Tulsa's Closing Plenary Looks at Historical Narratives, Need for Preservation Laws

Posted on: October 27th, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has concluded, though staff members from around the National Trust for Historic Preservation are still sending in field reports. In our final post from the conference, Virgil McDill, communications manager, reports on the closing plenary session, as well as his unusual choice for his last breakfast in Tulsa.

Just before attending the closing plenary session of the 2008 National Preservation Conference, I breakfasted on a popular local Tulsa food item that I’d never had before: Frito Pie. Spurred on by Jane and Michael Stern’s popular Roadfood website, I’d been going to the restaurant Coney I-Lander (motto – “Since 1926 We haven’t Changed a Bite) for lunch most days of the conference. There are a few locations of this popular local restaurant around town -- the one I went to is underneath a cool, abandoned 1960s motel right in the middle of downtown Tulsa -- a great place to soak up local culture along with the local cuisine. And what is Frito Pie? Basically, it’s chili sauce atop a bed of Fritos, topped with cheddar cheese, onions and a special chili-powder mixture. Mmmmmmmm.

The closing plenary took place at the Tulsa Convention Center, the Edward Durrell Stone-designed modernist building where much of the conference took place, and a building that few people fell in love with this week. The windowless third floor room where I spent much of the week seemed designed to snuff out any inkling of spirit or joy that might come its way.

The first keynote speaker for the event was Nell Irvin Painter, a professor of history, prolific author, and award-winning scholar. Painter noted the individual stories that, taken together, contribute to our understanding of a place. Focusing on the story of famed historian John Hope Franklin and his Oklahoma roots -- his father was in Tulsa during the infamous 1921 race riots -- Painter said the story of Franklin’s family is one narrative of Tulsa’s past, part of the fabric of the community that must be preserved.

She noted that the “public sphere is contested space,” in that there is a constant struggle over what we choose to remember, and how we choose to interpret past events. Painter cited Germany’s struggles with interpreting its Nazi past as an especially profound example this (as described by the German term Vergangenheitsbewältigung).

As a counterpoint, she closed with several photos of her own 1940s girlhood, spent happily, she said, in what looked to be middle-class environs of the Bay Area. Painter’s point? That the dominant narratives don’t tell everyone’s story. In an era thought of -- rightly, in so many cases -- as rife with racial oppression directed at African-Americans, the photos of a happy young Painter vacationing with her family amongst the California redwoods is a reminder that there are always other stories, other points of view.

The other keynoter was author and urbanist Anthony Tung, a former member of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, who promised, tongue firmly in cheek, that his presentation would cover “preservation efforts around the world in 20 minutes.” He was kidding, but clearly, Tung has a global perspective on preservation. To research his first book, “Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis,” Tung traveled extensively to examine and compare the preservation tradition in 20 cities around the globe.

Tung’s travels reinforced a basic fact he’d learned as a member of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, and one that will surprise few preservationists; the most effective way to engender what he termed a “culture of conservation” is through stringent, binding preservation laws. Simply put, cities with strong preservation laws on the books tended to save more of their historic infrastructure.

After his formal remarks, Tung was asked what advice he would give to local Tulsa preservationists, and he returned to the same theme -- the need for a binding preservation law. The fact that 52 percent of downtown Tulsa is covered in surface parking lots, he said, owes in large measure to the fact that historic buildings are not designated by the city. Until they are, the glory of Tulsa’s rich architectural heritage -- including the many art deco buildings still standing -- could be further eroded.

-- Virgil McDill

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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