The Difficult Part of Regulatory Review

As mentioned before, I love the regulatory world of historic preservation. I love working for the Agency of Transportation and having the opportunity to see historic preservation affect everyone and every place. It is exciting and practical and challenging.

Interpreting the legal language and implications of Section 106 and Section 4(f) can seem like a puzzle, but it gets easier and makes more sense with practice and experience. However, I have found that the most difficult part of interpreting and applying preservation law is realizing that the laws cannot help everything. What do I mean? Well, if a property is not historic or a Section 4(f) resource such as a park or a wildlife/waterfowl refuge, then the preservation laws have no control over the direction of the project. Other reviews, such as those pertaining to natural or biological resources or storm water control may still apply regulations, if the situation warrants it. Legally, that makes sense. And in terms of historic preservation, it makes sense.

But, every so often, I think about a project that doesn’t make sense, whether it’s in the media or something that I know of from experience, and I wish that there was a law to stop or fix the project. Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair that ineligible (for the National Register) houses and neighborhoods are not protected by preservation laws. After all, people live everywhere! Don’t all existing buildings deserve some sort of chance, under somebody’s law? Shouldn’t an existing, new building be exempt from demolition because of embodied energy? Where in the project review line will something like this be addressed?

This particular desire to protect everything, no matter what sort of resource, probably dates back to my Mary Washington days, when the flamingos and I first declared that we could save the world through our historic preservation efforts. It still keeps us going.

Well, everything cannot be and is not historic. Obviously, one law cannot control or have a say over every aspect of every project — that sounds a bit too power crazed; but when you spend your days looking at projects and determining what is eligible for protection and what is not, it’s hard to ignore everything else. When that happens, it is important to remember that historic preservation review is only a small part of the review process. My job is historic preservation compliance, and that is important to remember. The best way to solve this dilemma is to keep a good working relationship with colleagues in order to understand the entire scope of the project, as well as its purpose and need, and the project review process. Luckily, I’m learning this day by day: how review functions, when to question the process and when I need to better understand the process.

Readers, what do you find most difficult about your job?

A Life in the Trades: October 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010. February 2010. March 2010. April 2010. May 2010. June 2010. September 2010.

By Nicholas Bogosian

I have now reached the fifth quarter of my training at the Building Preservation & Restoration Program of Belmont Technical College.  That’s five out of seven.  I started this series at the beginning of my training with the intent of highlighting the trades function in the preservation of our built environment and as an open scrapbook of my experiences through the duration of the training.  I am happy to say that the zeal I came into the process with hasn’t wavered a bit.  Now the time has come to begin seeking out internships and think more forwardly about my place in the field.

Sistering rafters in historic outshed until necessary structural repairs can be made. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

It’s a true challenge to define preservation, let alone decide where you fit into its expansive net.  Preservation is not something most of us hear about growing up, or see on career placement tests.  While attending a plaster demonstration at Sarel Venter’s plaster lab in Grafton, WV last Spring, he asked us what we wanted to do when we graduated.  A few of us only had vague ideas:  “I’m not really sure” to which he replied, “That’s probably a good thing.”

Renata Bruza working iron over an anvil in Metals class. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

I know, like most of my peers, that I find satisfaction in making an unhealthy structure healthy again.  I enjoy even more knowing why it is healthier and why it was unhealthy in the first place.  This maintenance ethic may seem concrete in our minds, but I bet most of the world doesn’t view maintenance as a technical skill, a science, or an art (or even a priority).  The beauty of the craftsman is not only their ability to work with their hands – truthfully, their handiwork would have no value without the intellectual understanding of the materials they are working with.

Windows & Doors class repairing windows at an 1880s one-room schoolhouse in Pleasant Hill, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

It is not enough, however, to be proficient in the historic building trades (i.e. plastering, blacksmithing, masonry, timber framing, faux painting, etc.)  A modern preservationist (or conservator, or preservation technician) must take their knowledge of these highly specialized professions and view the building holistically and understand the process of deterioration.  What good is a plasterer’s handiwork in repairing cracks in a wall when significant differential settlement is taking place in the building?  A preservation-sensitive structural engineer would do more good.

Sandstone erosion due to face-bedding & improper Portland cement mortaring. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

At this point, if I had to describe my dream job in preservation it would be something like working for an Architectural Conservation firm that not only carries out laboratory testing of materials, but also completes the process of sensitive repairs.
I love the resolute and grounded quality of stone and the inspiring durability of wood and the careful chemistry of arranging a sophisticated three part plaster.  I love the investigation, the clues:  the face of a sandstone block exfoliating like pages of a book, the cambium layers of a hand-hewn joist letting go and falling to the ground, the way the paint bubbles on the clapboards during a heavy rainstorm.

Removing a corroded cast iron grate for repairs in metal lab. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

So I suppose the conservationist shares in the same delight of the chemist, in knowing something at its atomic and molecular level – to know something through and through.

Nostalgia

DSC03265

This Place Matters to me, and so many others. It’s been my work, my life, my passion, for the past (almost) three years. And I’m getting very close to the end … and I’m feeling the effects of nostalgia and memory. But long before I arrived, this place has been home to generations of people, and I’m just glad that I got to have a part in telling the story.

And My Heart Broke

Do you know what it feels like to watch history fade away before your own eyes and not be able to do a thing to save it? Do you know how it feels to know that within a short period of time, certain invaluable memories will be erased?  It pulls at my heart in a way similar to an abandoned house doomed for demolition does or the way lonesome washed-up towns look in photographs. This is partially a result of knowing that no one else has bothered to save this history and partially because I can’t do anything about it.

If you have ever worked in the oral history field or conducted research using oral history, there is a good chance that you know exactly what I mean.  Oral history has its positives and negatives, just like any form of research. It captures stories that would have never been heard or found otherwise, but your research is often at the mercy and kindness of your interviewees.  Ethically, you cannot interview someone and use that information without their permission. Interviewees must sign (what I call) a Deed of Gift form, which grants permission for the transcript and recording in the current project and sometimes, future use. The majority of interviewees are happy to sign the form and aid the project, but some people will refuse.

I have had a few people refuse to sign a deed of gift in my oral history experience. And no matter how much you explain to them the benefits of the particular project or show them exactly how their transcript and recordings will be used, no matter how much you reason with them, they will not concede. And there are only so many rounds of discussions you can have before it’s just too much and too exhausting (mentally and emotionally) and there is no more you can do.

Why would someone refuse? The reasons vary, but in my experience it has been because he or she did not like how the interview transcript read. Most people are shocked by their spoken words being directly translated on to paper. We all speak differently than we write, so reading oral history transcripts can be quite the trip. I assume only the most eloquent public speakers have near perfect transcripts.  This shock turns into vanity, which can be easily erased with the explanation of the transcript use.

Except for one case that I know: One interviewee could not fathom sharing this transcript (or even a few paragraphs of excerpts) with the public because she felt that she sounded less than educated, whereas she had indeed attended higher education to earn her M.A. After over one year of discussing and trying to convince her by demonstrating uses of the transcripts and explaining its value, she finally decided once and for all that she would not participate.

And my heart broke. Her memories are so important and rare and would complement the rest of the project. I should mention that her transcript read just fine, on par with the best interviews. It’s so sad to me that people could let vanity get in the way of sharing history, especially when they might be of the few who still know that information. Now, I cannot pass on this interview, not even to the archives. Nor can I tell this story because I’d have to cite the interview.  And so the memories will disappear.

___

Readers, am I missing anything? Is there a solution I haven’t found? Please help if you can.

Why They Don’t Let Me Outside

[An occasional series about my days at work. See links to other posts at the end of this one].____As an oral historian, my fieldwork usually involves traveling to interviewees’ homes for interviews, transcript deliveries, and other tasks.  Fieldwork to me does not usually translate trees and dirt as it might for others.  Once in a while, I get to tag along for an archaeological site visit, explore a historic building, participate on our public outreach projects, or visit Overhills.  However, it’s been a while since I’ve had to any of those, as most of the oral history project has recently been organizing content and editing the report – desk work. Needless to say, when presented with the opportunity to join a few coworkers on a field trip/site visit/investigation yesterday, I was thrilled.

We happily trekked into the woods in the sunny, 35 degree weather, bundled up and cameras in hand. We found what we were looking for: the former railway bridge abutments and bed. See pictures.

Railroad bridge abutment from the ground.

Railroad bridge abutment from the ground.

So you can see the scale.

So you can see the scale.

Over the river.

Over the river.

 

I love the cold, taking pictures, historic sites, and being outside during the day. I tend to feel like a little kid on such days. Because of this happy-go-lucky attitude, I nimbly climbed up the steep hill to railroad bed and snapped a few pictures. And then I jumped down about one foot, from part of the railroad bed to another, landing on a pile of dirt. However, as soon as I landed, I felt a shooting pain through my ankle and my leg. Ouch. Because I have resilient, strong ankles and this has happened to me before, I figured it would pass in a few minutes. I could still walk, stand, and within a few minutes the shooting pain was gone and the tingling was dull. I didn’t need to tell anyone, except one coworker.  We spent most of the day outside, walking, during which time my ankle wasn’t really a concern.  As we headed back to the office I could feel my ankle getting tighter. The pain continued to increase for the next hour of work and then on my drive home. I believe I spent my drive home biting my lip. I also realized how much I move my feet when I drive. This wasn’t something I had previously considered.

Upon arriving home, Vinny asked how my day was. I said, it was great, but I think I sprained my ankle. His response, “What were doing at work?”  After removing my boots and socks, I confirmed that my ankle was indeed swollen. And then pain continued to increase. I didn’t think an ankle could hurt so much! Ice was not helping.  I thought that maybe if I moved around like I had at work, it wouldn’t hurt so much. Not true. You probably wouldn’t believe how much this hurt.

Around dinner time, I sat in the kitchen with Vinny and one of our friends. I lost my appetite because somewhere along the way I turned nauseous.  Knowing this was somehow related to my ankle and wanting to get out of the kitchen, I went to the medicine cabinet to get some Tylenol.  I looked at the capsules, thought oh man, I have to swallow these. I need water. I put one in my mouth, leaned against the cabinet, and the next thing I knew Vinny was waking me up on the bathroom floor.  I fainted, apparently, in such a way that it looked like I had hit the toilet in the tiny bathroom and hurt my neck.  (Now that’s one way to scare my fiance and our dinner guest).

Vinny confirmed that I was okay and then I realized that I managed to somehow chew the Tylenol while fainting. That did not taste good, if you’re wondering. The guys got me situated on the couch and within 1 ½ hours or so, I felt much better, hungry again, and my ankle felt 100 times better. Today it’s sore and has a dull pain but nothing like yesterday. It turns out the sprain was more of a mild hyper-extension (so say the preservationist and English teacher).

After all of this, I figure this is why they keep me inside at work (just kidding). While working here I have driven down dirt roads only to be chased by dogs, been lost in rural Harnett County with the gas tank on E and no cell phone or gas station in sight, been stuck in a mud puddle, been trapped listening to crazy medical stories, flung dirt all over myself, and now this. I sound like a lot of trouble, but I’m really not! It’s just always an adventure.

___

Other days on the job: Johnny, Break Out those Recorders, Those Unknown Photograph Subjects, Abstract Communities, Digital Work: Today’s Problem, Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated, Oral  History Musings, My Ode to Oral History, Another Day in the Field, Playing Archaeologist, 3 Hours in the Life of an Oral HistorianOr just click the “Working” tab under Categories on the sidebar.

Today’s Problem: Digital Work

Here, at work, we have a problem. Our server has not been working for over 24 hours now, including all of Monday and now, so far, the hours of this Tuesday workday.  All of us rely on the server to store our documents, allowing accessibility between us and not worrying about which document is the most current because it’s in one universal place.  But, now that it’s not working, I cannot access any of my project files.

Depending on your organization’s standard operating procedures (‘SOP’ around here) you probably have stipulations on what you can store on your hard drive and what can be transported and used (e.g. thumb drives).  Maybe it’s for security reasons or maybe it’s for storage reasons.   For me this translates to storing completed documents temporarily on my hard drive, but then elsewhere, whether it’s a CD or something else.  For documents that are in progress, I keep them on the server, where most of our work is kept.  If I were to store them elsewhere, I’d inevitably work on the wrong file and there would be chaos.

You see my problem. Considering the previous posts about our digital lives (#1 and #2), it’s at least a current topic.  In my case, yes, I am too dependent on the digital world for my work. However, my oral history project is a digital project (i.e. digital recording, digital images, and word documents) and it wouldn’t work on paper.  It’s a lesson to us that we need to rethink our methods of working.  I do not have a solution, but I think it comes back to the point that if we are planning to rely on digital work more and more, then we need to be diligent and have a disaster management plan, so to speak. 

My work is not lost, just temporarily suspended. This has never happened before, and I have faith that it will be solved shortly; but the fact that I’m unable to work on my project without access to the server is currently hindering my level of productivity.

Does anyone a solution?  Does this ever happen where you work?

 

and unrelated, but: Happy Election Day.

don’t forget to VOTE!