Written by Anne Dodge
In my job as a circuit rider -- a person who works in the field to bring preservation programs, services, knowledge and resources to local communities -- I get to work with a wide range of historic properties all over eastern Massachusetts. However, although the properties can be very different from one another, the people who call the circuit riders tend to have a lot in common. But every once in a while, a property’s fate hinges on the participation of a racially and culturally diverse population. The Wollaston Theater is one of those properties.
The Wollaston Theater is a single-screen, classical revival-style movie theater on a bustling commercial street near downtown Quincy. Known locally as “The Wolly”, the theater operated as a first-run movie theater until the 1990’s, when it began to fall into disrepair. The Boston Globe reports that a group of individuals in the arts have entered into a purchase and sale agreement with the estate that owns the building; reportedly, the new owners intend to keep the theater in use as some type of performance or cultural center.
Since the 1980s, the Wollaston’s North Quincy neighborhood has also been home to many Chinese and other Asian immigrants. According to The Next American City, Quincy’s Asian-American population stands at around 14,000, or around 17% of the town’s total population. When I was contacted by a concerned local citizen about the theater’s recent sale, we spent much of our meeting talking not only about the theater, but about the community around it. My client worried that it would be difficult to form a collaborative, diverse coalition of advocates -– not because the theater didn’t matter to all of the neighborhood’s residents, but because she had no knowledge of any Chinese-Americans in Quincy who worked in preservation. And unfortunately, neither did I, and neither did my coworkers, although the city has no shortage of knowledgeable preservation professionals.
From my perspective as a circuit rider and someone relatively new to the field of preservation, the Wollaston Theater is not only a building to be saved, but an opportunity to start a conversation about the issues of diversity, relevancy, and communication that characterize the historic preservation field. The field has worked hard in recent years to broaden both its participants and the types of resources it celebrates, but there is definitely more work to be done. Riding the “circuit” around eastern Massachusetts has shown me how few new Americans are engaged with historic preservation. And I don’t believe that this is primarily because the buildings often represent Anglo-American history or because historic preservation is a luxury business, but because preservation organizations have failed to create sustained and meaningful relationships with new American individuals, groups, and organizations.
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