If there was not enough discussion in class about preservation and urban renewal due to Funeral for a Home, the conversation will be had tomorrow. Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities by Andrew Hurley shed critical light on the work of public history in urban neighborhoods facing challenges of blight and the possibility of gentrification.
As Hurley wrote about Old North St. Louis on page 63, “It was not policy alone that emptied the neighborhood of its buildings; many succumbed to fire while others crumbled from lack of upkeep.” Hurley adeptly highlighted the double-edged sword of the preservation/urban renewal debate. If a space is left untended without energy, it is left to burn, rot, and promote a culture of abandonment. If a salvageable building is demolished, an historic landmark and viable space for residency, work, or community gathering was destroyed. What are the costs and whose values matter in making these decisions? Who has the power to make the difference here?
Hurley discussed the power held by neighborhood development corporations in the management or redevelopment of their respective places. What is very clear here for public historians is that great care is needed in dealing with communities of memory based in place because complex multi-dimensional issues are at stake. It is also crucial for public historians to understand the dynamic and philosophies of CDCs before partnering to do public history work. Hurley did not seem to expect public historians to remain partial in the fray of adaptive reuse versus demolish/build again politics, but he did warn that varied opinions and feelings about neighborhoods exist within both specific neighborhood populations and broader city communities. If Hurley is right to say that public history is a marketing tool for CDCs, public historians should be mindful of the branding they leave behind.
Dolores Hayden in The Power of Place explored the significance of place in terms of public history and urban landscapes. She wrote on page, 43, “Places make memories cohere in complex ways. People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space.” To Hayden, public historians must interpret the past through loaded spaces and politicized places. Perhaps place is the entry point to memories which engage audiences in hard histories and contemporary issues. Hayden also wrote about community-based projects on page 77, “…they are not necessarily enormously expensive. They require a labor of love from everyone involved, transcending old roles and expectations… people who will never go to history museums attend public humanities programs, or read scholarly journals. Entrepreneurial public historians may be able to reach them…”
Emerald Street Park, a pocket park and community gathering space grown out of vacant lots on Emerald Street between Dauphin St. & Arizona St. in East Kensington, Philadelphia, PA. 2013. What memories originate in this space?
If Hayden is right that entrepreneurial public historians can reach citizens who would otherwise not have access to public humanities or museum work, should public historians see their role to include the inspiration for change within a community of memory? If we are to be scholarly, collaborative, public servants addressing immediate concerns for a community of memory, well, we better be inspiring something. Otherwise, why do the work at all? This leads to Hurley’s big point on page 191 where he explained what public history projects should do within urban neighborhoods. He wrote, “Ideally…a public history project should combine both capacity-building and result-oriented activities.” (Wait, like connect neighbors and build content for a history exhibit?). Using public history to revitalize inner cities might sound like a daunting task laden with political potholes. It is. But it is also everything public history should be.
Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997).
Hurley, Andrew, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).