The Key to Urban Community Revitalization: Preservation, Interpretation and Shared Authority

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, author Andrew Hurley deftly analyzes how historic preservation along with careful collective interpretation can revitalize urban communities economically and socially. His firsthand observations of several projects give much insight into the methodologies of public history in general.

First, Hurley argues that although historic preservation for aesthetic purposes, or the “adaptive reuse” of functionless buildings, can contribute to urban revitalization, the consequences of such individual, surface level endeavors usually outweigh the benefits of the revitalization. (12) Gentrification, local animosity and community instability often dampen any economic success. (27) The inclusion of public history and archaeology in preservation efforts offers an anecdote, and arguably more successful alternative to traditional preservation. The “democratic impulses” of both disciplines, including shared authority and social diversity, necessitate community involvement. (53) The fruits of such liaisons foster neighborhood identity and cohesion, which in turn create stronger and lasting levels of stewardship and civic engagement. Instead of viewing preservation as simply the rehabilitation of residential houses, Hurley widens the scope to include entire neighborhoods, comprised of the human-built and natural environment (which he considers to be the “next frontier in urban historic preservation”), and places emphasis on community-shared spaces teeming with collective memories.

The twists and turns and complexities and disputes that emerged out of the Old North St. Louis Community revitalization effort reveal some of the key aspects of Hurley’s proposed methodology. Through the efforts of a local homeowners’ association group and Hurley’s own University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Old North Neighborhood Partnership Center emerged to revitalize the community, but decidedly not to gentrify and displace locals. (68) Their task, as Hurley describes, “was not simply to recover a lost history but also to develop a set of historical narratives that would correspond to specific neighborhood objectives and then deliver those narratives to residents in accessible formats.” (70) Those “who will live with the results,” must have the larger authority over what the historical narrative will become. (182) Hurley advocates for the “decentralization” of the decision-making process with emphasis on grassroots community planning and partnerships across a variety of venues, including universities, churches, and neighborhood associations. (96) More than once Hurley insists on tangible connections between past and present issues in order to achieve sustainable public interest. Archaeology and oral history, he contends, force the past into the present. (74) Archeology literally connects change to the present with each new layer of soil, while oral informants have “the experience and wisdom to interpret and explain the historical change.” (98) Finally, although Hurley does not explicitly discuss it, his own writing tacitly shows the conscious self-reflection the author and others practice in order to correct and re-correct their methods. (91) Hurley modestly downplays the role of the public history project as a catalyst for the subsequent urban renewal in Old North St. Louis. He does concede however, “…Residents have developed a keener sense of who they are, what they value and were they are going.” (91) This newfound identity creates a self-sustaining community presence, one that will succumb less easily to economic downturn and unpredictable outside forces.

Hurley offers several learning experiences and methods helpful to future public historians. As apparent in other public history case studies, the author warns that shared authority is messy. Still, he insists on a balance between the heritage-based narrative perpetuated by the community and the evidence-based academic narrative that at times contradicts it. At times, communities resisted the national narrative in favor of local ones. Other times, communities wished to evade certain aspects of the past that could tarnish their reputation. (159) Hurley cites a variety of instances, including the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing historic site, in which community organizations came together to compromise over a piece of contested history. Yet, not only do disputes over content occur, existing racial and class tensions, including wariness towards academics, can impact relations between various public history practitioners. Overall, the author’s primary prescriptions are sensitivity and deliberate social diversity across races, generations, classes and other divisions. (161, 167) Also, he embraces a variety of interdisciplinary techniques, most notably archaeology, the many advantages of which he extrapolates on in his conclusion. In short, academic methods and resources can aid in revitalization, but authority must rest mostly in the hands of grassroots organizations. (181) Community-based interpretation may be messy, but it is because of those messy tensions that a rich and long lasting identity emerges, and in the case of urban renewal, this may be the key to success.


1) Shared authority makes this reader anxious, as there are not clear lines on how to share it. Yet, I also see how crucial sharing authority, and especially with different groups, can be for a successful public history project. As Hurley mentions, each situation carries different circumstances and requires different levels of authority. After reading Beyond Preservation, how do the previous examples of shared authority in other case studies in other texts seem different? Could public history practitioners have used some of the methods identified by Hurley to ameliorate conflicts in their own projects, for example the various communities in Misplaced Massacre?

This past weekend I visited the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan, which Hurley mentions on page 47. It happened to be the 10th anniversary of the re-interment of the remains of around 400 slaves. When I arrived midday, there were six people performing a ceremony, two NPS rangers and no spectators. As I was leaving, I heard one of the participants say to another, “It’s okay that no one showed up, our ancestors know we were here.” Where has the community gone? Do you think the initial mishap of not involving the descendant community in the first place, despite its later participation, has steadily affected the site’s community involvement? Can an unequal sharing of authority be corrected and the affects not be felt? Should more authority have been transferred even after the correction?


2) Hurley seems to place preservation in a different category than public history. They can compliment and borrow from one another, but they remain separate entities. Yet, could not preservation, even on an individual level, be considered one type of public history? I am not sure where one stops and the other one begins. Certainly, Hurley’s public history places much more emphasis on shared authority with the public than an individual preserving their building. Does traditional preservation practice public History and public history-oriented preservation practice Public history (note the capitalization)? Is one about exclusivity and the other about inclusivity?



Lightly Edited from Source: The Key to Urban Community Revitalization: Preservation, Interpretation and Shared Authority by Molly Ricks

9 thoughts on “The Key to Urban Community Revitalization: Preservation, Interpretation and Shared Authority”

  1. Molly: This is an excellent post that identifies some of Hurley’s key points and pays particular attention to the relationship he is positing between public history and preservation. I think it is worth exploring your second question in some detail in class with Dr. Blair: Are public history and preservation two separate professions? Where are their points of intersection? I found your story about the African Burial Ground rather heartbreaking. It actually raises quite a few issues, not the least of which is WHO are the members of “the community?” What happens when they have moved on physically or emotionally? What do we do with histories that are too distant –yes, even in American history, some pasts just seem too far in the past. How can tools of public history keep preserved spaces alive and relevant? Is that ALWAYS our goal? In other words, if a space loses its relevance of if its meaning changes, do we have to retain it as part of some kind of preservation canon?

  2. I loved your post Molly. First, I want to say I agree with your post when it said, “Those “who will live with the results,” must have the larger authority over what the historical narrative will become.” But as we see, this links back with shared authority once again and the dialogue over who should be leading the construction of the narrative. However the balancing act like we saw in A Misplaced Massacre & Store Front to Monuments reoccurs.

    When you asked, “Are public history and preservation two separate professions?” I feel like this is a difficult question to answer. After everything we’ve read so far, I don’t think I have a solid opinion although I feel like I should have. I feel like the two should be linked, however, the people who want to have their voices heard when there are a range of opinions (like with Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing cite) conflicting views should be given an outlet to be heard by those in authority.

  3. I agree that it seems as though Hurley presents public History preservation separate from Public history preservation. When he describes the prevailing urban preservation strategies commonly used, he describes these as focusing purely on the (economic) potential of fixing old structures and promoting gentrification. They also tend to “‘commit to a representation of history as static’” and preservation of this nature, as he says, “could not possibly speak to the broad spectrum of social groups represented in any given neighborhood” (23). Whereas, the model that Hurley presents is one that utilizes public history and shared authority. He believes residents should have an active role in creating historical narratives and developing initiatives and projects that can help better their communities. It does seem then as though Hurley presents two approaches: one of history preservation and exclusivity and one of public history preservation and inclusivity.

    To me, Hurley’s description of a public history preservation style definitely seems like a better approach to adopt. Communities should be involved in work that is done within their own communities. Residents themselves can help to provide new insights into their community’s history. For example, one of the techniques that Hurley mentions, was using material artifacts uncovered in archaeological excavations when conducting oral interviews to provide new insight and information about the past, information that might not have been known or uncovered had community residents not taken part in the project. By creating a revitalized sense of community through this interpretation and organization of the historic landscape, the area itself can be improved (environmentally, socially, and economically). Aside from this, through using public history, other interdisciplinary methods (since the field of public history often implements and integrates multiple disciplines) can be used to address preservation strategies, something that would not be present in a purely history based approach to preservation. For instance, Hurley focuses strongly on the impact that public archaeology can have. He says, “public history and archaeology offer tremendous opportunities for ordinary citizens to direct the benefits of historic preservation toward the creation and maintenance of stable and vibrant communities (53). It makes sense then, and seems appropriate to me, that Hurley moves beyond a historic style of preservation and promotes instead a public history approach towards revitalization techniques.

  4. Excellent post, Molls! I really like your statement, “Community-based interpretation may be messy, but it is because of those messy tensions that a rich and long lasting identity emerges, and in the case of urban renewal, this may be the key to success.” I think we have seen so many scenarios in Lincoln Inquiry, From Storefront to Monument, Misplaced Massacre, and now Beyond Preservation, where sometimes the authority that controls how the museum operates, or where a Massacre was located, or even digging up skeletons from the African Burial Ground to do research, has deeply impacted the community and caused rage and conflict. This is because the authority can get so lost in their work, that the bigger picture of what their work is for can sometimes get lost in what they’ve been trying to preserve in the first place. But just as you said, these conflicts lead to addressing and discussing these issues which leads to an even bigger identity of the site. For the African Burial Ground, the conflict regarding research project with the skeletons got resolved when the entire project got transferred to Howard University so community representatives could be involved. Hurley claimed that this conflict and solution gave the professionals a wake-up call to consider the social implications of the research they were doing, which could only benefit the entire project and what it gave back to the community working right along with it.

    Your second question definitely goes along with a theme we have been talking about for weeks, especially when we all collaborated on different definitions of what public history is. I do think that preservation and public history can certainly coincide with each other, because traditional preservation can be about sharing and emphasizing a community history or identity, while public history is also about preserving history in order to maintain a community’s identity. For example, when the archaeologists in Annapolis sought to raise critical questions to their visitors by having various types of presentations to show social and economic developments overtime and how they pertained to the present, they were working directly with the community, and presenting a view of history, so wouldn’t they be considered public historians?

    Dr. Meringolo also raised a crucial question, “If a space loses its relevance of if its meaning changes, do we have to retain it as part of some kind of preservation canon?” We definitely saw some examples in this book of community conflicts when viewpoints of preservation were continuously changing. I think we also saw a lot of this in From Storefront to Monument, when some of the neighborhood museums would get into some conflicts when their interpretations or focuses would change, however, there was similar conflict when the museum would stay the same for several years. Andrea Burns made such a crucial point in her book that it’s so important to maintain a balance between maintaining a consistent goal of community outreach, but also continuously evolving in order to have the most successful efficiency, but is that easier said than done?

  5. In relation to what has been said about your visit to the African Burial Ground; what a topical experience, it solidifies the testimonies of citizens and professionals that we’ve been reading. While it’s hard to assess the potential mistakes of this site’s planning with regards to shared authority, from your observation it certainly seems to potentially be an empty place of meaning for people in the community (seeing that only ten people showed up for an important anniversary).

    It left me with two questions about the site: firstly, what would the African Burial Ground’s community base look like? It exists in Lower Manhattan where most there are few residencies (mostly business buildings). Would simply, “African Americans of New York” be too broad reaching or too large a community to foster sustained interest? The site’s origin story seems to include large amounts of active civic involvement, so it does leave one to wonder why so few people cared enough to come out for a significant anniversary.

    I think Hurley would argue against my question of community size being a problem. He attests that urban communities contain exactly what is needed to maintain a historic site or districts attention through generations. Above all else the urban benefit is centrality: public transport, economic investment in city cores, higher amounts of informational exchange with residents, larger population = larger opportunity engage with people and decentralize decision making (96,198) Lower Manhattan certainly gets an unmatched amount of human traffic.

    I think Hurley might also suggest that the site make efforts to expand their historic focus beyond a “frozen in time” approach. Just flipping through their website it seems most site content involves the 17th and 18th centuries. What Hurley calls, “massaging the historical context” (174) will also allow the site to speak to larger social themes that connect the site’s stories of the past with the present. Hurley shows that oral history and archeology supply the most opportunities for exploring the recent past. (75) Certainly excavations at this site included other findings besides burial remains. Were other stories of post-burial ground periods pursued? Hurley mentions that historical studies of people of color in this country upturn the least amount of physical remnants, (140) here is a hugely unique historical site right in the center of our most populated city. I think it would not be too late for a new approach or research (I say this while recognizing my unfamiliarity with the site).

  6. That phrase “massaging the historical context” stood out to me, too; I’m really fascinated by the way controversies like the one over the Joplin toilet can be in part resolved by the particular manner of the resolution itself (in that case, “turning the question over to our neighborhood history committee”). I’m also attached to the rest of that line on page 174, which mentions the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee (which Hurley discusses a bit on 167-170). The sort of application of public history embodied by the TRC is something we haven’t talked much about in class, but it seems likely that in this country a push for “public history produced in the service of national unity” may grow significantly in our lifetime (around the question of reparations, for example).

    On 170 Hurley writes:
    “If South Africa offers a lesson for practitioners of public history in the United States, it is that the concept of truth, with all its slipperiness, offers an imperfect but nonetheless useful tool for building consensus around social and political goals, at least in the short term if not in the long run.”

    This is worth meditating on, I think, especially because we’ve been wary in this class of the connotations of the word “truth” when it comes to historical practice. Employing the language of “truth” — and believing in truth — can be a really useful tool of shared inquiry.

  7. Fantastic post, Molly! I definitely do not think you’re alone in feeling uneasy about shared authority. It seems to me that sharing authority effectively is something that one learns with experience, not necessarily in the classroom. The concept seems to be unsettling because there is no way to ensure that it can be done effectively and without incident. Our previous readings from Everybody’s History to Misplaced Massacre are similar in that each demonstrates the trials and tribulations that accompany involving more people in shaping public history projects. Each reading differs; however, in showing the variety of circumstances that can arise when sharing authority. In Misplaced Massacre, public historians tried to involve Native Americans in the research process, but cultural differences were still able to complicate the relationship. In the case of the Old North St. Louis community, universities, churches, and neighborhood associations were involved with a more positive result (96). Keeping Hurley’s methods in mind certainly can’t hurt in a public history project, but public historians must remember that each case is unique. Furthermore, it helps one retain some amount of sanity to remember that you can’t make everyone happy.

    The theme of “preservation vs. public history” permeates Hurley’s work. Your use of capitalization perfectly demonstrated his message. Through the multitude of examples, he illustrated that preservation is a form of public history, even on the individual level. That does not mean; however, that preservation is always “good” public history. In Hurley’s mind “good” public history is something that involves a larger community, like projects that renovate entire historic districts without falling prey to gentrification. These projects create community identity, history, and purpose. The renovation of a single home is certainly public history, but the lack of emphasis on public makes it lackluster compared to larger community projects. Arguing that the renovation of an individual home is about creating exclusivity seems harsh, but it is definitely a lesser form of public history.

    1. Amen, Katherine: Sharing Authority is DEFINITELY something you learn through practice: over and over and over and over again! (Still think it’s worth puzzling over in the safe space of the classroom, though!)

  8. Molly, your excellent discussion of Hurley’s book and your point about the low turnout at the African Burial Ground National Monument made me think about revitalized areas throughout this country where efforts towards historic preservation have been completely ignored in favor of new playgrounds for tourists. Specifically, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has a rich centuries-old history as a seaport and entry point for thousands of immigrants from all over the world. It even has played host to vital points in American history, such as the Pratt Street Riot in which Union soldiers were attacked by a pro-secessionist mob as they marched along the harbor. However, it is almost impossible for a visitor to get a sense of any of this history. All of the old buildings in the Inner Harbor have been torn down and replaced by skyscrapers, malls, and modern museums, other than a few old churches and train stations. Hurley mentioned at one point in his book that preservation efforts have been much more difficult to achieve in revitalized core business districts like downtown Baltimore and lower Manhattan. His book, and these example, indicate that residential or mixed communities offer the best chance for preservation, since there is a generations-old constituency in these communities who wish to advocate for a retention of at least some part of their community’s history. It is up to preservationists and public historians to tap into this desire if neighborhoods in our cities are going to be preserved and revitalized.

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