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?

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

A Field of Saying No?

Lately, one of the buzz conversations among many in the preservation field includes the idea that historic preservation is too often in the practice of saying no to something, rather than saying yes. This conversation was discussed at the National Trust Conference and in many related blog posts after the fact. One particular blog post is from Time Tells by Vince Michael; a quote he referenced stuck with me and I’ve been wanting to talk about it.

While I am taking this quote out of context here, I think the idea is still important to discuss. If you are interested, read the post for the entire context.

“Y’all won. Most people accept the conservation of important buildings and districts as a community and civic value. Why do we continue to act like victims? Why are we still defensive?”

When I read that quote, I was insulted. I have never felt that I am in such a position. As a preservationist, do you really feel like you are always saying no? Do you think our standard operation procedures are negative and defensive? While there are laws to “say no” for us, which regulators are charged with enforcing, that doesn’t mean preservation means no and it doesn’t mean that laws are only for prevention. It seems like a backwards way of thinking, if you ask me.

Preservation is about compromise, suggestions, guidance and working with other fields in order to protect and channel our best and most valuable resources. Sure, the battles are highlighted in the media. But, what about the accomplishments and the rest of what the field represents? Economic development, successful planning, neighborhood revitalization, cultural appreciation – all of this has nothing to do with saying no. Preservation is about creative solutions and thinking, just like everything else. Every field, academic and professional, from banking to environmentalism to architecture has ethics, standards and laws that govern how it operates.  At some point, everyone will say no, but that is not mean that’s the purpose of the profession.

Of course, every field, just like every person, can benefit from periods of reevaluation and thoughtful improvements. However, I will say, if you are thinking that historic preservation is a bunch of people saying no – even in the 21st century – then you are thinking about preservation in the wrong way.

What do you think, readers? Is this an issue of semantics? Do you see preservation as a field of victims and saying no?

The Core of Preservation

What do you think is at the core of preservation? Do you think of houses, architectures, places, or something else? In my response post last week, I quoted Emily Koller from her blog post, which said that, “Historic preservation at its core is about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place. Young people, as a whole, are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live.”  In the comments section, “kvl” mentioned that the idea of the core of preservation seemed interesting from an anthropological point of view. (Feel free to elaborate!)

I would say I agree with the first part of Koller’s statement — possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place. But, as I stated already, I certainly do not agree with the latter half of her statement, which is why I ask you, readers, how you define or identify the core of preservation.

Aside from caring about a loving a place, I see the core of preservation as quality of life (something else that I’ve often mentioned). A preservationist must understand that every place has a story and it is important to someone, even if the preservationist does not have an attachment to it. As preservationists we are working to give everyone the opportunity to honor their history and memories, while incorporating it into their daily lives with the end result of improving quality of life. Thus, the core of historic preservation for me reaches far beyond my own connections or lack thereof to a place.

Of course, you don’t have to agree with me or anyone else, but I’m interested in how preservationists identify their work — what drives you? You don’t have to define the entire field and its mission, but what makes up your preservation soul? Please share, I’m very interested!