Historic Preservation Starts with Community

Historic preservation begins at the local levelThis last weekend, my family and I volunteered at another public archaeology event spearheaded by a prominent Arizona historical society. It was the final field session of the project I discussed in my post that discussed how to involve minorities in archaeology by introducing them to the science at an early age. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and, once again, my family had a blast. We got the amazing opportunity to participate in important salvage excavations at a very influential site. The site hadn’t been revisited in over 80 years until this recent work and the results of this work will change what we know about the middle Archaic in southeastern AZ.

As my wife can attest: I live for fieldwork. The sun beating down on your back, sweat on your brow, and dirt underneath your fingernails is what archaeology is all about. It can be tough doing excavations and survey for months on end. The elements can really take it out of you. Digging is backbreaking, literally. But, when you’ve been away from the fresh air, bugs, and dirt for a while, you get a sort of ravenous gleam in your eye whenever you hear about a chance to dig. The thrill of discovery is almost too much sometimes, even when you break your back without finding anything. I love archaeology. I always have.

My wife and kids are rapidly becoming archaeology fans too. They aren’t the only ones. This weekend featured several site tours where the local community, history buffs, and archeo fans could all come out and watch us work. The response was phenomenal. At least 60 people came out to see what we’re doing out there and it was incredible to know that our work was supported by so many non-archaeologists.

The local response really got me thinking about the grass roots origin of historic preservation.

Our prevailing national law (the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966) was the direct response of thousands of preservationists, historians, and community advocates that were sick of losing historical buildings to development. The Urban Renewal movement gutted towns across the country to make way for new construction. Ethnic neighborhoods were removed to allow for highways, government offices, and apartment projects. This rapid loss of heritage was jarring to American communities. We started rethinking our approach to development. Low-income, ethnic community leaders teamed up with preservationists to stop the wrecking ball from wrecking the houses that played such a defining role in the creation of our heritage. It was a grass roots movement that convinced the United States Council of Mayors and Ladybird Johnson to write “With Heritage So Rich” in 1965– the document that formed the basis for the National Historic Preservation Act that was passed the next year with bipartisan report and support from President Johnson.

Our constellation of historic preservation laws works under the assumption that resources are identified, evaluated, and preserved at the local level. Yes, we have a national historic preservation act. But, all historic preservation occurs at the local level.

The Feds– Fund the State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPOs), manage the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), and make sure that federal agencies include historic preservation in their missions. The Fed also provide some hefty tax incentives for preservation.

The SHPOs– Manage the state historic registers, supervise the state-wide survey for historical properties (including archaeological sites), and pass on federal funding to certified local governments (CLGs).

Local governments– (especially CLGs) Craft historic preservation zoning guidelines/regulations, create tax incentives for preservation and urban containment zones that emphasize development in accordance with tenets of historic preservation. They also use the federal pass-through funding for educational opportunities, purchasing historic properties, rehabilitating historic properties, and providing technical assistance.

Most importantly: Historic preservation at the local level has teeth and can have popular support. Local governments can revoke permits and prevent projects from getting done. They can create tax incentives as well as tax penalties in the interest of preservation. Also, local communities can make things very hard for developers that go against the axioms of historic preservation. They can lean on local politicians and government administrators to make sure the local history and heritage is preserved. Oftentimes, this pressure works.

It is this “power of the mob” that created historic preservation in the United States. We are a uniquely individualistic society, so working in the public interest is not necessarily in our blood. But we do know how to push an issue. Protests, divestitures, boycotts, and smear social media campaigns are all tools that we use to make our voices heard. Once provoked by a charismatic/talented/motivated leader, the mob can be rallied to support a wide range of preservation projects. These actions are central to historic preservation advocacy.

The power of the mob also has a gentle side that is seen whenever local “townies” visit a historical site or public archaeology project. This was the side we saw at the public archaeology project in southeast Arizona– an affirmation that the local community cares about its past and cares about the people involved in preserving this past. Few of the archaeological volunteers were from the local community but we all care about using public archaeology to advocate for our interest– interpreting human pasts from the materials we leave behind. Archaeology is just one branch of historic preservation; however, all historic preservation needs local support. Historic preservation originates and works at the local level, but the result reverberates on a much larger scale.

Is historic preservation best approached by working with local communities? How can we involve the public while also promoting historic preservation? Write a comment below or send me an email if you have something to say.

Please feel free to share this article far and wide.

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