How cultural resource management can illuminate our communities

Is public archaeology the future of cultural resource managementWhenever I think about how we can transform cultural resource management into a mélange of applied anthropology and heritage conservation that can actually change society, I always think about the candelabra.

I remember, as a boy, seeing beautiful candelabras in church around Christmastime and they always filled me with awe. Dozens of delightful tea light candles all flickering together in a decorative display. Not only was it beautiful, the light from a couple candelabras had the ability to light an entire room. They also had the power to transform the otherwise mundane church service into an inspiring ceremony. The message, the time of year, and the setting, were all made better by the shimmering candelabra display.

Just like the candelabra, community-conscious CRMers have the potential to make our towns and cities more livable, likable, and interesting. We all have the capacity for change and the only thing that keeps us from shining like the tea lights in a candelabra is our own self-limiting beliefs.

Recently, I read a passage in a book on meditation that was particularly salient to the way cultural resource management professionals, historic preservationists, and heritage conservation practitioners can all collaborate with the goal of making our communities and careers shine like candles in a candelabra:

“When we light a candle, many places are illuminated—the immediate area around the candle, then a little further away, then further away. When we light a second candle, it also projects the same three areas of light. And in each of these areas of light, the light of the other candle enters with varying intensity. Once we’ve lit the second candle, there is not a single area of light that comes from only one candle. There is always the light of the second candle in it.” Understanding Our Mind, Thich Nhat Hanh (2006:59—60).

You get the idea. The light of one candle is not enough to illuminate an entire room. Similarly, one CRMer, state archaeologist, anthro professor, or field tech is not enough to turn around our entire industry. It is going to take many years of sustained effort from a group of concerned practitioners to change CRM archaeology. The light from our work needs to overlap until the entire community is illuminated.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take all of us to join the movement. As I wrote previously, the time is right for a movement in CRM archaeology. Just like every single candle in the candelabra doesn’t have to be lit in order for the display to shine, every single archaeologist does not have to use their work to benefit their local community.

It would be great if every CRMer in the United States joined hands and said, “Enough of this lowballing, back-stabbing, and ego-trippping. Let’s do good. Let’s make our communities better by preserving the places that count.” That just isn’t going to happen and, actually, we don’t need for it to happen.

To light a room, you need more than one candle but you don’t need the whole box of candles. You need just enough to light the pathway from the candelabra to the box of candles so it can be maintained for as long as we want to enjoy it. In the process, the light from our work will shine far and wide throughout the community.

I know this because I live in a place where preservation, archaeology, and civic mindedness has helped improve a unique, attractive community in the middle of the desert.

I Live in the Old Pueblo

Tucson, Arizona is an example of how a group of concerned citizens, scientists, and local politicians can join forces to improve livability through heritage conservation. Historic preservation, environmentality, and heritage conservation coalesced in the Old Pueblo during the 1990s and 2000s in a manner that helped save the city from sprawl and mediocracy. The result has been a movement to make Tucson the kind of place where people want to live by saving the spaces and things that make it unique. It hasn’t been perfect, but historic preservation and archaeology has played a central role in this local movement.

(DISCLOSURE: I live in Tucson, have been a CRM archaeologist here for about 6 years, and am a graduate student at the University of Arizona [#BearDown]. I’ve grown to love this town. I. am. biased. But, I’m also very familiar with the efforts Tucson has been making to ensure it will always be known for rugged mountains, saguaros, and amazing food and not for golf courses, a crappy NHL team, and Sun Devils. I’m also aware of how the efforts here differ from heritage conservation in other parts of the country.)

Heritage conservation in Tucson is bolstered by a county-wide open space ordinance. The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is one of the most landmark open space ordinances in the United States. By the 1990s, the people of Tucson and Pima County realized rampant suburbanization was destroying the town’s identity. Suburbs were chewing up open desert. Sky high land values and falling agricultural product prices were causing ranchers to sell their land for suburban development. The city was sprawling and sprawling and sprawling.

People were pouring into Sun Belt cities like Tucson for a number of different reasons. Gen-Xers and Millennials come to go to college in a warm, sunny University town. Retirees relocate to enjoy the warm winters and restaurants. Young families come here because they can afford to buy a home and raise a family. Everyone loves the plethora of outdoor activities Tucson provides. Cycling, hiking, camping, skiing, snowboarding, fishing, and birdwatching are all readily available in Tucson. Ample open space is what makes these activities possible.

Twenty years ago, the city was being loved to death. From the 1950s to 1990s, Tucson experienced explosive growth. The city’s population grew rapidly but not as fast as its geographic extent. The town sprawled between the two halves of the Saguaro National Monument within two generations. And all this growth was destroying the fragile desert ecosystem, eliminating open areas, and removing habitat for the unique plants and animals that call this place home.

Suburban expansion was great for the CRM business in Tucson because it gave us a lot of stuff to dig up. I would argue that we learned more about the Hohokam from 1980 to 2000 in the Phoenix and Tucson Basins than we did in the previous 100 years of archaeology. But, all this CRM flooded the Arizona State Museum with collections. The main artifact repository is now overflowing and a lot of these collections were created during the heyday of suburbanization.

The explosion of affordable, new housing on the periphery of Tucson also generated a vacuum of tax revenue and business out of the city’s central district. Downtown Tucson was nearly a ghost town by the late 1990s. Urban renewal during the 1970s and 1980s had spawned the construction of modern county government buildings but the neighborhoods around downtown languished. The older buildings that hadn’t been “renewed” became vacant and blighted. The historic district designations for several neighborhoods flanking downtown prevented them from slipping into complete decay while other mid-twentieth century suburbs were marginalized. Property values were low. Decay was creeping in.

Tucson was at a crossroads. Many of the subdivisions built from 1950 to 1970 were slipping towards blight. New construction at the city’s edges were filling the tax coffers better than what had already been built, but each new subdivision on the periphery increased the city’s budget more than the taxes they generated. Deals with developers left the city holding the tab for hundreds of miles worth of roads, sewer pipes, and power lines. Even though some of these subdivisions weren’t in the city limits, residents out there were still demanding police, fire, and EMT services.

With property tax proceeds decreasing from many of the subdivisions already within the city limits, the easiest way to pay the city’s bills was through the construction of new suburbs on the outer edge. Paradoxically, building these new communities would eventually end up costing more than they were worth. Rampant suburbanization was making the city less fiscally sound or sustainable.

By the mid-1990s, Tucson was faced with a question a lot of other American cities wrestle with today: Should we become like Las Vegas and Phoenix or is there another way?

What are we gonna do?

For Tucson, the growth solution came on the wings of a little bird. In 1997, the Ferruginous Pigmy Owl was listed on the endangered species list. While this animal is widespread in Central and South America, it only has a small habitat in the United States; specifically, southern Arizona. This listing meant each new development would have to consider the environmental needs of the owl and its habitat under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Thousands of acres of privately owned desert habitat were suddenly subjected to environmental review.

The local government and real estate developers were unnerved. How was the government going to oversee this massive number of new reviews? How would development move forward without a rapid environmental review process? How could we grow the tax base while protecting the owl?

Environmentalists and open space advocates saw this as a boon. They finally had something that could slow the suburban sprawl that was making Tucson less attractive and less sustainable. But, even the most ardent environmentalists realized this wasn’t going to stop development in Tucson. Rather, it was likely to muck up the flow of local environmental reviews, making it more likely that habitat would be destroyed through back door deals and other shenanigans.

In an amazing twist of fate, all three local groups—government agencies, developers, and environmentalists—collaborated together to come up with a solution. Rather than focusing on the pigmy owl, these groups decided to assess all threatened plants and animals that might join the pigmy owl on the endangered list. This way they only had to do one big planning strategy to guide the hundreds of individual NEPA assessments each year.

Using this grande plan, this unlikely coalition was able to identify sensitive areas, including archaeologically sensitive spaces, in order to help developers know where it was going to take a lot of work to get their project through the permitting process. They also devised a plan for allowing development to move forward while also protecting habitat through easements, property transfers, and property purchases.

The result was the Sonoran Conservation Plan: a comprehensive open space initiative at the county level originally dedicated to saving endangered species, their habitat, and locations with high probability of archaeological resources.

Quickly, all parties involved realized preserving ranchlands was one of the easiest ways to protect open space. Arid lands ranches incorporate grazing rights on public lands with the private ownership of select land parcels. Keeping ranches from turning into subdivisions maintained plant and animal habitat and removing these select parcels from development the county was able to make sure larger, contiguous habitat areas would not become atomized by wildcat subdivisions.

Since ranches have been part of life in the Tucson area since the 18th century, ranching is also part of the local cultural heritage. Euroamericans, Mexicans, Spanish colonial citizens and Native Americans have all been ranchers in the Tucson area for over 200 years. Historic preservation has provided an additional layer of regulatory protection because several of the largest ranches in the area have been designated as historical properties at the state and federal level.

Archaeologists were integral to the creation of the Sonoran Conservation Plan because cultural resources were also taken into account alongside threatened plants and animals. All of the archaeological data collected for decades has allowed the county and city to create archaeological protection zones and establish areas where archaeological sites—historical and prehistoric—are most likely. These high-probability areas are more expensive to develop and, thus, are largely avoided.

Fighting blight with carrot-flavored historic preservation

Tumacacori National Historical Monument, ArizonaThe Sonoran Conservation Plan provided for protection on the edges of Tucson, but the city still had to deal with the decaying urban core and aging suburbs. History has imbued Tucson with an eclectic mix of Native American, Hispanic, and Euroamerican heritage. The footprint of these forces over the past 230 years has been indelibly inked upon the urban landscape and has created several districts truly worthy of preservation.

City officials during the 1960s and 1970s did not believe in preserving this eclectic heritage. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Tucson’s central district was a mixture of traditional Sonoran vernacular architecture, including a large number of adobe dwellings, and homes built in fashionable Euroamerican styles that had been adapted to life in the desert. Of course, the oldest neighborhoods with Euroamerican architecture were affiliated with the town’s early Euroamerican families and were considered worthy of preservation. The unique barrios constructed by and inhabited by Mexican Americans were considered run-down blight; unworthy of preservation, but worthy of “renewal.”

In the 1970s, the City of Tucson demolished hundreds of traditional Sonoran adobe homes. While this was the largest enclave of Sonoran architecture in the United States, its Mexican American and Hispanic residents did not have the political power to save their barrios. These vestiges of the Old Pueblo were replaced with Modern-style government buildings and a convention center.

Urban renewal destroyed more than just buildings. It demolished a major part of the city’s community and replaced it with sterile architecture that nobody, besides the property developers and city officials, wanted to visit. Downtown Tucson became a place you only went to when you had to contest a speeding ticket or serve jury duty. Nobody came down there for recreation and, certainly, no one wanted to live there.

While renewal took down one of Tucson’s most vibrant areas, it provoked historic preservationists who swiftly took action. Residents adjacent to downtown made their neighborhoods historic districts in in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in order to prevent the wrecking ball from moving in next door. Preservationists also motivated county officials to create histpres regulations at the city and county level. This preservationist movement has been rolling through town ever since.

As happened in other cities across the country, urban renewal corporations were also forced to undergo change. Rather than being the funding source behind demolition sprees, renewal corporate charters changed to promote growth in the areas that had designated as blighted. Renewal also came to mean reuse in Tucson. Today, the Downtown Tucson Partnership is tasked with promoting economic growth in the downtown district. This is encouraged through economic incentives rather than bulldozers.

The Downtown Tucson Partnership takes advantage of a patchwork of historic preservation tax credits, zoning overlay districts, and other incentives to spur business in downtown Tucson. The city government and the University of Arizona play important ancillary roles in the promotion of downtown as well. The City creates zoning overlay districts as development incentives while the booming growth of the University provides students and professional advisers (i.e. customers, tenants, and researchers). Historic preservation is integral to the Partnership’s activities because the tax breaks provided by historical buildings can be the difference between a financially viable development project and one that just doesn’t pencil out.

Rather than destroying run down properties, the Partnership encourages their redevelopment. Zoning laws and tax incentives make it more attractive to refurbish old buildings. Histpres in the development zone makes it expensive to destroy old architecture. Slowly, old, dilapidated architecture is being revived into elements that make the downtown district interesting and attractive.

Archaeology is in our blood down here

The protection of open space in Pima County and historic preservation incentives in the City of Tucson are great for the bottom line—increasing tax revenue, retaining skilled citizens that pay higher taxes, and maintaining the city’s character—but this doesn’t always translate into benefits for CRM archaeology. This patchwork of regulations increases the potential for CRM work, but it also increases the density of consulting archaeologists in the metropolitan area which makes landing contracts and CRM jobs very competitive.

There is another reason why there are so many archaeologists in Tucson and the whole of Arizona: the fact that the Southwest has been an epicenter for American archaeology for over a century.

During the late 1800s, a group of Native American relic enthusiasts like Adolph Bandelier and Frank Cushing started getting pissed off over the looting of archaeological sites that was taking place across the state. The reported on the state of sites like the Casa Grande Ruins, remarking that action was necessary to prevent their total destruction.

Rather than letting it happen, these advocates called out the big guns in their quest to save the state’s archaeological treasures. Their work prompted President Benjamin Harrison to set aside Casa Grande as a cultural reserve in 1892. Spurred by this success, the movement continued. Arrangements were made for President Theodore Roosevelt to tour some of the most important archaeological and historical sites in Arizona during the early 1900s. John Muir served as his tour guide for part of this journey. In addition to visiting the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt was taken to what was left of the Tumacacori Mission and other archaeological treasures.

The tour was designed to play off of Roosevelt’s conservationist ethos and he decided to use his executive power to protect archaeological sites. The 1906 Antiquities Act was the first regulation that proscribed conservation of historical and archaeological sites simply for their value as a part of our history. The Antiquities Act in conjunction with the National Park Service’s mission provided for the preservation of a number of archaeological sites in the State during the early 1900s. Casa Grande National Monument, Tumacacori, Wupatki, and Montezuma Castle were all established as national parks or monuments during the first decades of the twentieth century.

One could argue that Southwestern archaeology was born from the Antiquities Act because it mandated that sites could not be excavated without a permit. In Arizona, the Arizona State Museum in Tucson became the permit-granting agency for the southern half of the state and, essentially, had the power to control archaeological excavations in the Hohokam heartland. Northern Arizona University became the permitting agency for the northern half of the state. These organizations didn’t hand out permits like candy. During the early days, they were primarily issued to professors, especially those from the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.

At the dawn of CRM archaeology in the 1970s, permitting agencies in Arizona continued to have a strong influence over who could excavate sites. This left university professors in a privileged position, but, over time, the doors were opened to persons meeting the strict guidelines of these permitting organizations.

Today, it is notoriously difficult to qualify as a principal investigator in the State of Arizona and every CRM project, from survey to excavation, on public land has to be supervised by a qualified principal investigator. In addition to a graduate degree, PIs in Arizona must have completed a series of different projects from conception to completion. Since permits for archaeological work are only given to a select group of practitioners, CRM is somewhat concentrated in the hands of a few individuals who have spent significant time working in the state and are very familiar with its prehistoric and historical periods.

This can sound extremely undemocratic to CRMers in other parts of the country but it actually helps keep the quality of work done in Arizona at a high level. It also forces PIs to be accountable because their privileges will be revoked if their consulting work gets too shoddy. Wages are generally higher for CRMers because there are only a few individuals who can bid on projects within the state.

The role of the state’s archaeological repositories and university anthropology departments also plays an important role in keeping standards high. The University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, and, more recently Arizona State University, have been doing excellent Southwestern archaeology since the early 1900s. In fact, the Anthropology Department at UAZ is celebrating a full century of conducting ethnographic and archaeological work around the world. The strength of these programs provides a steady stream of smart archaeologists trained by professors who are known throughout the country. These university-based archaeologists are also concentrations of expertise that provide a more theoretical and analytical source of information that can be tapped by CRMers to deepen their research.

Aspiring archaeologists flock to Arizona because they get the chance to do cool archaeology and work with top minds. Archaeos at UAZ, NAU, and ASU are doing awesome projects across the Southwest and around the world. While university departments are keeping the bar held high, CRM companies in Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff are keeping up by producing high-quality work as well. I’ve worked across the country, but the research designs and archaeological analyses I’ve encountered while living in Tucson are truly trend-setting.

Introducing: The next step in CRM evolution

This constellation of people, memes, and events have aligned to produce an atmosphere of collaboration and expertise in Tucson that is particularly conducive for the manifestation of the next generation of CRM organizations. The folks working for these groups are changing what it means to do cultural resource management archaeology.

Archaeology Southwest is an example of what is produced from the unique blend of historic preservation, environmentality, and archaeological productivity that is found in Tucson. Initially, Archaeology Southwest was the non-profit affiliate of the Center for Desert Archaeology—a CRM firm started in Tucson in the 1980s. In 2012, Desert Archaeology, Inc. was rolled into Archaeology Southwest; effectively transforming the for-profit consulting branch into a vehicle for exploring the history and prehistory of the Southwest, public outreach, and historic preservation initiatives. Archaeology Southwest has grown over the past few years and has expanded its preservation efforts to include collaborating with Native American tribes, informing the government on the importance of histpres, and purchasing sites in order to preserve them.

Archaeology Southwest is not only providing information and expertise, it is also helping train the next generation of archaeologists. In collaboration with the University of Arizona, Archaeology Southwest has hosted the university’s preservation archaeology field school for the last couple years at a site owned by Archaeology Southwest in New Mexico. Archaeologists from Archaeology Southwest and experienced graduate students at UAZ have been tasked with teaching the field school students. Their expertise is being transmitted to a new generation of archaeologists. By using CRMers as instructors, the university doesn’t have to hire super experienced faculty. They’re simply harnessing the know-how of the practitioners in their own community.

Most importantly, Archaeology Southwest takes action. The organization actively lobbies the U.S. Congress and other state and local governmental agencies in order to provide for a future for CRM archaeology and prompt legislators to do more for preservation. This is crucial because we won’t have a CRM consulting industry without educating our leaders and making sure they know the importance of preservation. Legislators who don’t know what preservation does are always ready to eliminate the laws upon which our industry stands.

They said it couldn’t be done

For over two years I’ve been receiving emails and comments on this blog telling me that CRM archaeology is too embedded in its ways to change course. “CRMers are too selfish. Companies are too cheap. Universities don’t know how to prepare their students for the industry. The general public doesn’t care enough. Legislators are too powerful. We can’t go against them.”

Well, guess what? Things are changing anyway:

  • Archaeology Southwest, the SRI Foundation, and other non-profits born from CRM companies are going the extra mile.
  • Urban renewal corporations like the Downtown Tucson Partnership, Capital City Development Corporation, and others are collaborating with archaeologists and preservationists as part of their economic revitalization strategies.
  • Graduate degree programs that focus on CRM are popping up across the country from SUNY Binghamton to Central Washington University to Adams State University.
  • Anthropology programs are collaborating with CRM companies at an increasing rate; CRMers are teaching anthro classes.
  • Public outreach is en vogue. Both university programs and CRM companies are making the extra effort to include the public in archaeology projects.

And, these are just the things I know about. I can only imagine how many more things are happening that I don’t know about. Change is here.

I’ve lived across the American West for my entire life and have seen unchecked development devastate the local character of so many excellent neighborhoods. In the last 20 years, suburbanization has transformed the way we think about livability. The cities in the West that invested in historic preservation are the ones Millennials are flocking to. Suburbs are turning into ghettos.

Historic preservation is one way we can help maintain the kind of interesting districts that attract the general public. Historic districts aren’t for everyone, but there is an increasing segment of the population that is attracted to them. Archaeologists and CRMers can play a major role in the placemaking process because the historical data we collect adds texture to older neighborhoods. Our work can be used as the foundation for a story that the general public wants to hear and tell to others.

Just like a candelabra, a growing number of preservationists and CRMers are doing their part to use heritage conservation as a platform for community development. The light from each of these projects is transforming what it means to live in a progressive city in the United States. Places created in the past are lighting our way into the future.

This is an exciting time to be doing historic preservation, cultural resource management, archaeology, and heritage conservation in the United States. In order to be part of this movement, all you have to do is pick one of these new elements—public outreach, oral histories, building rehabilitation, planning, online teaching, whatever you can think of— and figure out how you can help.

Tell me what you can do to help. Write a comment below or send me an email.

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