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