You Do Not Have to be a Historic Preservationist

Lately, I have been thinking about historic preservation and how it is viewed by non-preservationists. Non-preservationists can be those who may be interested in but do not define themselves as preservationists, those who are generally uninterested in the field or those who are unaware of what preservation is. To the latter two categories, the term “historic preservation” may sound unfriendly, scarred by stereotypes and preconceived notions or affiliated too much with gentrification.

Those of us familiar with the field of historic preservation know that it is anything but elitist. The days of focusing solely on house museums and famous figures only have long passed. Now historic preservation includes all ethnicities, all races, all classes, all architectural styles, all communities and reaches beyond history to intertwine itself with economic revitalization, sustainability and quality of life. It is quite the challenge to be effectively succinct about preservation.

You do not have to be a historic preservationist in order to appreciate historic preservation.

Has anyone ever told you that? Does that sound strange? Or obvious? In other words, as I write and talk about historic preservation, I am not hoping to transform you into preservationists. My motivation is not to make every other field sound less important. Rather, the goal is to gain your respect for preservation while providing education about the field.

Reliving my childhood in summer 2005 at The Big Duck, except as a kid I bought a kite inside the store.

For reference, I consider my family members who are not trained in preservation nor would they define themselves as preservationists. Yet, there are traces of preservation throughout our childhoods. We all grew up loving The Big Duck on Long Island (and we had ducks for pets; Mom still does).  We were and remain incredibly attached to the town of and our memories in Point Lookout. My mom could explain the history of most places we’d pass on our drives to eastern Long Island. My sister Sarah loved road-tripping with my mom and me where we saw more roadside architecture, an abandoned schoolhouse, state and national parks and memorials and small towns in the middle of nowhere.

Sarah and me at the giant Prairie Dog outside Badlands National Park in August 2006.

Inside an abandoned Nebraska schoolhouse, August 2006.

My youngest sister Erin (a frequent commenter on PiP) understands how quality of life and sense of place are improved through supporting small businesses and getting behind the development of bicycle trails. Both girls loved the first time I brought them to a drive-in movie theater.  My sister Annie holds our family traditions dear, yearns to take a cross-country road trip together, and explains to me that I’d love Austria because of the narrow, winding streets and little stores and the architecture. My dad tells me the history of Forest Hills and his parents, his visits to the 1964 World’s Fair and his love for train travel.

I have taken many road trips (Route 66, South Carolina, South Dakota, Great Lakes) on which I have stayed in little motels, seen roadside America galore, driven through small towns and big cities and of course, seen flamingos along the way and/or had a flamingo in tow. And I always drink a lot of coffee.

On the road with Pip in July 2009, and lots of coffee.

You see, it is easy to identify many elements of and connections to preservation running through my family members and our conversations, even if they don’t completely (or didn’t always) realize it. Aside from my mom, I would be surprised if any of my family members included “historic preservationist” in their “about me” descriptions.

Yet, they understand why it is important and appreciate the benefits of historic preservation. And that is what matters most. While they may not want to do what I do for a living, they are glad that I want to do it. (Don’t be fooled; families are not perfect. We avoid discussions about big box stores.)

The same can be said for every field, probably. Sarah works in the wildlife conservation & environmentalism fields, which is another incredibly vital role in the health of our world. Wildlife conservation is not something I can see myself doing as a career/lifestyle, but I understand its importance. The same can be said environmentalism. Not everyone is going to keep up with the latest scientific findings and reports, but many will do his/her part to improve efficient use of resources in order to help save the planet, habitats and environment.

This is a non-succinct story to explain that just because you understand (or sort of understand) all of the historic preservation chatter and theories, does not mean that you have to define yourself as a preservationist. (This is not to discourage you from defining yourself as one if you’d like.) In fact, you don’t have to understand it all. The needed part, by all, is to respect historic preservation and those of us who believe strongly in the power (for good) of the wide-reaching field. You do not have to do the preservation work, but if you can come to terms with even one aspect of preservation (e.g. local shopping, rehabilitation of historic buildings, land use planning, heritage tourism), then you are enabling us preservationists to keep at what we love – and more importantly, to work at ways in improving quality of life and sense of place for person and every community.

So, what do you think? Does knowing that, as a preservationist, I am not attempting to “convert” you or others to a new field make you less apprehensive to historic preservation?  And if you are a preservationist, how do you feel about this?


p.s. Did you miss Friday’s Pop Quiz? Take it today and the answer will be up tomorrow.


12 thoughts on “You Do Not Have to be a Historic Preservationist

  1. Karri says:

    I identify as a preservationist, and I loved this post. Preservation is about so much more than saving old buildings – it’s about preserving a cultural history, a way of life, a sense of community. And you are exactly right, we are all preservationists, whether we call ourselves that or not.


    • Kaitlin says:

      Thanks, Karri. Though I wouldn’t call everyone a preservationist – since most people do not want to be called one – but I would say that everyone can appreciate historic preservation, which allows us preservationists to continue doing our jobs. In other words, it is a friendlier field than most think and it continues to be relevant to everyone’s lives.

      • Karri says:

        Perhaps I should have said we are all preservationists of one kind or another. And that appreciation everyone has of historic preservation does indeed allow those of us who focus our preservation efforts on old buildings to do our jobs. Just as our appreciation of those who focus their preservation efforts on other things (ancestry and lineage records, fine and folk arts, cultural and religious festivals and celebrations, etc.) allows them to do their jobs.

  2. Sabra Smith says:

    As part of a grad school assignment, we took to Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street to survey pedestrians. Chestnut Street stretches from the old part of the city that ends at the Delaware River across town to its end at the Schuylkill River and includes loads of architecturally-delightful buildings of various vintages, as well as Independence Hall, America’s first department store, and one of the city’s last remaining movie palaces.

    One of our survey questions asked if there was anything historic about Chestnut Street — that word — “historic” — caused people to stammer and look away while they desperately thought. Their reaction was that of a student who forgot to study for the test. What was historic — what made something historic — what if they didn’t know the dates or the facts of why it was historic; would they get it “wrong” then? But if you asked a different question — what they liked about Chestnut Street — almost every single person would talk about the pedestrian experience of walking along and looking at all the buildings, as well as personal connections to certain buildings or places along the way (the street includes the old Wanamaker’s Building and many have nostalgic holiday memories).

    As you point out above, people don’t necessarily “identify” as historic preservationists, yet they value the sense of place that our built environment creates, and the idea of the history — the stories and connections to other people and events of the past.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Thanks for sharing, Sabra. I agree; people can always tell you what they like or don’t like. As long as they can do that, then we preservationists can take that information and translate it into our work. And if people can understand that this is what we are doing, then perhaps historic preservation will be more amenable to the everyday citizen.

      On a different note, I don’t think this means we stop using “historic preservation,” but rather work harder to show people how they do support the field and how it is applicable to their lives (and still do not have to define themselves as preservationists).

  3. Ellen Skonberg says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, it answered the question I had regarding the definition of a preservationist.

  4. Raina Regan says:

    This is an absolutely great post. I think we need more people to understand they can value historic preservation without being labeled a ‘historic preservationist.’ Working in the CRM field especially, I feel like ‘historic preservation’ has become a dirty word. Instead, I would love to see and to work with more individuals and officials in Section 106 work who can appreciate and understand historic preservation and make the process less contentious.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Thank you, Raina! Yes, sometimes I find that people outside of the resource protection world (whether it be cultural, built or natural resources) are wary of things like preservation. Fortunately, if you can develop a good working relationship, these same people can often comes to terms with Section 106 and learn to work with it. However, it can be a long uphill battle. I’m grateful to those who have been battling it long before you and I were professionals. One day, one project at a time, right? =)

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