Banners telling the stories of particular El Paso buildings were the first iteration of the Museo Urbano project. Photo credit: Bruce Berman
Hardball history that places historians at the center of politics, advocacy, and activism can be a difficult journey, but it can also be inspiring. My introduction to public history coincided with the 2006 unveiling of a controversial downtown revitalization plan in the city of El Paso, Texas. The plan included the demolition of more than thirty acres of El Segundo Barrio, a historic and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood.
I was twenty-two and a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso. I learned about the downtown plan in a political science class, where everyone was given a brochure and a map of the area slated for construction. In place of churches and homes were shopping malls and parking lots. The woman giving us the presentation also mentioned that residents who could not afford new tax increases would need to be relocated. I was not the only student that had questions about the plan, the residents, and the process. The same semester I was also taking a Mexican-American History class taught by Dr. Yolanda Chávez Leyva. Her class incorporated the rich history of the area. Ironically, I had Dr. Leyva’s class right before the political science class. Continue reading →
“You know who has money to help you.” I responded to this truth by listing three millionaires from whom I would not accept funding for Museo Urbano, the public history project housed in the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The response hit hard. “You know you’re walking the high road, but you don’t have any shoes on.” I smiled at the image, but inside my heart sank.
Funding has been one of the most difficult challenges in my career as a public historian. It is an issue that I have grappled with since my days as a student activist in the 1970s. How do we fund social justice initiatives while still maintaining our sense of ethics and responsibility? Whose money is acceptable and whose is not? Continue reading →
Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit: David Rotenstein
Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.
Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values. Continue reading →
As well as trying to convey a sense of these enslaved workers as people, the team of graduate students working on the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website also sought to connect this history to the physical landscape. Harnessing the power of place to tell the story of slavery, we emphasized the built environment of the historic college. The antebellum section of the campus, referred to today as the Horseshoe because of its shape, survives as the historic heart of the modern university. But the most important reason to emphasize the built environment is that slaves physically constructed it. Continue reading →
In 2007 Atlanta journalist Nathan McCall’s novel Them was published. The book is a fictionalized account of a very real Atlanta neighborhood–the Old Fourth Ward–undergoing gentrification. The neighborhood is a place where civil rights historic landmarks jockey for attention and dollars among hip bars and restaurants. A recent historic preservation battle exposed tensions that pit adapting old buildings for new uses versus tearing them down for new developments. Continue reading →
James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss
Currently, public history educators are discussing whether their graduate students should be required to write master’s theses. Although some students (including myself) at times bemoan the thesis as impractical and suggest a public history project or portfolio as an alternative, I found my thesis experience to be integral to my development as a public historian. My research inspired me to reach out to scholars and professionals whose work paralleled my own. It has also opened new doors as I transition out of academia and into a career interpreting the past for public audiences.
My thesis research grew out of my experience volunteering and working as a seasonal interpretive ranger at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the late nineteenth-century Ohio home of the 20th President. I set out to write about the evolution of the historic landscape of the site, and I wanted to integrate my interest in historic site interpretation into my work, especially because a graduate course on this topic would not be offered during my two years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). When I heard about the site’s plans to write a new long-range interpretive plan in early 2013, I asked to participate in the process. Continue reading →
Clue Town Piedmont Park scavenger hunt. Photo credit: Jay Carlson
I can’t even tell you how many crackpot business ideas I’ve had over the years, from producing greeting cards to owning an art supply store to selling candy in vending machines. They never came to fruition, but then I had an idea to create ready-to-solve scavenger hunts. The hunts would be self-guided tours of walkable areas, but a person or team has to solve puzzles using landmarks in order to know where to go next. When my wife, the realist, thought it was a good idea, then I knew I wasn’t just looking through rose-colored glasses. I started selling Clue Town Books in September 2012 with only two hunts: Piedmont Park and Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.
It’s easy to articulate what Clue Town is now, but at the time of its creation I had no idea how it would work. I spent weeks surveying the 190 acres of Piedmont Park in its entirety. I spent months designing paths, beta testing with adults and kids, redesigning paths, and beta testing some more. When I experimented with a path that used permanent landmarks (for example statues and historical markers) instead of self-planted signs, that’s when things fell into place. Folding in history allowed me to transform Clue Town from a series of puzzles to interactive storytelling.
I have a theory that a person doesn’t have an interest in local history until he or she has been affected by change first-hand. Perhaps a favorite restaurant closes or a new skyscraper alters the skyline. This makes each witness a historian for the short term. These bits of change compound over time to make one realize that nothing is constant. The city is different now than when you first arrived, and the city was drastically different generations ago. People and events are changing cities all the time, even while traces of the past often remain. Continue reading →
Section of the “Lake Effects” exhibit defining the lake effect in the context of the Great Lakes region. Photo credit: SeekingMichigan.org
On August 24, 2014, the temporary exhibition Lake Effects closed its doors after a ten-month run at the Michigan Historical Museum. Attempting to absorb as much Great Lakes culture as I could before relocating to the southeastern United States, I visited the Michigan Historical Museum with my family in July. Michigan summers are idyllic, not an epithet often applied to our new home in Atlanta, Georgia. What more appropriate activity for celebrating the beautiful Michigan summer than visiting a museum exhibit all about Michigan’s special weather systems? I was disappointed, however, to find that the exhibit, poised to offer a public platform for a friendly discussion of climate change in the Great Lakes region, made absolutely no mention of this central problem of our time. Continue reading →
Former Trio Laundry Dry Cleaning Building, 20 Hilliard Street, Atlanta, Ga. Photo credit: David Rotenstein
Earlier this year The New York Times dubbed Atlanta, Ga., “the city too busy to remember.” The play on Civil Rights-era mayor Ivan Allen’s municipal sobriquet came during reporting on Atlanta’s demolition of a historic African American church, Friendship Baptist, to clear the way for new stadium construction. In the two weeks leading up to Labor Day weekend, a handful of historic preservation activists demonstrated to city officials that not everyone in Atlanta was too busy to remember the past and its architecture. Preservationists combined old-school tactics with information-age networks to win a reprieve for a city-owned early 20th-century industrial building. Continue reading →
Roundtable participants, from left to right: Ginna Foster Cannon, Rachel Boyle, Kim Connelly Hicks, Kristen Baldwin Deathridge, Eileen McMahon, Abigail Gautreau, and Theodore Karamanski. Photo credit: Kristen Baldwin Deathridge
At the 2014 annual National Council on Public History conference in Monterey, several of us came together for a roundtable discussion on “Sustaining Historic Preservation Through Community Engagement.” The roundtable was organized and facilitated by Theodore Karamanski from Loyola University and Kristen Baldwin Deathridge from Appalachian State University. We wanted to discuss the balance between community interests and economics in preservation. Connecting preservation to the conference theme Sustainable Public History, we asked: After the initial excitement has worn off in a preservation project, how does it remain relevant within a community? Continue reading →