Beyond Preservation

In “Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities” Andrew Hurley argues for alternate uses of both public history and preservation more specifically. Hurley gives an assessment of the negative consequences of preservation including urban renewal, gentrification, and the privileging of elite narratives. All of these elements can be seen in Philadelphia, specifically in the Society Hill neighborhood where the Powell House is located. Hurley goes on to argue that public history and preservation can be used in newer more innovative ways to engage with communities and revitalize cities. Hurley has many specific suggestions for community engagement including oral history with questions deriving from the community, archaeology, involving community organizations and a focus on policy. While traditionally preservation has focused on privileging certain events and destroying the remnants of less flattering history, Hurley sees a way to engage urban communities in public history.

While public history is always seen as a more practical alternative to academic history, there can be questions as to how it helps the public and specifically inner cities. Hurley devotes an entire section to combing academics with activism in urban communities and programs designed to combat this.

Hurley succeeds in looking beyond more traditional ideas about public history and preservation. Rather than only looking at public history as a means to educate via museums and other public programs, Hurley sees it as a means to merge the academy with broader communities and to counteract elements of urban decline.

Hurley gives a very specific example in North St. Louis, but was also involved in an example of this here at Temple University. Funeral for a Home, a project based out of Temple Contemporary, “commemorates the slow decline and gradual rebirth of Philadelphia’s housing stock and the lives these homes contain. This year in collaboration with local residents, Mount Vernon Manor Inc, Mantua Civic Association, People’s emergency center, artists and historians Temple Contemporary will share the life and passing of a single home in the Mantua community.” This project engaged community organizations, used community derived questions and resulted in a project that made a political statement about urban development and land vacancy in Philadelphia. A book resulted from this project and Andrew Hurley wrote an essay “The Preservationist’s Dilemma: What to Do When The Building Must Come Down.” Funeral for a Home is an example of a public history project that directly drew attention to history is not often highlighted in Philadelphia. Land vacancy and the aesthetics of the urban crisis are for the most part hidden from the tourist destinations of Philadelphia, but Funeral for a Home drew attention to it. In the tradition of social history, the project aimed to tell a story that is not often emphasized for public consumption.

Hurley makes clear that traditional understandings of both public history as a whole and preservation are limiting the possibilities for engagement with communities. This has made me think not just of Funeral for a Home, but other opportunities for community engaged public history in the city. The 50th anniversary of Black Power is next summer and Philadelphia had a vibrant Black Power movement. This could be an opportunity to engage with diverse communities to create a commemorative project that speaks to currently relevant issues in urban areas.