Whose Story Gets Told?

16 Nov

I am an accidental preservationist. For this lifelong activist, the movement to save diverse places is about racial justice. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story.

In his remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke eloquently about the ways in which the built environment reflects social inequalities:

Identity matters. You can tell the identity of a nation by looking at what they honor. . . . There is power in memorialization. You preserve the things that matter. . . . We do an injustice when we tell stories about history that are incomplete.

From the Civil War to Civil Rights, Philadelphia’s historic resources tell a more complete American story. But in Philly, only two percent of historic properties are protected. Incredibly in the 1950s, City Hall narrowly escaped the wrecking ball. Much to the chagrin of city leaders, including Edmund Bacon, then-head of the Planning Commission, rehabilitation cost less than demolition. In other words, it was “cheaper to keep her.”

Fast forward to today, gentrification is laying bare Philadelphia’s culture of demolition. As I write this post, a developer is demolishing the church where Marian Anderson learned to sing and the congregation nurtured her talent. The world renowned contralto helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.

Union Baptist Church

The Royal Theater was a center of the African American community from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was Philly’s first and largest movie theater to cater exclusively to African Americans. Although it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Philadelphia Register, the historic property is about to undergo a “facadectomy.”

These places are at the intersection of historic preservation and social justice. The buildings’ social history of resistance and triumph is connected to contemporary issues, including gentrification, displacement, income inequality and social inequity. Truth be told, developers are deciding which places are important.

In Los Angeles and Phoenix adaptive reuse is a matter of public policy. Philadelphia’s culture of demolition has been exacerbated by the 10-year residential tax abatement which provides a perverse incentive for developers to tear down historic buildings.

To bring about policy changes, we must engage and empower accidental preservationists to become stewards of historical assets in their neighborhood.

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