In case you’ve missed it, a fairly robust conversation has sprung up in the comments to Monday’s discouraging post about Ceres Plantation and its destruction-minded owners, the Warren County Port Commission. In addition to comments about the irrationality of the whole case, some have noted that this seems to be one of several instances recently where either local or state organizations originally set up to help preserve our historic structures either declined to engage or gave only half-hearted, intermittent support. The question has arisen: what preservation organizations should I send my money to and trust that they will at least join battle when our most historic places are threatened?
The longer I’m involved in preservation, the more I realize that local and state-level organizations are where the trenches are. To that end, I have tried to spread my money around, with the caveat that I only give to hard-core organizations. My definition of hard-core is a preservation organization that is eager to go out and save buildings, not just talk about saving buildings. I know that may seem strange for a blogger who spends quite a bit of time “just” talking about saving buildings, but nobody gives me money for this blog, and I don’t ask for it. Non-profit preservation organizations (leaving aside MDAH, which is a government agency), on the other hand, ask for money from supporters to allow many of us to band together and hire other people so they can go out and actually fight for preservation.
On the national level, my concern about the National Trust for Historic Preservation is that they’ve become overly tied up in various political agendas–scratching some politicians’ backs so that those politicians might support their cause in the future. I haven’t been a member of the Trust for a while now, although I have attended some of their events, and I do respect their work in New Orleans after Katrina, and their efforts to save Rosenwald Schools in the South. I am a member of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, but would like to see them out there in the trenches more, not just doing preservation curriculums or other planning documents, however useful those are. The Catch-22 is that in order to get out in the trenches, they need more staff, and to have staff, they need money; but without seeing tangible results, people like me are less inclined to give money. There are many local organizations around the state–some with full-time staff, some short-term groups organized to save one building–but unfortunately Jackson doesn’t have a Jackson Heritage or Preserve Jackson or some other preservation-minded organization. That’s one reason why so many Jackson landmarks like the old Rexall Drugstore keep disappearing without a fight or even a notice in the print media. Maybe your community has a great local preservation organization, in which case, I hope you are contributing either time or money or both to the group. Then there are groups that are involved hands-on in saving one building I care about, for instance, the Archaeological Conservancy and Prospect Hill. You could easily spend all your money by spreading it out among several groups, and maybe that’s the best route for you. With this method, there’s more sense of control and accountability, but also more work on your part to find the different groups.
This discussion reminded me of the most-recent issue of American Heritage just received in the mail last week. To be honest, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with American Heritage, although it might have been the first magazine I ever subscribed to, way back in graduate school when I was scraping together $5 a month for my “eating out” budget. But I feel my relationship may be back on, way back on, given the Editor’s Letter, which announced that the magazine will now move from a for-profit to a non-profit venture and notes its preservationist aims:
After surmounting many challenges, our publishing company must end its run of 61 years. In its place, a new organization–The American Heritage Society–rises to the occasion. As a nonprofit, the Society will be able to secure additional funding from donors, foundations, and government agencies.
. . . .
We are inviting you, our subscribers, to join in the mission. With 220,000 members, the American Heritage Society will be the largest historical organization in the nation at the outset.
Now, you will be doing more than buying a magazine–you will be helping our team’s efforts to:
- support the teaching of history to the next generation of Americans with innovative new educational resources,
- make millions of fascinating artifacts and images hidden in museums visible for the first time at the National Portal to Historic Collections, and
- increase awareness of the catastrophic reduction in funding for the most important Federal programs supporting history and preservation, including total elimination of Save America’s Treasures, Preserve America, Teaching American History, and the National Heritage Areas and Scenic Byways programs.
We, and the history, community, ask for your support in these challenging times.
While that last note about preservation is fairly limited in its scope–increasing awareness of Federal funding reductions isn’t the same as actually going out and preserving historic places–it’s a start and perhaps most significantly indicates a general concern amongst historically-minded folk about the low ebb of the preservation movement in the consciousness of the country.
I’ve noted before the resurgence of the New Modernism in our state and country, and its threat to preservation. While we might like the Modern architectural style, the philosophy of Modernism was undeniably destructive to historic buildings, districts, and entire towns around the country. The New Modernism picks up where the old left off, dismissing history and its architecture as “merely old” and therefore in our youth-obsessed culture, useless, ugly, worthy of destruction, perhaps even a hazard if saved. But whereas the old Modernism at least occurred in a period of great wealth and growth in the country, the New Modernism plays on fears of decline and promises economic growth, better education, better government, better whatever, if only we can wipe away the old stuff and build something new and shiny (like a Butler building). This demolition is often done without any funding or plan in place to replace the historic buildings, as we’ve seen over and over recently, but the general public doesn’t seem to care.
Until we as preservationists come to terms with the new threat posed by Modernism, and realize that the original preservation movement was kick-started at the height of the first Modernist period, we won’t move past our current too-late and mostly impotent anger at the destruction of historic buildings. We may laugh at the image of little old ladies in tennis shoes out in front of bulldozers, but you have to hand it to them, they saved a lot of buildings that we now take for granted. Wouldn’t it be great if our kids also had a chance to take for granted the historic buildings we save?
First step is to acknowledge we have a problem, second step is to take a look at our existing institutions–local, state, and national/federal–a hard, kind of wonky and unsentimental look, asking them for an accounting of preservation battles they have fought recently, those they have won, those they have lost, those they’ve avoided and why, and how they plan to proceed in the future. Frankly, some of our current institutions–here in Mississippi, maybe in your community–have become soft, maybe become mere chambers of commerce spouting the boosterish line, maybe have become too focused on a single building or era and can’t be bothered with new battles. Some are primed for the fight and are out there accomplishing great things under extreme small-town political pressures, some are battered by old fights and need encouragement and fresh energy, some are complacent, just taking up money and time and need to be bypassed in favor of a different approach.
This is a ramble, but maybe a needed ramble. Look at the pictures of buildings we’ve lost just in the last 6-8 months. It’s not going to get better until we all rise up and make it better, whether with money or time or even talking to friends and family about a local preservation conflict. I don’t know that we’ll succeed, but if we don’t even start to fight, I can guarantee defeat.
Categories: Historic Preservation