In today’s Old North St. Louis, the old North Neighborhood Preservation Center tells the story of a complicated past. In the mini-museum, old menus from soda fountains, piano sheet music, a sewing machine, kitchenware and many other local products are on exhibit to the public for the purpose of telling the story of Old North St. Louis to visitors and perhaps more importantly, to the neighborhood’s own residents. The project began with a $400,000 grant to the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and a shared vision to preserve and restore the area that had suffered depopulation after WWII, demolition during periods of urban renewal, and reconstruction that replaced historical row houses and Victorian homes with new construction (Hurley 2010).
Andrew Hurley and Timothy Bauman established the Community History Research and Design Services unit of the Public Policy Research Center, where they have worked on community based history projects since the year 2000 at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis. They identified projects and formed partnerships with inner city neighborhood organization members who came to the research center in search of their community’s identity and historical attributes. Hurley and Bauman developed a model for involving residents in historical research. They argue that community-based public history can be part of revitalizing and unifying communities. Gathering experiences and insights from actual residents as oppose to solely published materials can be part of a community building process. By carefully selecting themes related to contemporary challenges like transportation, park development, public safety, and economic realities, the Design Services Unit put history to work to tackle the very issues that had made these neighborhoods vulnerable to demolition.
Hurley’s vision was to revitalize these distressed communities and keep their population steady while also promoting diversity and community unification (Hurley 2010). His project modeled best practices for public history by accepting the legitimacy of research conducted by local residents. His emphasis on community collaboration exemplifies his methodology for revitalization of inner city districts. Hurley values oral history and archaeology as they helped fill a void in the pre-1970’s history of the neighborhood, which, he said, can be like finding a needle in a haystack. One person’s life can tell a lot about development, as can an artifact. The residents involved in the projects included older residents as well as active civic members. Each contributed a different type of knowledge to the project. He also identified some of the challenges of community collaboration; sometimes small numbers of people in a community can disrupt an entire project. He worked to prevent these disruptions by consulting neighborhood residents in the project, working with them to shape research questions and narrative structures. He also included them in excavations and in marking major milestones in the project.
Hurley’s effort to bring Public History methods into the work of preservation is a response to some of the problematic aspects of preservation’s history.
Modern neighborhood preservation and/or revitalization originated in the late 19th century (Hurley 2010). Rapid development in Eastern cities threatened the existence prominent colonial era buildings in the late 1870’s (Chapter 1). This motivated elites to fight for the right to preserve historical places connected to the heroes of the Revolutionary Era. Their efforts led to innovations such as district wide preservation –like in Colonial Williamsburg, which began with Reverend William Goodwin’s campaign to restore and create replicas of colonial buildings. Preservation was dominated by individuals with access to old money and a prestigious lineage, and they tended to fear the growing influence of the new capitalist class. They also believed immigrants and foreigners were uncivilized and unfamiliar with Democracy. Early preservationists wanted to prevent foreigners from occupying locations that represented Founding Fathers who had risked their lives for the common good. In light of these motives, it seems safe to say that neighborhood and landscape preservation began as a way to assert the dominance of Anglo Saxon culture and control the development of urban America.
When social history rose as a field of study and public history became professional in the late 20th century, neighborhood residents began to view districts as meaningful and important to the public. This followed an improvement in the preservation of materials and the crafting of historical markers. During the 1970s a government grant allowed Pennsylvania to install sixty six markers devoted to African American History in Philadelphia. African American History found its way into curriculum in the Deep South and street names like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, contributed to the establishment of a more diverse landscape. This helped fuel a belief in history as meaningful and useful rather than strictly informational.
Hurley understands history as crucial to more egalitarian forms of revitalization (Hurley 2010). Preserved districts like Colonial Williamsburg may fit this ticket exactly. Should preservationists then ask themselves what their motives truly are? Can the past connect to the present if it is not revitalized? Can “baseless history” or educational history without an active goal, be productive in a teaching society? The artifacts, brochures, and contemporary items displayed in the old north preservation center shows visitors and even residence who could not track their residential history, that meaning exists in their past, as it shaped the present, just as it exists in the present, as it will shape their future.
Hurley, Andrew. Beyond Preservation: Using Pubic History to Revitalize Inner Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010.