Tom Eblen: We need to balance past, future in historic preservation debates

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 3, 2012 

Tom Eblen

Times change, and it is good when professionals take a critical look at what they do and how they do it to make sure they are meeting society's needs.

The University of Kentucky's Historic Preservation Graduate Organization in the College of Design did an excellent job of that last week with its 6th annual symposium on historic preservation issues.

The symposium brought together several national experts to reflect on this basic question: Is the way historic preservation is viewed and practiced in this country too elitist? The basic answer was, well, yes, but not as much as it used to be.

The discussion was fascinating, because it went well beyond professional and academic concerns. It dealt with broad social and psychological questions that have made headlines throughout Kentucky for decades. How do we balance culture and business, economy and quality of life, property rights and heritage? What is worth preserving? Whose culture gets preserved and whose doesn't?

"The name historic preservation is an unfortunate choice," said Ned Kaufman, an architectural historian and preservation specialist in New York. He advocated changing the name and focus from historic preservation to "heritage services," which he described as "things we do for people by preserving their heritage. It shifts the emphasis from things to people."

From the first historic preservation laws in the 1930s, and continuing with the next wave of them in the 1960s, the emphasis usually was on preserving as museum pieces the landmarks associated with wealthy and powerful white men.

So-called urban renewal, a federal policy that did major damage in cities across the nation between the 1950s and 1970s, was highly elitist. Many low-income and minority neighborhoods were obliterated based on misguided notions of progress.

Since the 1970s, historic preservation has become more sensitive and inclusive. But speakers agreed that laws, government bureaucracy and professional preservationists' mindsets are still too focused on objectifying buildings rather than protecting historic places that are valued culturally by large segments of the public.

Alicestyne Turley, director of Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville and an expert on the Underground Railroad, talked about how difficult it has been to get protection for many black history sites, in part because formal documentation is often difficult.

Restoring old, distressed neighborhoods can be a two-edged sword. While old buildings are restored, poor people are displaced. To many minorities, Turley said, historic preservation has always meant "you're coming to take something from me."

Thomas F. King, an archaeologist and leading expert on cultural resource management law, said historic preservation has always been too focused on "saving the homes of the rich and famous and the sites of their deeds."

As an example of how average people's cultural history is often ignored, King recounted how families that had lived in Western Kentucky's "between the rivers" region were forced off their land between the 1930s and 1970s so the federal government could build dams, lakes, wildlife preserves and eventually the Land Between The Lakes recreation area. Former residents are still fighting to preserve their family cemeteries.

Lexington has often fought over historic preservation issues, such as when the South Hill neighborhood was bulldozed in the mid-1970s for the Rupp Arena parking lot or a block of 19th and early 20th century buildings was demolished in 2008 for the still-unfunded CentrePointe development. Each fight was marked by conflicting views about what makes an old building or neighborhood worth saving.

The experts agreed that situations like Land Between the Lakes and the Rupp Arena parking lot would be handled differently today. I sense that Lexington's attitudes about historic preservation have come a long way even since 2008, when CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb argued that the 1820s Morton's Row buildings weren't worth saving because "it's not like Lincoln ever shopped there."

Still, expect many more battles. Policies affecting Lexington historic districts and rural farmland are always controversial. City officials are considering new downtown design guidelines that likely will encourage more preservation.

Are Lexington's remaining, century-old shotgun houses worth preserving? If so, how can preservation be balanced with the need for safe, affordable low-income housing? Will historic black hamlets continue to disappear, as Pralltown and Little Georgetown have in the shadow of the UK campus and Blue Grass Airport?

The present always is caught between the past and the future, and the balancing act is never easy.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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