|A sea of young, diverse faces, all eager to take new ideas back to their communities, was present in this breakout seminar on underrepresented groups.|
It's about more than blue-haireds and bulldozer-defiers.
Or the stereotypical docent selling tickets in a museum gift shop.
Anyone who buys into this "yesterday" image of preservationists hasn't stepped into the annual conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in recent years.
At the meeting of the nation's premier organization for saving places this past week, I looked out on a sea of youthful, bright millennial faces that couldn't wait to race back home to share new ideas with their constituencies. The more than 1,500 attendees at this year's conference in Chicago reflected all age groups, races, genders, and economic levels.
People who managed historic sites were present, for sure. But so were architects, city officials, planners, nonprofit leaders, historians, educators, attorneys, political activists, volunteers, and grad students.
And despite what one might suppose, studying how to attract tourists to a historic site in one's community was far, far down the "takeaway" goals for these conferees.
They were there to study:
• the role of "place" on one's well-being. New neuroscience research has begun to explain the importance of one's environment on a person's mental and physical health. A seminar, "This Is Your Brain on Preservation", studied the way old places give people a sense of continuity, belonging, identity, and memory—all benefits to psychological well-being. People's brain activity has been examined when they are around "the places that make us", said one presenter. A video contrasting those who remained in familiar settings at Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster and those who were relocated to unfamiliar settings showed that those who stayed behind actually fared better mentally and physically than those who left—living an average of almost a decade longer despite exposure to the high doses of radiation.
|These are some of the cutting-edge studies examining, from a wide range of sciences, the emotional processing that places activates in us.|
• the use of new technology, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Boomerang, in engaging audiences around preservation.
• an emphasis on "People Saving Places for People". "Old places create a sense of unity in a nation more divided than ever," said National Trust President Stephanie Meeks in the opening plenary session.
• strategic development of underrepresented sites—an aggressive campaign to find nonwhite sites to add to the nation's historic inventory. African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American, Native American, female, and even LGBTQ groups were charged with returning to their communities to see what minority sites have been left out of the mix and to cultivate them.
Nowhere was this more apparent than during the major announcement that the National Trust is establishing a $25-million fund called the African-American Cultural Action Fund, where grant money will be made available for potential, overlooked sites that qualify.
Driving this year's theme was the ugly public debate and protests occurring all across the country over the more than 700 Confederate statutes in some 36 states and the stark reality that more than 92 percent of all monuments, statues, historical markers, and historic places honor white (Anglo), mostly male Americans. The remaining eight percent (up from seven percent a year ago) honor the histories of Native Americans, African-Americans, Latino/Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish-Americans, women, and LGBTQ-Americans. (The eye-popping change of adding women to the minority mix was what pushed the percentage up from seven to eight percent this year! That increase wasn't nearly what some of us had expected or had hoped.)
While the National Trust takes the position of weeding out all Confederate statues installed specifically as a symbolic means of suppressing African-Americans and others during Jim Crow days and studying the validity of the others, the organization's primary focus is on finding ways of honoring nonwhite and other minority populations, including women, to tell the "underappreciated stories from our past," according to President Meeks.
In some cases, the solution is as simple as adding a reinterpretation of a site.
An example is the until-recently buried history of and tribute to Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore some of former President Thomas Jefferson's children. This is addressed by an augmented telling of the Jefferson story at Monticello, outside Charlottesville, VA.
I personally hammered away during the meeting for more focus on accurate Native American historic sites and supported the push for African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans and others to have their stories told more fully and completely. With the announcement that San Antonio, TX, will celebrate its 300th birthday in 2018, one speaker said, "There was a San Antonio before there was a Washington, DC." The Rio Vista Farm National Treasure being developed in South Texas was a startling realization that the U.S. government once sought Mexican day laborers (braceros) and actually encouraged them to come here—a far cry from the unfair stereotype today of undocumented workers stealing jobs belonging to U.S. citizens.
I was privileged for the second year in a row to be selected to participate in the organization's Diversity Scholar program. I was the lone Native American in the group of 25. I was by far the oldest in the group, with the average age being in their early 30s. Most were younger than my two adult children; the youthful scholars treated me with the utmost respect.
Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Preservation meeting
Michelle Tagalong and Ari Scott, presenters
Not a single time in the conference did I hear someone advocate saving a building simply because it's old.
What I did hear promoted was a thoughtful survey of each endangered building, carefully studying its best potential use. No one mentioned bulldozers, except when they had been slipped in during the night or unexpectedly before a thorough, fair, and public study of a building and all its possibilities had been completed.
Closer to home, immediately before the Chicago meeting Kay and I scheduled knowledge-share sessions in our home with key players in Garland's African-American and Hispanic-American communities so we could be better briefed to present local examples of needs of those two communities specifically.
Garland desperately needs to find ways to honor and commemorate the contributions of its African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, women, and other minority communities. For instance, while we have fought bitter battles over two of the city's most historic homes—the Tinsley-Lyles House and the Pace House, each with white histories—the city has yet to commemorate the African-Americans who first lived in The Flats on the land where our city hall and new apartments now stand. It would have been great if The Flats could have been cited in the recent re-dedication of those city facilities.
And the city has worked systematically to eradicate the African-American homes in the Coopers Additions, where Texas Highway 66 divides in the couplet formed by Avenues B and D—with no seeming plan in mind to revitalize that abandoned area of serious historical importance to the city's African-American community.
The home of the city's first Hispanic family—the Manuel and Marie Valle family—at West Avenue C and Santa Fe, was bulldozed as land was cleared in that area for what was once planned as the next expansion of Garland's First Baptist Church. That site, notable by Mrs. Valle's cactus still growing at the southwest corner of the intersection, could now become just another church parking lot.
Kay and I came away from the Chicago gathering with a deeper commitment to work to see that oversights in our hometown are made right, that minimizations of the past are corrected, and that all of Garland's citizens receive the equal respect and honor they deserve.