A year and a half ago, I wrote a post that asked the question, “what the heck is a green preservationist?”…more recently, I’ve been asking myself the considerably more fundamental question of “what is a preservationist?” We’ve adapted our mission in a lot of ways over the past few years, but it seems we are constantly faced with more challenges and unanswered questions. We’ve finally learned how to talk to the cool kids in the green building movement (well, many of them, anyway), but now we’re trying to more literally learn other languages. As our country becomes increasingly diverse and the number of preservationists seems to be dwindling (I was recently told that the average age of a National Trust member is 65. Gulp.), we now have to figure out how to make an ever-increasing population of people care about a history that isn’t theirs.
Of course, the National Trust’s new Preservation 10x restructuring plan deserves its own post, but for now, I just want to focus on one part of the four initial themes that were just discussed in the 10x white paper: Diversity. The Trust, by virtue of the fact that it is the largest national preservation nonprofit, is faced with the puzzling task of advocating for both the tangible built history of the country and now the intangible history of populations who have immigrated to the U.S. over time. Yeah, no small task. When I was at the Austin Conference last year, some of the most engaging and exciting presentations had to do with efforts in places like Los Angeles and San Antonio that focused on Latino populations who had lived and worked in buildings for the past several decades. Murals, a focus on traditions held within buildings vs. the buildings themselves, and oral histories were often highlighted, and people were literally CRYING in the audience at times. I must say, I got a wee bit misty myself. It’s powerful stuff, and a hell of a lot more compelling than a new fake roof shingle product (sorry, shinglers, we need you, too, but we’re in trouble here).
The Trust has obviously picked up on this importance over the years, and created the Office of Diversity Initiatives, which covers everything from LGBT issues to Asian Pacific American heritage—a tall order, but an important one.
But let’s narrow things down even more and just focus on Latino initiatives, as there have now been “Conversación” exercises in five cities around the U.S., as part of the Latino Heritage Initiative. The most recent Conversación was in Chicago this past weekend. These exercises/symposiums bring various groups of preservationists, community leaders, architects, teachers, etc. together to discuss how preservation fits (or does NOT fit) into current Latino-American culture. We were all sat at tables and mixed up after brainstorming together and recording our thoughts—individually and collectively—on various questions that are posed over a two-hour period. A representative from each table would summarize what was discussed, and the Trust collected all of the worksheets after the event to try and make sense of what was discussed. I should add that many of these thoughts were actually doodles. Tricky stuff.
Perhaps what was most interesting to me was the fact that throughout these exercises, I was afraid or embarrassed to bring up anything that smacked of building science or the physical preservation of a building—painting on brick, reconfiguring storefront–any of it. It turned most of what I had been taught about preservation on its head, which was both interesting and troubling because I was at a loss in terms of how to reconcile the tangible and intangible. I can guarantee you that there weren’t any HPRES grad school classes available that focused on “how to preserve that feeling of community one gets when they smell the cooking after church on Sunday.” I know this because I would have most certainly taken that class.
So how do we tell the stories of people who have more recently immigrated to the U.S. and are living in older buildings that now tell more recent stories? Maybe “we”—the existing majority in this field—don’t. Preservation organizations, at least those with their eyes open, are trying to bring in a more diverse population of preservationists, not just have a bunch of white, American-born ladies like me talking about how meaningful current, diverse cultural practices are. This is not to say that white, American-born ladies like me don’t need to be educated and become better advocates, just that we might be better suited helping populations get the resources to empower their own communities so that they can take the charge in a way that makes more sense.
The Conversación was a great collaborative effort, but perhaps I what I found most heartening was a group called Architectos, an organization made up of Latino architects. The organization began in Chicago and has been around for over 25 years. The Arquitectos who came to the Conversación were enthusiastic, had interesting and varied perspectives, and already have buy-in in terms of architecture and community. The fact that this group and others are being pulled into this dialogue will likely go a long way in terms of outreach and education. We need leaders who understand architecture and planning, but who can also speak the language, both literally and culturally, of those we are trying to hear from and bring into the field. Trust is an issue in most communities, and having people who can effectively communicate, share experiences and, presumably, some of the same values, can go a long way.
Another thing to consider is who are we targeting? By that I mean, what the hell is a Latino? We had Cubans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, etc. at the Conversación and it is obviously stretching it a bit to lump them all into the same category. Beyond that, we have populations in the Southwest, for example, who are preserving their Mexican-American history, which can go back hundreds of year, vs. new immigrant populations—this is a totally different issue.
Some people who have immigrated recently might not feel like this is their home at all, just a temporary space that there is no tie to. But even if I just look at a Chicago population, we also had Latinos immigrating here since the turn of the last century, so obviously these people have created their own history here that is just as “historic” as the Germans and Lithuanians who built up half this city in the 1910s and 20s.
So here a few of the questions we need to answer:
• Most importantly: What is the mission of the National Trust for Historic Preservation? What are we trying to preserve? We can’t truly move forward if we can’t answer that.
• How do we make existing preservationists care about more recent Latino history?
• How do we help those creating a new culture and history in the U.S. care about work and lives of previous generations?
• How do we preserve intangibles like oral histories?
• Do we need to revisit the idea of Period of Significance in terms of murals on buildings and other recent cultural additions to physical spaces?
• How do we convince Latinos that the buildings themselves are important and not just the activities that happen within them? It’s almost like we have a new version of the “form follows function” debate to contend with.
• Do we compromise our existing missions? Ex: Encourage murals that show current cultural solidarity and expression, but suggest that they are fastened to buildings vs. painted directly onto historic materials? Or is it that the murals are more significant than the buildings? Indeed, some are being landmarked now…
Some potential solutions/starting points:
• Continue to bring groups together to discuss these issues
• Target community leaders and educated them on economic incentives and local history—priests, teachers, etc. They will be the best teachers. Why would people listen to outsiders vs. their trusted leaders?
• Ask community leaders to educate preservationists. This is a confusing but fascinating issue and many of us could certainly stand to learn more. It is a crucial step to help us better communicate with people who are not already a part of the preservation community.
Just as the population of preservation is becoming more diverse, preservation itself is becoming more diverse. The mission is splintering and we are struggling to find a way to unify all of these goals. One could say that we’ve always had these challenges—heck, historic preservation is under the National Parks Service branch of the government and parks is hardly our primary focus. It’s surprising that we are only concerning ourselves with the issue of diversity now, when we are historically a diverse country. I could argue that this is precisely why preservation/cultural heritage is a much easier sell in European countries, where the populations are way more homogenous. People care about buildings because their grandparents built them, and they reflect their own heritage. Easy sell.
If we are successful at creating a more diverse population of preservation professionals, many of these questions will hopefully be answered from within our organizations. After waves of layoffs within many of our preservation organizations, including the National Trust, there is perhaps room for new kinds of leadership and different structures. Instead of regional Directors, it’s looking like local priests and school teachers may become our best form of outreach, helping to grow our membership and partnerships.
Latino Outreach and the Conversación: Are We Trying To Preserve Too Much?
October 6, 2011 by preservegreen