Systemic Bias & Racism of Preservation

As someone who has been privileged to help run history & preservation organizations for the last 30 years, I feel compelled to call out, from my experience,  what I see as not only my own but a larger institutional bias & racism in the preservation field. I love the study of history and the practice of preservation. Please don’t respond to defend preservation, historic districting, or Main Street Preservation Projects etc.  I know there are good things about the field – but these have come later in its life and I am speaking to the underlying structure of the effort.

I am simply trying to open up an honest conversation.

  1. Preservation can be essentially an elitist, class, and racially divisive activity whose result is a form of economic bias and segregation.
  2. History sites can perpetuate a divisive form of nostalgia that supports and validates racism and exclusion.
  3. Preservation can limit inclusion and perpetuate racial & social bias by regulating cultural narratives to simple themes.

  4. Historic District Codes and Restrictions are implicitly economically restrictive and exclusionary benefitting only the wealthiest of individuals allowing a form of aesthetically gated communities.

  5. Historic districting, Code requirements, and forced single-family residential building types are a contemporary form of “redlining” which excludes a diverse economic group of people from actual land ownership.
  6. Preservation is susceptible to the harshest form of capitalism in that only those historic sites that are targeted with money actually get preserved.  Preservation choices are a matter of economics, not just history. The most revealing, unglamorous sites have rarely survived, nor have they been preserved.
  7. As Preservation has become more professional, education has become more expensive and thus restricting the possibility of equitable professional practice. Free internships, hiring practices, job requirements are all biased toward wealthy, mainstream backgrounds.
  8. Preservationists, right now—today, need to stop fetishizing the built environment and begin considering how our hidden, internalized systems of Preservation are producing an environment of exclusion.
  9. Look at the money in Preservation. A budget reflects our priorities.  Money goes where it is told.  There is nothing natural about the market economy or what gets preserved. Wealth Preserves Wealth.

As Preservationists, We Must Do Better.

Twisted Preservation

 

 

SYSTEMIC RACISM OF PRESERVATION ABSTRACT

 THESIS:

  1. Preservation is essentially an elitist, class and racially divisive activity whose result is a form of economic bias and segregation.

DISCUSSION:

Does this mean that we don’t preserve and restore anything? Of course not.  This thesis suggests that the act of preservation has inherent in its choices issues of class, race, and economic strata.  In making choices, we as Preservationists segregate and prioritize remaining existing fragments of the built environment (or intangible elements and behaviors) that are quantifiable and knowable.  This thesis suggests that we reconsider 1. Who is making those choices and how inclusive are the views?  2. Who established the rules, 3. What is being judged? and 4. What is the result of the process? Does the result expand or contract our understanding of the past?  As we can see, in all of these steps come the potential for bias, preference, and unknowing exclusion based upon lack of information and cultural exposure.  So, you see, this thesis is not about denying the activity of Preservation, it argues that the codified process and results are producing a situation that is systemic and imbedded with internal bias.

 

What might solutions be to counter the inherent difficulties of this selection process?

 

 

SYSTEMIC RACISM OF PRESERVATION ABSTRACT 

THESIS:

2. History sites can perpetuate a divisive form of nostalgia that supports and validates racism and exclusion.

DISCUSSION:

Does this mean all history and cultural sites should be closed down? Of course not. This thesis suggests that we need to re-think which sites speak to the larger public good and how those sites are uses and interpreted. We all need beauty in our lives. The problem is, contrary to philosophers musings,  that physical beauty usually doesn’t equate to the historic truth.  Something can be beautiful and ugly at the same time. Beauty rarely has a relationship to an accurate and meaningful historic representation.  This type of isolated beauty we see in fully restored buildings lives in the world of nostalgia and is fueled by personal memory. Research has shown us that memory is usually an inaccurate way to re-member the past.  Nostalgia perpetuates stereotypes and racial bias because it selectively excludes most of reality in favor of a tiny slice of inaccurate, dominant-culture shared memory.  It’s this process of exclusion where systemic bias and racism resides.  It is not just minor elements that may be removed from a nostalgic memory but entire swaths of authentic experiences of marginalized populations.  Institutionally supported nostalgic narrowing and paring down does not allow for a fully equal, unbiased, and proper representation of very complicated social narratives. This involves the physical buildings, landscapes, as well as interpreted model. In this way Preservation becomes a hidden, divisive barrier.

The causes of this narrowing seem to stem back to core Preservation constructs that dictate a narrow period of significance, a primary person of significance, or architecture of particular beauty. These fundamental, core components in the  Preservation field, in themselves, contain systemic forms of racial and cultural bias and yet they are the very elements that historic sites are judged. This institutional bias against substantial inclusive layers of meaning and significance in favor of the dominant culture, simply continue to validate narrow, flawed nostalgic memory and expectations.  This problem is not with our visitors, it’s roots are to found in the political, social, and institutional processes of the Preservation movement itself.

What are some ways that Preservation can be re-framed so that  core fundamentals will be more inclusive?

THESIS #3:

Preservation can limit inclusion and perpetuate racial & social bias by regulating cultural narratives to simple themes.

DISCUSSION:

Does this mean we only tell nice, happy stories? Of course not. This thesis suggests that we are all complicated humans and our living situations change over time.  None of us are simply one thing – we are many things at the same time and what becomes visible and public in our lives often changes as we mature and gain experiences. A systemic vice in Preservation is that the dominant culture is controlling the narrative.  One hundred years ago the story of marginalized populations was not even being told, but now today we are concentrating on eras of oppression involving the very same marginalized populations we excluded a century ago. Without a doubt these narrations needs to be extensively presented without minimizing the pain and long-term effects.  But in this effort of selection, we remain exclusive and biased toward seeing entire populations as one single thing.  This process of forming an interpreted narrative, either physically with buildings or orally with interpretation – once again, is achieved through exclusion and selection of one building, story, individual, or group of people over another. The dominant culture of Preservation is still in the power position . Preservation through its codified professional practices chooses, frames and modulates the narration and tone of the story. Choosing to tell the story from a position of power is quite different from the story simply existing as an authentic layer of our complicated history. In being forced into adhering to an established system and waiting for a story to be told by another authority is a form of cultural bondage.  As William Blake wrote, “I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s”.

How can Preservation release its cultural bondage and allow choices to more freely represent all of us?

 

 

THESIS #4:

Historical regulations, district codes, and Preservation restrictions can be latently economically restrictive and culturally exclusionary, benefiting only those individuals who can afford the added costs, thus ensuring a form of aesthetically gated communities that reflect the dominant culture.

DISCUSSION:

Does this mean Historic Districts are bad? Of course not. There are many positive and effective results of historic districting efforts. I have, for most of my adult life, lived in historic districts. It is not that the concept is bad, rather this thesis suggests that the execution of regulating efforts can produce an inherently exclusionary process that results in race and cultural bias.  Most important to this thesis is that Preservation can, in attempting to return a district environment back to some specific era, exclude certain groups and exhibit bias in favor of the dominant culture. This has effects on not only the architecture (e.g. what is demolished and what is kept or rebuilt), but also acceptable/excluded functions allowed by such regulations (i.e. commercial, residential, mixed-use, multifamily), public amenities (streetscape, sidewalks, lamp posts, plantings), down to the most granular of elements, such as screw type, doorbells, light fixtures, and signage.  All of this specificity results in choices that ultimately are seeking an accepted aesthetic, environmental character, and authenticating assets of single-family ownership.  At its best, this environment is shared with all segments of society. At its worst, however, it acts as a latent warning alarm for those who exist outside of that shared cultural norm.

How can Preservation continue to seek the value of large district plans and at the same time allow for flexibility in behaviors, functions, and aesthetics?

 

 

THESIS #5:

Historic districting and preservation code requirements can be a contemporary form of “redlining” which excludes a diverse economic group of people from land ownership.

DISCUSSION:

Do designated “Historic Districts” result in cultural segregation? Maybe. There is no long-term agreement among social scientists as to the effects of historic districting on racial and economic displacement. What history and research do suggest is that a large percentage of those displaced by revitalizing efforts are black and brown people.  These district-specific revitalization efforts seem to result in a concentration of wealth and wealth-building investment that excludes those displaced (National Community Reinvestment Coalition, “Shifting Neighborhoods,” 2019). The result in increased property value not only limits the possibility of homeownership for many, it also increases rents out of the range for lower-income, working poor populations.  Added to these financial access issues are the additional costs associated with historical code compliance and environmental regulations that have evolved into manifestly limiting access by large, multi-generational family units in favor of a mythological nuclear American family unit. This fundamental family unit concept is, in itself, born out of anti-immigration and anti- African American policies stemming from the turn of the last century and is an inauthentic favoring of white, dominant-culture, single-family systems.

There is a long history in America of allowing physical space to be politically regulated in order to validate and support exclusion. The results of these separations become apparent when one views the 1970’s location of interstate highway systems through stable, vibrant black neighborhoods, railroads, and buffer greenspaces.  Inherent in basic Preservation efforts is the motivation to protect that which is seen as worthy of preserving from that which is viewed as any opposing negative influence.  It is fundamentally a divisive dichotomy that systemically codifies issues of class, race, wealth, and cultural interaction.  

This thesis does, however, acknowledge that some Preservation efforts have successfully concentrated on affordable housing and the creation of revolving funds and low interest loans to keep existing residents intact within historic districts. We should take lessons from these efforts and reevaluate pre-existing districts and regulations to transform them into more equitable solutions. At their best, historic districts can be viewed as a form of protection against thoughtless development and demolition, as well as areas that promote cultural overlap. At their worst, historic districts can become an aesthetically driven, culturally tone-deaf form of regulating class.

How can historic districting and Preservation regulations become more of a positive force for inclusion in the growth of our communities?

 

THESIS #6:

Preservation is susceptible to the harshest form of capitalism in that only those historic sites that are targeted with money actually get preserved.  Preservation choices are a matter of economics, not just history. The most revealing, unglamorous sites have rarely survived, nor have they been preserved.

DISCUSSION:

Everything needs money, but does that make Preservation a bad thing? Of course not.  This thesis suggests that we need to acknowledge openly that the market-driven, economically determining factors of Preservation have produced an inaccurate collection of historic sites and artifacts.  It is not that the current sites themselves are bad, but that, taken as a body of historical information, the architecture and collections that remain may tell only a small portion of the authentic story.  The portion of our collective narrative that has been preserved is a result of monetary support being given to these particular sites, and not necessarily because they are the most informative and revealing.   Until recently most historic sites have documented and supported a dominant male cultural narrative and at best, give a marginal presentation of other narratives.  At worst, sites actively suppress the complex realities of the historic record and erase marginalized populations that contributed most powerfully to our histories.

In an effort to create a fuller telling of history, there have been important strides by some Preservation organizations to landmark new historic sites and target new narratives.  These are excellent steps toward cultural equity. However, these steps in themselves cannot address the preexisting bias inherent in already established historic sites. Now is the time we must pause and reconsider existing historic sites, how we use them to enforce the dominant male culture narrative, and what we must do to manifest a more just and equitable presentation of history.

What are the steps we must take to re-envision our historic sites in ways that can produce a less biased representation of the historic record?

 

 

THESIS #7:

As Preservation has become more professionalized and can require a four-year degree, college has become more expensive and thus constricts the possibility of a racially, culturally, and economically equitable pool of professional practitioners. As a result, professional practices are sometimes biased.

DISCUSSION:

Isn’t this a problem in all fields of practice, not just Preservation?  Yes, it is a problem in many professional fields, but it has especially dire consequences in Preservation. At an average cost of $46,000 a year (out of state), Preservation education is biased toward experiences more easily obtained by those with wealthy, mainstream, dominant-culture backgrounds.   Even more significantly, the Preservation professional body, which grows out of this process of expensive education, unpaid internships, and stringent job requirements, becomes the central organism through which all choices are determined. The long-term results of this homogeneous field of practitioners are reflected in similarly homogeneous preservation efforts. Only 8% of National Register sites and 3% of all National Historic Landmarks represent people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community (CityLab, 2019). Here lies the core of the problem — these statistics are a direct reflection of the profession that selects, researches, restores, interprets markets, facilitates, regulates, and governs historic sites.  It is not only an issue of access to education, but is the result of this lack of access.

This bias towards the dominant culture, in not only professional practitioners but also the historic sites they manage, simply folds back into itself and becomes a barrier for marginalized populations to engage in the Preservation field in meaningful ways.  Once again, the dominant culture may be selectively choosing historic sites that are believed to represent marginalized populations, but in that process, there is inherent bias in judgments and considerations that might be in opposition to those particular constituents themselves.

The real control comes with the power to choose, and when membership into that profession is limited, so too is the resulting representation.

 What are ways that the field of Preservation can re-envision the process of education and subsequent professional practice to eradicate bias?

 

 

THESIS #8:

Preservationists, right now—today, need to stop fetishizing the built environment and begin considering how our hidden, internalized systems of Preservation are producing an environment of exclusion.

DISCUSSION:

Great, so what are we supposed to do? Demolish all historic buildings and end Preservation efforts?  Of course not. Thinking in a way that polarizes priorities simply removes any possibility of a collaborative process. This thesis suggests that Preservation, far from representing a neutral position, is a symbolic, political act.  Restoration budgets reflect priorities, and those in power determine restoration budgets.   If our historic sites don’t accurately reflect ourselves, then whose fault is it? When Preservation priorities are latently aligned with dominant culture and disaligned with non-dominant populations, the result is a collection of procedures, regulations, and historic sites that are indicative of a larger system of exclusion and bias. It is not accidental that history sites and monuments have become centers of attention in the recent protesting actions related to the murders of African Americans by police.

These internalized systems perpetuate a profession that, despite individual desires of its practitioners, suppresses alternative views of process in favor of preexisting structures.  Attempts to modify these structures can result in superficial applications of diversity upon a system which is essentially biased.  In order to achieve real, inclusive, poetic Preservation, we must be willing to reenvision the core assumptions, purposes, and goals of Preservation itself.

 

How can Preservation re-establish its soul as an action of representative inclusion?

THESIS #9:

Follow the money in Preservation. A budget reflects our priorities.  Money goes where it is told.  There is nothing inherently authentic or natural about how the market economy dictates what gets preserved. Wealth Preserves Wealth.

DISCUSSION:

Everything has a relationship to the market economy. Defund Preservation?  Of course not, but allowing the act and choices of Preservation to be determined by the flow of money produces an overall symbolic narrative which, in itself, is biased toward the wealthy, dominant culture. Many of our sites exist today because money was present to restore and turn the site into a public venue.  This type of effort validates a restoration culture which glorifies significantly attractive architecture and beautiful environments over authentic narratives. What we restore is a validation of how we aspirationally wish to see ourselves reflected in the cultural mirror. Much of this reflection gains its strength from nostalgic ideas of history and seems to exist in a place centered on the sentimental rather than the substantive and true.

Even with important contributions to counter this self-reflective impulse, a vast number of existing historic sites and preserved environments illustrate a view of history which glorifies white, male, wealth, dominance, and achievement. Toni Morrison, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, stated that language allows us to see without pictures. Perhaps Preservation needs to learn how to restore history without buildings?

How can Preservation build a system of seeing without pictures?

 

As Preservationists, We Must Do Better.

Twisted Preservation

 

9 thoughts on “Systemic Bias & Racism of Preservation

  1. I have worked with historic preservation projects for years and this is the most eloquent statement of what I have felt for a long, long time.

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  2. Pingback: Systemic Racism of Preservation | Hetty Startup, public historian

  3. You raise many excellent points but I would push back on the suggestion that historic districting is a form of redlining when in New York City you have black and minority homeowners and renters in Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan begging for the attention of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to calendar their neighborhoods.

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    • Thank you for your comment. And YES That’s why I mentioned the good in a lot of these points. I am not absolutely saying that good does not exist in preservation – I love history and preservation! I think you may know that I lived in NYC for last 10 years and I am aware of great work by Historic District Council and LPC. It is not the act of districting that I wish to reconsider, it’s the expectations and codes after the fact. We must also realize that NYC is always an exception – not the rule – as preservation in NYC has been exemplary at landmarking a wide variety of structures (Stonewall to name just one).

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  4. There’s a lot of good food for thought here. While preservation can be a flawed tool, it is a tool that can be used to positive and negative ends. Regarding historic districts and designation, at NY SHPO we’re increasingly seeing historic district projects (local, state/national register) led by communities of color. I’ve helped shepherd through several projects in recent years where local groups have pursued preservation designation with the aim of exerting more control over their communities and pushing back against developers. A few examples are Bethel Christian Avenue HD, SANS (Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Subdivisions) HD, and Dorrance Brooks HD. People of color have been historically wary of institutions and state agencies, and not unreasonably so, but I am hopeful this trend will continue. At its best, preservation is about sharing and preserving everyone’s stories, not just the prettiest and least “controversial” ones.

    Like

  5. There’s a lot of good food for thought here. While preservation can be a flawed tool, it is a tool that can be used to positive and negative ends. Regarding historic districts and designation, at NY SHPO we’re increasingly seeing historic district projects (local, state/national register) led by communities of color. I’ve helped shepherd through several projects in recent years where local groups have pursued preservation designation with the aim of exerting more control over their communities and pushing back against developers. A few examples are Bethel Christian Avenue HD, SANS (Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Subdivisions) HD, and Dorrance Brooks HD. People of color have been historically wary of institutions and state agencies, and not unreasonably so, but I am hopeful this trend will continue. At its best, preservation is about sharing and preserving everyone’s stories, not just the prettiest and least “controversial” ones.

    Like

  6. Pingback: Systémové předsudky a rasismus památkové péče - Artalk.cz

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