Every Sunday morning as I walk to my local café in central Harlem, I pass African American women adorned with colorful church hats along side groups of white tourists, typically speaking in a foreign language, yet listening intently to an English-speaking tour guide describing the architecture of Harlem while jazz music plays in the background from an iPad. This mix of people and activity represents Harlem’s history and legacy, both past and present, and physical and cultural. For the residents of Harlem, or any neighborhood with deep cultural histories, the protection of these cultural representations is paramount to their individual and community identity, as well as their sense of belonging to the city.
The protection and celebration of social and spatial narratives is at the root of historic and cultural preservation practice, and has been argued as being both exclusionary and inclusionary. Both arguments tap into a deep sense of belonging that community members feel, or do not feel, as a part of their neighborhood experience. A nuanced version of historic preservation, cultural preservation seeks to validate not only the physical places of historic significance, but also the traditions, heritage and values that provide context to the sites of our collective memory. Often this cultural context is not attached to a single architectural artifact, like a building, and frequently does not align with a building of critical architectural significance. In contrast, the culture of place is frequently represented by ephemera (festivals, parades), assemblies of celebration and protest (sites of civic unrest) and appropriated spaces overlaid with the traditional practices and aesthetics of specific ethnic populations (Chinatown, Koreatown, Chicago’s “Black Metropolis”, Harlem).
So why would the representation and protection of cultural heritage feel exclusionary to some and inclusionary to others? On one hand, some see neighborhood symbols of cultural preservation as a segment of the community separating itself from the larger dominate American cultural norms and as a result, suggesting that some are not welcome. For example, the erection of a Puerto Rican gateway flag structure bridging across a street in Chicago’s Humbolt Park neighborhood could be perceived by some that non-Puerto Ricans are not welcome, particularly given the deep racial segregation and tensions that still exist in Chicago.
On the contrary, others understand cultural preservation as an acknowledgement of our society’s acceptance of difference and the inclusion of all cultural narratives, and their various representations, as a reflection of the American story. In this interpretation, cultural preservation has been an effective tool for promoting neighborhood identity, economic vitality and inclusion. For example, a community-led effort in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago helped to position this historic African American community’s cultural achievements and historic sites into a heritage tourism destination, generating new local revenues as well as new public and private investments.
However, the acknowledgement or designation of places of cultural significance can sometimes be tricky as the standards of acceptable design aesthetics and the processes for determining appropriateness do not always include a culturally diverse palette of design applications, tastes or arbiters. The official keepers of cultural and heritage preservation regulations are government agencies including the National Park Service and the National Endowments of Humanities, each responsible for administering the criteria and designations of significance for historic places, sites and cultural artifacts. These federal designations also require a historic or cultural significance that is important to the story of nation, not just to the local setting.
These parameters reveal the different interpretations of a more formal form of cultural preservation versus informal culture preservation, and therefore the different readings of inclusion and exclusion. In a nation with growing ethnic population diversity, the “right to city”, or the freedom to reclaim our cities, must extend to include the practice of cultural preservation, both formal and informal. Cultural preservation as a practice should be viewed as a legitimate tool for maximizing inclusion and minimizing cultural displacement, especially in places where the income and ethnic composition of neighborhoods is changing rapidly. In doing so, we can celebrate and protect a community’s expression of its heritage and history in the public realm, and allow that expression to become an integral part of what makes the neighborhood vibrant, desirable and inclusive.