Reading Response Week 3

Theme: Historic Preservation

Assigned Reading

  • Wallace, Mickey Mouse History pp. 177-221
  • Cauvin, Public History, Chapter 2: Historic Preservation, pp 55-88

The readings this week focuses on an important aspect of work that public historians do outside of museums, that is the historic preservation of buildings, sites and districts. Wallace’s essay entitled “Preserving the Past: Historic Preservation in the United States” is a overview of how the idea of preserving historically important buildings, sites and urban districts developed in the United States beginning in the middle to late 19th century and the constant struggle in trying to get recognition that historically important buildings, places and neighborhoods were things deserving of preservation. Wallace does a great job in capturing the essence of this conflict which has broader implications for historical practice, the fight in trying to get recognition that these historic sites have an intrinsic non-market value deserving of preservation against an economic and political system which maintains the right of property owners to do what they wish and that these places are only valued for their market value or their developmental opportunities. The section of the essay that I think is most relevant to our contemporary times is the section that details how the concept of “adaptive reuse”came into being; a concept developed as a result of a new coalition of interest groups traditional preservationists, middle class professionals and local businesses (p.189). The marrying of profit-motive and preservation set the pattern for later developments, by keeping the outside shell of historical buildings while gutting the inside to create new retail or office space it seemed like a necessary compromise in order to create a demand and an incentive for historical preservation. However and I think that this has become a greater issue since this essay was written is that the incentives have resulted in further entrenching a certain process, that is of gentrification. Which “saves” these historic districts but frequently displaces the working class and immigrant communities which scrubs the unique character that these neighborhood had in the first place, prominent contemporary examples include Harlem, Brooklyn and San Francisco. As Wallace points out, there are many different factors driving this trend but what cannot be denied is that historic preservation has played an important role in driving this process.

The gentrification of historic neighborhoods like Harlem has provoked questions about how residents can maintain their community identity when so many are displaced due to rising rents.

Cauvin’s chapter on Historic Preservation outlines the role that public historians play in historic preservation along with the best practices in order add buildings, sites and districts to preservation lists like the National Registrar of Historic Places (NRHP). I think an important concept that this chapter recognizes is that the campaigns to place sites onto the list are frequently organized at the grassroots level and in fact points out that campaigns organized at the last minute in order to save these sites are just the wrong way to approach these situations with an admonishment that these sites should come to the attention of being recognized as a part of an active survey process. The implication that public historians should be active in the community and pay attention to what is going on is important in recognizing their role as advocates on behalf of those communities.

We were also encouraged to listen to a podcast produced by a museum so I listened to the SpyCast produced by the International Spy Museum. The Spycast features in depth interviews of historians, intelligence personnel and officials by the museum’s historians frequently about a particular topic relating to intelligence. The episode I listened to was Pearl Harbor at 75: An Interview with Steve Twomey the author of a new book that takes an in depth look on the intelligence side of the attack on Pearl Harbor titled Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack. Some of the issues that he talks about in this interview and deeper in his book was the underlying assumptions that the American establishment had about the Japanese. Almost everyone expected that the U.S. would go to war with Japan however due to many factors they were totally unprepared to their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code which created a sense of complacency along with frankly very racist thinking about Japanese inferiority. Overall the interview was very interesting and I think I will have to add the book on to my to read list.


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