Written by Eli Pousson
What is the role of preservation in a low-income urban neighborhood? How can we support the revitalization of urban communities devastated by disinvestment and vacancy? How can we engage residents and neighborhood leaders when they are more concerned about safe and decent housing, stable employment opportunities, and safe streets than historic buildings?
These are a few of the questions that a group of Partners in the Field Representatives tackled this past October with our session, "Preservation Strategies in Low-Income Communities," at the National Preservation Conference in Austin.
Karina Muñiz, from the Los Angeles Conservancy, presented on her work with the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments in East LA's Boyle Heights neighborhood. Stuart Johnson from the San Antonio Conservation Society discussed a community-driven initiative to save Lerma's Nite Club, a bastion of conjunto music heritage on San Antonio's Westside. Finally, I shared a case study on Baltimore Heritage's work to link historic preservation and transit-oriented development in West Baltimore highlighting Baltimore's Hebrew Orphan Asylum and our Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods program series.
Recognizing the diversity of the communities, preservation organizations and approaches represented on our panel, we worked hard over the course of the summer and fall to identify a set of common themes and issues. All were ably captured in our discussion by our moderator, Melissa Jest from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
The following themes are essential points of consideration for any preservation organization considering work in low-income urban neighborhoods:
- Preservation in these neighborhoods must be driven by close partnerships with resident-led community organizations. These partnerships not only make our work more effective, they also help to diversify the voices within our own local preservation communities.
- Racial, ethnic, and class-based segregation of housing, education, and employment continue to shape our communities. Acknowledging these factors, particularly in the context of concerns about gentrification and displacement, is important to building mutual trust.
- Broader definitions of significance and integrity are necessary to recognize, preserve, and interpret the full range of built and cultural heritage found in these neighborhoods. Traditional approaches to survey and documentation can be complemented by oral histories and ethnography.
For more discussion on these issue, I'd strongly recommend reading "Este Lugar es Importante: Embracing Diverse Perspectives on Significance" by panelist Karina Muñiz (with Anthea M. Hartig) and "Making Historic Preservation Relevant in Urban Communities of Color" by moderator Melissa Jest, both in the Spring 2010 issue of Forum Journal.
Although this work may be challenging for many small-capacity preservation organizations, the preservation movement must not ignore the many historic neighborhoods across the country that are pushed the margins within their own communities. Complementing Stephanie Meeks' call at the National Preservation Conference to make preservation more accessible, this work is an opportunity to create a more inclusive and just approach to preservation.
Eli Pousson is a field officer for Baltimore Heritage in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.