October 30, 2014

Widening the Preservation Lens

  • By: Stephanie K. Meeks
New York City's Mulberry Street, circa 1900.

photo by: Wikimedia Commons

The iconic bustling street scene on New York City's Lower East Side, a neighborhood that has a rich history of immigrant communities.

On a recent visit to Hampton University, one of our nation’s oldest and most esteemed historically black universities, I took part in a fascinating conversation with architecture students about what preservation means to them, and how we can work together to ensure the places we save reflect the diverse stories of all Americans.

We began our discussion with a visualization exercise. Take a moment to picture a place that matters to you. It may be your home, a park, a church, a school. What has it meant to your life? Does it connect you to your community? What does it say about who you are?

For me, the answer is literally a hole in the ground. To escape from poverty in Norway, my father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1869. My great-great-grandfather, his wife, and their eight children homesteaded on the Kansas prairie. For twelve years, they lived in a dug-out, literally underground. Whenever I have a bad day, I thank my lucky stars I am not spending a cold Kansas winter raising eight kids in a one-room dug-out!

More seriously, that place, which I first experienced as a child, speaks to me of the courage, determination, hard work and overcoming of adversity that was a good part of their lives. It also tells a story about women’s history: how my great-grandmother left Norway with four children -- sailing across the Atlantic and arriving at a Kansas train station with no one to meet her.

A train station in Atchison, Kansas.

photo by: Theophene Guy/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The vast railroad network in the United States helped connect immigrants to the country's rural interior. This postcard depicts the train station in Atchison, Kansas.

My ancestors’ story shares common threads with the immigrant experience of other Americans, from the early days of settlement to today. Whether our families chose to come or were brought against their will, I draw strength from their fortitude rising above great hardship to build a new life.

It is that connection that draws me to the work of preservation. At its most basic, preservation is about protecting places that matter to each of us. We want our children to know these places. We want them to stand as beacons for us and for those who come after us -- to tell our stories, and the stories of our communities and our lives.

But too often, many important stories have been overlooked. This is in part because of a longstanding emphasis in our community on saving grand and beautiful buildings, which is hugely important but helps to limit our perspective of history to architectural significance, thus sidelining many truly remarkable places from inclusion on the National Register. And, it is in part because, in the past, not all voices have been fully represented within the traditional boundaries of historic preservation.

Preserving the full American experience, in all its breadth and glory, is an ambitious task. We believe that to do it right requires a commitment to recognizing and preserving all the facets of our diverse history. At the National Trust, we are working to change attitudes and perceptions and build a more inclusive movement -- one that listens to people from all backgrounds, and works with them to save the places that matter to all our communities.

Without question, America in 2014 is very different compared with when my family came here in 1869. It is also very different from 1966, when Congress passed the Historic Preservation Act that established the National Register. The attitudes of millions of Americans are evolving, and so are the demographics of our great nation. We are constantly changing.

As this new era unfolds, we are doing more than just restoring historic homes, and preserving and reinterpreting the plantations of our nation’s founding fathers. We are working to fashion a wider preservation lens -- one that does justice to the full contours of our past, and captures the true experience of American history for all. Our work has just begun; we are very excited about the road ahead, and we hope you will join us on this important journey.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

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