Fighting for a better memorial?

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Editor’s note: This post continues a series commemorating the anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act by examining a past article published in The Public Historian, describing its significance and relating it to contemporary conversations in historic preservation. 

Houses in the Mission District of San Francisco. Source: Photo by mari.francille, http://www.flickr.com/photos/francille/6200964616/, CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.

Houses in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Houses_in_the_Mission_District_of_San_Francisco.jpg Permission: CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en.

In this latest post in our series on the National Historic Preservation Act, Mary Rizzo, former co-editor of The Public Historian and current assistant professor of professional practice at Rutgers University-Newark, interviews Sam Imperatrice about the article “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District,” by Nancy Raquel Mirabel. Imperatrice was a community organizer in Brooklyn who worked on gentrification issues.

MR: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Can you start by telling me about the community organizing you did?

SI: I was a community organizer and researcher for a membership-based organization called Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) in Brooklyn in the early- to mid-2000s. . . . The biggest concern that we didn’t feel anyone was addressing was the development pressures coming to the area, lots of ground being broken on these new high rise condo developments. . . . The work I did was trying to pull together a motley crew of interests–small businesses, other community groups, public housing residents–and trying to link them to broader neighborhood and community issues.

MR: Assembling a motley crew sounds like a lot of public history projects! Let’s turn to Mirabel’s article. What was your overall impression of it?

San Francisco Women's Building, 3543 18th Street, Mission District, San Francisco. Permissions: CC BY SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode.

San Francisco Women’s Building, 3543 18th Street, Mission District, San Francisco.
Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Women’s_Building#/media/File:San_Francisco_Womens_Building.jpg Permission: CC BY SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

SI: I really love the narrative style of this article. She walks through her process of understanding the role of her research and dealing with its political potential and limitations. And her realization that there’s no end to this process. There was this belief that these market forces would hit an equilibrium at some point, but what we’ve seen since the dot com bubble and in her reflections in 2009 is that it’s still happening even in the middle of this complete economic meltdown. It elicits a very strong policy response, and the policy responses we’ve had up to now are totally inadequate.

MR: She never quite gets to the policy response, though that’s not her point necessarily. In fact, the article ends very abruptly and angrily.

SI: I think what she’s saying is, if what we’re doing is fighting for a better memorial, I don’t want any part of that. There’s a salvage anthropology going on. This sense that we’ve got to collect these stories at all costs because this is an important community, important issues, important stories that we don’t want to be lost. But what is their political potential to actually change this process we’re in? She’s grappling with it. At the end, she’s concerned that there are all the memorials along the Embarcadero that are carefully culled from a distant past to paper over a more recent past of displacement in that area so they can talk about things that might be considered struggles, like labor strikes along the waterfront, but that doesn’t have the sting or have the burn.

MR: She’s really touching on the role of public memory.

SI: At one point she talks about how there has to be consent to forget to build new narratives and there’s this painful liminal period where the people who have different memories from the newcomers are still there, these kind of walking ghosts in their own spaces that new folks have to pretend don’t really exist to create their own stories. A colonization on top of the existing community. She doesn’t want her work to be just capturing those things so that they can at some point be turned into that plaque along the pier. She doesn’t come to resolution because we haven’t come to resolution.

MR: The topic of the article is this oral history project she’s leading. Is there a value in that kind of public history/oral history project to someone doing community organizing?

Poster for FUREE film. Source: Photo by Fort Green Fortress, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fort-greene/8844150638, CC BY ND 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode.

Poster for FUREE film.  Photo credit: Fort Green Fortress. Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fort-greene/8844150638 Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fort-greene/8844150638 Permission: CC BY ND 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

SI: I think absolutely. At FUREE, we had limited resources. We prioritized trying to capture these stories and funnel it in a constructive way. We had a series of meetings where we did memory mapping and charrettes in a community setting. But contextualizing that always because we were in the middle of an organizing campaign in light of what was going on. . . . It’s incredibly invaluable in organizing work for people to understand and honor their collective stories. The problem comes with fetishizing that type of work. I don’t see that’s what’s going on with Maribel’s project, but I think that people who don’t want the real policy changes that are helpful might be okay with funding or approving that type of project. She says they had to be very neutral and to get a broad understanding of what was happening in the neighborhood. Talking to the opposition and making the opposition feel safe is not something that can really happen in the middle of an organizing struggle. . . . Being an academic or public historian is a very different role than being a community organizer.

MR: How do public and oral historians make sure their work reaches community organizers and community members?

SI: In gentrification, it gets back to spaces. If you want things to be accessible, they need to be in accessible spaces. The Internet is becoming increasingly accessible in a lot of communities, but it’s still not where it needs to be. And there’s also just having an embodied experience can be really powerful. Gentrification attacks the very spaces where we can have those moments. Ultimately, there’s something about collecting the material, but we have to collect being mindful of how we want it to live on after it’s been collected. That’s moving past the salvage anthropologies.

MR: The series of blog posts that this is a part is about the NHPA and our way to critically commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the NHPA. Do you have thoughts about historic preservation and its complicated relationship with gentrification?

SI: Do I go there? [laughs] The act, like a lot of legislation from its time, created new opportunities, but those exist in a world of intersectional oppressions. It doesn’t do anything inherently to address those issues. As a tool, it can be used many different ways. You can use historic preservation legislation to make neighborhoods even more unaffordable. Or you can use them as a tool of community revitalization that’s indigenous and organic. . . . It can be used tactically very well, but strategically it doesn’t have the same aims and ambitions as most social justice work. . . . We need stronger laws and real commitment around affordability and people’s right to stay in their communities. And that means taking on the rights of capitalists to generate profit. Cities are reluctant to do that, but that’s what needs to be done. Historic preservation is just one way of maybe doing that.

~ Sam Imperatrice is a former anti-gentrification and housing rights organizer with a master’s degree in urban planning. She currently homesteads in the Santa Cruz mountains and works professionally as a massage therapist.

1 comment
  1. I think Mary Rizzo’s contribution to the discussion among historians about gentrification is important but misdirected. True enough, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 did have a tremendous impact on the practice of preservation and the development of local and state legislation, the NHPA really has little to do with the gentrification pressures – displacement and unequal development – in American cities.

    Instead, it’s more likely that historic preservation efforts related to municipal historic preservation laws are the common link between gentrification and historic preservation. The historical linkages are many and have been documented by such gentrification scholars as Chester Hartman (Hartman, Chester W., W. Dennis Keating, and Richard T. LeGates. Displacement: How to Fight It. Berkeley, Calif.: National Housing Law Project, 1982) and Dennis E. Gale (Gale, Dennis E. “Restoration in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., 1915-1965.” Dissertation, The George Washington University, 1982) and legal scholars (Newsom, Michael Dehaven. “Blacks and Historic Preservation.” Law and Contemporary Problems 36, no. 3 (1971): 423–31 and Brown, Timothy F. “Historic Districts and the Imagined Community: A Study of the Impact of the Old Georgetown Act.” Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law 24, no. 1 (2014): 81–120).

    The NHPA as it relates to non-federal properties is simply an honorific law: properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places (or determined eligible for listing) get no regulatory protection unless there is a federal entity involved via funding or permitting. In many respects, especially around issues of gentrification and displacement, NHPA falls short of contributing to gentrification or solving its problems. The NHPA cannot be seen as contributing to gentrification because the regulatory burden and protection of properties in most historic preservation where gentrification occurs is local: municipal or county historic preservation laws that interact with local real estate markets, etc.

    Since the focus continues to remain on the built environment and not the people — and to a large extent the spaces they use via tradition, etc. – most local attachment to spaces goes unrecognized in NHPA designations and Section 106 regulatory compliance. In this respect, until the concepts of traditional cultural property and cultural landscapes are expanded to include complex urban and suburban spaces, the NHPA will not necessarily be a solution to gentrification’s social costs.

    After working extensively with gentrification and its relationship to history and historic preservation I was excited to see the subject of this article but I was left wanting more because it missed what I see as a critical misconception among non-preservation professionals and dedicated opponents to historic preservation: the tendency to collapse all historic preservation legislation and regulatory regimes into a single monolithic entity. I probably would left this article feeling more fulfilled had it explored the shared timelines that NHPA and local preservation laws have and how those chronologies fit within gentrified communities in the U.S.

    I believe there are key ties between gentrification and NHPA. Rizzo’s interview is a solid piece of documentation on how historians and activists work to understand gentrification but I don’t believe the article effectively made the essential connections to NHPA.

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