Saving Difference

Saving Difference

Preservation on the Edge
California Preservation Foundation
May 15-18, Santa Monica

“Preservation on the Edge,” organized by the California Preservation Foundation (CPF) was an apt theme for the recent California Preservation Conference held in Santa Monica. But perhaps not for the reasons the organizers intended. Certain members of the preservation community are in expansionist mode—eager to make preservation about not just bricks and mortar; and not just from Eurocentric perspectives, but also South American and Afro-American.


Last year Stephanie Meeks was named the new Executive Director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization that for most of its existence has focused on saving landmarks primarily of architectural significance and secondarily of cultural relevance. She was the former Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy and Counterpart International. If her comments at the opening session of the conference are any indication, she aims to dramatically alter the course of the preservation movement, in ways that may reinvigorate and broaden it. She understands that for preservation to be relevant to most Americans in the 21st century it will have to take on more than aesthetics and architectural objects and also incorporate the political and cultural life of non-whites and other minorities.

Meeks began her talk by focusing on the dramatic demographic shifts taking place in the United States. Within a few years we will be a minority majority nation. (Of course as South Africa showed us that doesn’t mean that the dominant culture won’t run things for a while longer…) But Meeks feels the future of preservation will rely on its ability to reach out to a more diverse and multi-ethnic population.

“Our movement does not reflect a multi-ethnic reality,” she said. One look at the conference audience confirmed that assertion, although in that regard preservationists are not alone in the architecture and design communities.

Meeks laid out five pathways for achieving a more diverse preservation community, beginning with diversifying the Trust itself. She spoke about minority community landmarks, specifically mentioning the Wyvernwood apartment project in Boyle Heights. Here, preservationists and community activists came together to protect a 70-year-old, privately-owned moderate income complex in a largely Hispanic neighborhood. She also mentioned the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community; in subsequent presentations, a number of gay and lesbian taverns were mentioned as historic sites as were the Self Help Graphics & Art building and the Maravilla handball courts in largely Hispanic East Los Angeles. The National Trust has already instituted Partners in The Field Grants and Diversity Scholarships to support this move towards diversity, but cultural inclusiveness can lead to some difficult questions.


At one CPF panel entitled “What is Significant? A Broader Definition for Preservation Criteria,” panelists brought up preservation’s previous focus on architecture and aesthetics. They seemed to criticize this “fixation” on buildings with the suggestion that it was time to move on. Solutions for doing so were a little weak, but included tours, online sites, and oral histories. However, are those ideas strong enough to generate the economic activity needed to help preserve or adapt landmarks? Already, there are not enough economic uses for the thousands of empty railroad stations and movie theaters across the country. How are those buildings going to be saved that stand outside the standard sense of historic or beyond the comfort zone of elites who have largely defined the preservation movement up until now? Will the physical presence of landmarks cease to be important at all once everything is recorded digitally?

In the recent past, the main tool for saving historically significant sites has been through legislation at the local, state, and national levels. The Secretary of Interior Standards offers a lot of definition for what a historic site is and how it can be preserved. In California, CEQA defines a process for incorporating a historic site’s values into development. (Of course that probably results in litigation every time someone doesn’t like the findings) But the question remains: Should we begin to broaden our definition of historic preservation to be more inclusive of our changing population, and how do we codify it?

The desire for preservation can be a fear reaction to a culture that is changing too rapidly. Can it learn to embrace the confrontational instead? What about the Chicago location where the Black Panther Party organizer Fred Hampton was murdered by the police? Or the Delano fields where Cesar Chavez organized? Once we acknowledge that we have to redefine what constitutes a historic landmark, then we will need to figure out how we will handle the landmark itself. And this may have more to do with economics than preservation. When people desperately need homes, is saving an unstable structure even viable?

What is so powerful—and hopeful—about Meeks and her leadership is that she is aware of how preserving the past involves both political and economic futures. And as Rem Koolhaas has pointed out, architecture is fundamentally about the future. How much of the past do we need as we look forward?

What remains unknown is the sacrifice. Which places are going to be more important than others when we are no longer a majority Caucasian nation and when we start looking at our economic, political, and cultural history from a broader perspective? Only one thing is clear, we won’t be able to save it all.