Week Five: Understanding place

This week our Public History class readings focused on the importance and use of places and space in urban settings. The first reading was Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservation, which attempted to demonstrate the necessity of grass roots level preservation to revitalize urban communities. Hurley based most of his argument around his experience working with community organizations in the city of St. Louis, which led him to believe that it is important to focus on the social issues that shaped a place so that the people can gain a true sense of ownership and “collective stewardship” (Hurley, x). This meant that the mainstream use of perseveration in places like Society Hill in Philadelphia do not work since they focus only on one instance of the past and lack a focus of shared memories (Hurley, 25). Therefore, Hurley believed that a shared authority was needed in order to truly engage the community in its own history so that they can keep their past and work to revitalization without fear of gentrification. The book then focused on the projects that Hurley was involved with such as the success of the Restoration group of Old North St. Louis, which through community research and organization was able to get the district on the National Register of Historic Places and produce a series of public history projects such as a community museum and history trail (Hurley, 64 & 73). While Hurley admits that historic preservation was only one part of a larger attempt to revitalize the neighborhood, it helped create a strong sense of community pride, which gave them a sense of ownership of the area. Through this project and others like it, Hurley concluded that for a preservation project to be successful it must be socially inclusive and be based at the grass roots level (Hurley, 181).

While Hurley’s argument was well-constructed, I did have some concerns over a some points, the main one being his apparent contradictory stance on preservation. By this, I mean Hurley was against large scale for profit preservation because it attempts to make the entire neighborhood focused around one specific time, such as Society Hill making all house built in a colonial style, and thereby, losses the two most important aspects of a city, “change and diversity” (Hurley, 23). However, Hurley supports grass roots efforts to preserve a community from city efforts for change, such as building of new major roads or other large-scale efforts, which would also appear to be trying to counter the importance of change and diversity. Thus, his main complaint against for profit preservation seems to also counter his reasons for supporting smaller scale preservation projects.

The other reading for this week was the first section of Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place, which focused on discussing the use of ordinary urban landscapes in public memory, in which cultural identity, social history and urban design are interconnected (Hayden, 9 & 15). Indeed, Hayden believed that public history in urban setting must examine the interplay between social and spatial spheres in order to understand the community’s perception of the city (Hayden, 23). The main takeaway for this section of the book was that place memory was vital for the triggering of social memory and through that one can learn of the cultural framework of past and contemporary urban life (Hayden, 46 & 78).  Therefore, this work was important because it revealed the true value in preservation of places since it can aid in the understanding of past and then connect it to the present so the public can then engage with it.

Taken together these two works lay out a strong guideline as to how to approach preservation and the reasons for its importance. Furthermore, these books raise concerns my understanding of the Powel House, since its preservation and the subsequent wider work done in Society Hill appear to be in opposition to the use of preservation for public History as laid out for Hurley and Hayden. Indeed, it seems that Hurley and Hayden would contend that the Powel House focuses too much on the history of Anglo- American and the elites of Philadelphia at the expense of minorities and women and thus does not help connect the average person to his or her own past. While the Powel House is definitely important because of its rich colonial history, it is good that our projects are aimed at expanding its focus to include the changing communities around it such as the Jewish quarter and the industrial sections. Also to create a sense of the urban changes around the Powel House, I found some pictures showing the various changes that occurred to the house and its immediate neighbors.

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