I recently attending some sessions of the Colorado Preservation Inc.'s Saving Places 2012 Conference. As usual with these things there are plenty of educational sessions that you can geek-out on various preservation topics, from process-heavy advice for preservation commissions to very technical analysis of window retrofitting techniques.
For me the most interesting event was the Saving Places luncheon. (Mind you not the food.) The keynote speaker was James Loewen, sociologist and author. He gave an impassioned plea for inclusion and precision in the presentation of historic places, especially the painful omissions and/or outright misrepresentations of Native Americans and women in historical markers and interpretations. A read through his Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong will be an interesting read.
The other event of the luncheon was the video presentation of the yearly "most endangered places" designated projects across Colorado. These brief presentations highlight more the stories of the people attempting to save the featured building or structure than concentrating on only the physical aspects of the resource itself.
What I was left with was how interesting and frankly touching are the stories of the people for whom an effort of preservation has become a meaningful aspect of their lives. As an architect I think it is very easy for me to concentrate on the physical building and its character and details rather than the human aspects of the history of the place. What is surprising here however is that I am not as interested in the story of the historical persons who might have lived in the building but rather the stories of the people for whom the effort of saving the building has become an important part of their lives. The inclusion that James Loewen makes such an elegant plea for should include the second story of the place or building - the effort of the people to save or at least somehow mark the place.
Preservation, at least at these kind of gatherings and conferences, has become such an institutionalized and professional pursuit that it is easy to forget that its genesis was, and often continues to be, a grassroots, activist-lead endeavor. I have written about Richard Nickel's pioneering efforts in Chicago and at the conference I heard touching stories of some folks down in Pueblo who have embraced the preservation of their down-at-the-heels neighborhood for whom this effort has become the catalyst of self-discovery and community pride.
As a board member of my local preservation commission in a wealthy community, the projects I see are largely opulent proposed additions to fabulous, and fabulously expensive, large and expansive Victorian houses. Our role is more often that of the preservation police, guarding and protecting historic districts from misguided contractors and careless homeowners. Preservation as an aspect of positive community activism seems like a distant planet.
For some, preservation is rooted in identity and feels like a life and death struggle, a small cry against the erasure of self and place. That is a kind of preservation worth preserving.