots from a farm 20 miles outside his home in Minneapolis versus carrots trucked in from California. The food which emerges from unique, discrete areas of the world carries within it the flavor of that specific place, and it "reflects the unique qualities of each small and special place on earth."
The essence of Wasserman's argument is that place matters. I think the same could be said for Fullilove, and I doubt you'd get a lot of disagreement from the preservationists in the audience. What we eat, who the other people on our block and in our communities are, and what our cities and neighborhoods look like — these are fundamental questions for Wasserman, Fullilove, and preservationists, respectively. But, in thinking about the answers to them, it's striking how much overlap there is. Each of us is in the business of preserving local character, reinforcing existing social networks, celebrating the uniqueness of communities, and championing the need to preserve diversity in an increasingly culturally homogenized nation.
Oh yeah, the hats and bandannas. Turns out it's a kickoff to the 2008 National Preservation Conference, which will be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Note to Tulsa: I am looking forward to seeing your lovely city, but I don't do cowboy hats, authentic or otherwise. They make my head itch.
-- Virgil McDill