Trashy history: Infrastructure as historic property

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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. 

United Irrigation District Canal, Mission, Texas (photograph courtesy Texas Dept. of Transportation)

United Irrigation District Canal, Mission, Texas.  Photo credit:  Texas Dept. of Transportation

Everything is bigger in Texas, even its infrastructure. The state counts more than 50,000 bridges, with approximately half of them being at least fifty years old, along with historic roadways, culverts, retaining walls, irrigation ditches, paving materials, curbs, roadside parks, and Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) offices. All of these resources are under constant use and strain and often break due to age or overuse. TxDOT’s mission is to update and improve the road infrastructure, abandoning historic materials and designs that no longer work for today’s traffic needs. Are any, all, or some of these older examples of infrastructure worthy of preservation? Should infrastructure even be on the list of the “Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation?” As a historian with the TxDOT, I handle questions regarding infrastructure as historic properties on a daily basis.

In 2002, historian Martin Melosi addressed some of the issues surrounding the preservation of infrastructure in his article “The Fresno Sanitary Landfill in an American Cultural Context” in The Public Historian. Fresno Sanitary Landfill opened in 1937 as a municipal solid-, hazardous-, and medical-waste landfill for Fresno, CA. Upon its closing in 1987, the property was the nation’s oldest operating landfill.

In an effort to recognize “nontraditional” properties as National Historic Landmarks (NHLs), Melosi nominated the Fresno Sanitary Landfill as an NHL under the themes of Expanding Science and Technology and Transforming the Environment. He also nominated the landfill under the National Register of Historic Places Criterion A for Community Planning and Development and Health/Medicine and Criterion C for Engineering. The engineering and technology employed in the Fresno Sanitary Landfill was the first of its kind in the nation and became standard for municipal landfills across the country. Fresno was the first landfill to employ a trenching method for depositing and compacting waste, which was then covered daily with dirt to keep away pests such as rats. Because the landfill was a significant turning point in the history of waste management in the United States and retained a high degree of historic integrity, Melosi believed that it was worthy of NHL status. The National Park Service (NPS) agreed and listed the landfill in August 2001.

Once the NPS issued its press release with the list of new landmarks, newspapers and bloggers exploded over the news of listing a landfill.1 The NPS quickly rescinded its listing, stating that it was unaware that Fresno Landfill was also an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site. While politicians used the listing to criticize national environmental policies, newspapers used the listing to poke fun at preservationists and the NPS. Critics of George W. Bush’s presidency used the NHL nomination to point out hypocrisy. The director of the Sierra Club stated, “should the federal government be protecting a Fresno landfill . . . while trying to reopen the [California] coastline to offshore oil drilling?” (19) Media pointed out that other presidents saved sites like Pearl Harbor and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace, while “the Bush administration has added its own hallowed place: a garbage dump in Fresno.” Despite the criticism, the city of Fresno was proud of its new historic site and defended its listing. The NHL listing was ultimately reinstated, and the Fresno Sanitary Landfill is currently a National Historic Landmark.

From my position with TxDOT, I am critical of the preservation of infrastructure unless it is nationally significant. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the agency responsible for overseeing the federal government’s compliance with Section 106 and Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act, has already excluded two resources from daily project consideration: natural gas pipelines and the interstate system. Under Section 106 of the NHPA, federal agencies are required to assess the effects of their projects on properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register. TxDOT, as recipient of Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration funds, must comply with this section of the law.

I can only imagine the paperwork, the negotiations, and the arguments that would need to be made every time TxDOT proposed to do work on its interstate system. By recognizing that only those portions of the interstate system that are nationally significant are worthy of preservation, the ACHP minimized some bureaucracy and ensured that preservation attention will be focused on the most important aspects of the interstate system. Texas only has six interstate resources that are nationally significant (all are bridges significant for their engineering and design).

A possible solution, proposed by my TxDOT colleague Carolyn Nelson, is to change the National Register Criteria Considerations to add Consideration H: Infrastructure. The National Register, in addition to its four criteria of significance, also has what it calls “criteria considerations.” The considerations are types of historic properties—such as churches, cemeteries, and properties less than fifty years old—that are automatically not eligible for listing in the National Register. If a property is a criteria consideration, it must have exceptional significance to overcome its automatic ineligibility. Because infrastructure is common across the nation and undergoes many changes to keep it functioning, it should be automatically ineligible except when it can be proven to be significant to a national event, design, or person. The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is thus an appropriate resource to preserve, as it is the first of its kind and its technology changed how America handled solid waste. In addition to its national significance, Fresno had closed the landfill prior to its listing, thus ensuring that a conflict between continued use and historic preservation was not an issue for this resource.

Bankhead Highway (ca. 1924), Cisco, Texas (photograph courtesy Rebekah Dobrasko)

Bankhead Highway (ca. 1924), Cisco, Texas.  Photo credit: Rebekah Dobrasko

The NHPA’s 1992 amendment directs the secretary of the interior and the advisory council to “seek to ensure that historic properties preserved under the National Historic Preservation Act fully reflect the historical experience of this nation.” Infrastructure certainly is part of the nation’s “historical experience,” but all infrastructure can tell an important local story. As agencies and preservationists continue to consider infrastructure as historic properties, we should take a critical look at the way we address infrastructure and those properties designed to be used, changed over time, and discarded when technology improves. Not all historic properties are able to be preserved. The next fifty years of preservation should be a time where we refine and redefine what a historic property is and how it is meaningful to the public and the people that preserve it. Will battles over cell phone towers and fiber optic lines be the preservationists’ infrastructure battles of the future? Or should historic preservationists turn to alternatives to preservation, such as extensive documentation or modeling, for infrastructure?

~ Rebekah Dobrasko is a historic preservation specialist with the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin, Texas. Previously, she worked with the Review and Compliance program at the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office for ten years.

  1. This is a valuable discussion that is long overdue. I find Dobrasko’s summary of the problems associated with “preserving” historic preservation cogent and well-articulated. But her solution, creating a National Register “Criterion H” for infrastructure is not a viable nor defensible alternative to the existing system. Infrastructure is much more than roads, landfills, and — yes — “cellphone towers.”

    If I correctly read her argument, then most infrastructure simply is locally significant. That assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether it’s regional electricity transmission grids, regional and national pipelines [1], or regional and transcontinental telecommunications networks [2], infrastructure is a networked historic resource type that often transcends political boundaries.

    As federal regulatory policies change to adapt to new technologies, new agency licensing and permitting regimes (e.g., public-private ventures), and other factors, the ways historians who rely on material culture argue for “preservation” need to change [3]. I applaud Dobrasko’s call for more creative “mitigation” strategies, i.e., documentation and modeling, but her discussion — and perhaps it’s the format in which it is presented — fails to distinguish the various steps in regulatory historic preservation: identification, evaluation, and treatment (preservation or mitigation). The first two steps should remain unchanged to maintain the integrity of historic preservation best practices. Treatment — preservation in place or documentation, adaptive use, etc. — is the area that gives preservationists the greatest space for creativity and alternatives.

    1. Castaneda, Chris. “Natural Gas Pipelines and the National Historic Preservation Act.” The Public Historian 26, no. 1 (2004): 105–21.

    2. Rotenstein, David S. “Towers for Telegrams: The Western Union Telegraph Company and the Emergence of Microwave Telecommunications Infrastructure.” IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 32, no. 2 (2006): 5–22.

    3. Klima, Don. “Taking into Account: How Our Business Is Changing.” Unpublished paper on file, Federal Communications Commission., 2003.

  2. Allan Foglio says:

    There are something new ideas that you make.After reading this article I learn more information from this blog.Thanks for sharing this article…

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