by Meg Dunn
Historic Preservation is often associated with nostalgia and rich, old, White men. Nostalgia can be a good thing. A 2012 study found that “Nostalgia increases feelings of social connectedness to others.” So shared memories, and shared history can bring people together. But not everyone’s histories have been given the same treatment by historians and preservationists. The histories of some people groups have been forgotten, ignored, and even deliberately erased. This is a problem that the National Trust for Historic Preservation put front and center at their 2019 PastForward conference, which was held in Denver this past week.
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A recent study found that of the over 90,000 places on the National Register of Historic Places, only eight percent focus on the histories of marginalized people groups. In an effort to rectify that fact, the National Trust created the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund in 2017. They’ve also committed to providing more support for the stories and places of other marginalized groups as well. At the PastForward conference, speakers covered topics related to rediscovering African-American history, the intense connection between Native Americans and their lands, the neighborhoods and places where LGBTQIA communities have grown and thrived, women’s history (especially the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote), Asian and Pacific Islander history in America, and how local preservation organizations can empower communities to preserve what they hold precious.
Interwoven through almost every presentation were themes of community, identity, equity, health, and wholeness. Historic preservation is a tool that can be used by any person or community in order to help save and protect the places that matter the most to them and their history. But because government entities leave it up to property owners to initiate the use of this tool, it’s often only those who recognize the economic value of preservation that takes advantage of it. There are some designations that lean towards the altruistic (like the low-income, senior housing provided through the renovation of the Northern Hotel in Fort Collins in the late 90s) or that focus specifically on the heritage of a specific people group (such as the Museo de las tres Colonias). But if we really want to empower marginalized people groups, then preservationists and local governments are going to need to take proactive steps to invite people whose stories haven’t been told to get involved in historic preservation so that they can be instigators in finding and honoring those stories, traditions, and places that embody their history and heritage.
At least six Northern Colorado representatives attended the PastForward conference this year. If you would like to learn more about how your local community can get involved in telling your own untold stories through the preservation of places that matter, contact your local historic preservation department, local historic society, or Historic Larimer County (historiclarimercounty.org). You can also watch the Trust Live talks from this year’s conference at savingplaces.org.