Preserving History from the Bottom Up

jensen byrdSpokane residents are attracted to their old buildings. Over the past few decades, they have made efforts to preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods across town. South Perry, Browne’s Addition, and West Central have all seen massive revitalization. The physical structures within these neighborhoods have been revitalized. In the process the community perception of safety, security, and well-being in these neighborhoods has changed. Historic preservation effects physical structures as well as the perception or “metadata” associated with those physical structures.

Humans have been constructing buildings for milenium. They have built all types of buildings from dwellings to palaces, shops to barns. These buildings play a critical role in the way that humans interact with the environment. Buildings provide basic needs like shelter and safety. However, the buildings that humans construct reflect more than our desire for shelter and safety, they reflect our interests, culture, and lifestyle at the moment that we build or alter things around us. Historic preservation aims to freeze the snapshot of life at a particular time that is manifest in the buildings around us. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is one of many organizations that recognizes the challenges of revitalizing old places. It is their mission to “inspires Americans to save the places where history happened.” (NTHP: About)

Spokane Preservation Advocates have a similar mission but a smaller audience. In 1997 the Spokane Preservation Advocates were founded to “preserve and enhance the historic character of Spokane and Spokane County through advocacy, education and preservation.” They are part of the larger National Trust however since they are a local group they can focus more intently on local interests. The SPA have been influential in assisting with restoration projects like the Fox Theatre.(SPA: About) Preservation advocates at many levels are necessary to perpetuate historic preservation. The youtube videos featuring the “most endangered” list are an excellent way to raise the public interest in preservation in general, but also to feature specific sites that might be of interest to local resident preservationists.

Advocacy at the local level has paid off right here in Spokane on multiple occasions. The case study about the Jensen-Byrd building on WSU campus is a good example. Five years ago the university planned, permitted, and contracted to destroy and replace the 100 year old building with a housing complex. Today the Jensen-Byrd building is still standing. Although it is not clear that advocacy was the principal reason the demolition was stopped, it does seem to have played some role.

Advocates of historic preservation laud its many successes when it comes to keeping history alive through physical buildings. But what or whose history is kept alive in this process? Wealthier members of the larger community often spearhead revitalization efforts in run-down urban neighborhoods.  The history that they seek to preserve may be different and alien to the residents of that particular neighborhood. Once the revitalization is in full swing, property values will rise and gentrification will occur. We can call this a top-down historic preservation strategy. This is not ideal and has led to criticism of historic preservation, but it does not have to be this way.  

In Beyond Preservation, historian Andrew Hurley argued that “inner-city communities can best turn preserved landscapes into assets by subjecting them to public interpretation at the grassroots.” This means that just preserving the structure is not enough. Preservationists need to engage with the historical context that is important to the people that live in the inner-city communities slated for revitalization. This is a bottom up approach. If there is no historical context or interpretation that matters to the residents, then “recycled building lose their capacity to anchor people in the flow of time and to expose relationships between the past and present.”(Hurley ix) Through this process of “public landscape interpretation” a more sustainable and consistent historic preservation atmosphere is developed.(Hurley, 31)

Hurley used a Public History concept that is discussed in The Presence of the Past as a catalyst to develop his historic preservation model. “Shared authority” as we understand it in the public history sphere must also be applied when inner-city neighborhoods undergo revitalization efforts. This provides residents with an opportunity to “buy in” to the changes and feel a level of ownership over them. Unfortunately it can be difficult to convince those external forces that are funding the revitalization to consider the wants, needs, and history of those who live within the dilapidated community.(Hurley 180)

Historic preservation is necessary but it will not go without challenges. The initial challenges of interest, funding, and manpower are often overshadowed by the issues of controversy. Many places of historic significance are controversial in nature. This is where interpretation is critical. Different audiences will have different reactions to preservation efforts depending on the interpretation used at the particular site. An interesting local example occurred in Centralia, Washington. Hurley explained how the hanging of a labor activist 100 years ago is not a history that some residents want to remember. (158)

Spokanites perceptions and interpretations of their built landscapes are critical aspects to the way they understand their history. It is important that preservation activists elicit these perceptions from the bottom up so that the nuanced stories of individual communities are heard. We will not be left with much history in our buildings if the interpretations of one group of people are imparted on all of our preservation efforts.

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