“The Secretary . . . shall establish or revise criteria for properties to be included on the National Register and criteria for National Historic Landmarks. . . .”National Historic Preservation Act, Section 101
Over the past few years, I have worked with the National Park Service—and served the historic preservation movement more broadly—in three overlapping roles. As a consultant working on the Park Service’s César Chávez Special Resource Study, I analyzed more than 100 sites and properties associated with Chávez’s life and the farm worker movement he led. As a member of the National Park System Advisory Board’s Planning Committee, I contributed to the articulation of principles that might guide the Park Service into its second century of existence. As a member of the National Park System Advisory Board’s Latino Scholars Panel, I helped steer Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s American Latino Heritage Initiative. Engaging in this work as a former Park Service employee, as a history professor at Cal State Fullerton, as the grandson of Mexican immigrants, and as a mentor to younger Latinos exploring preservation careers of their own, I found it to be stimulating, enlightening, and deeply gratifying.
I also found this work, at times, to be bewildering and frustrating. In recent months, with more time to reflect, I think I have figured out why. The goals and the methods of the historic preservation movement are no longer in alignment. On the one hand, growing numbers of [End Page 13] preservationists have embraced cultural diversity as a fundamental goal of the preservation movement. Indeed, our lists of protected places and our ranks as preservationists should reflect the diversity of our population. Given the acceleration of certain demographic trends in the 21st century, this is a goal to pursue with some sense of urgency. On the other hand, the fundamental methods of the preservation movement continue to spring from—and tend to contribute to—the designation and protection of properties (mostly old buildings) associated with prominent, white, male architects and their wealthy clients, just as they did for most of the 20th century. The goals of the preservation movement have evolved. The methods, for the most part, have not.
When Toni Lee surveyed the status of cultural diversity within the preservation movement for the Forum Journal in 1992, the topic was somewhat “edgy.” Today, Lee notes, inclusivity is “part of the mainstream of historic preservation goals and objectives.” The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, for example, has called for better means of “protecting properties associated with the nation’s diverse cultures.” The National Parks Second Century Commission likewise has championed a national preservation program that provides “a more representative picture of America,” including new protection for places that “broaden the diversity of our national narrative.” National Trust President Stephanie Meeks observes that despite some progress, “preservation’s demographics [End Page 14] are not yet reflective of the nation’s overall,” nor do our nation’s preservation programs “fully reflect all the narratives in the American story.” The National Park System Advisory Board envisions “a national system of parks, protected areas, and programs that fully represents and adequately protects our heritage . . . [and] reflects the breadth of our nation’s cultural experience.” NPS Director Jon Jarvis agrees that the Park Service bears responsibility for “tell[ing] the entire story” of the American people.1
These recent appeals and vision statements actually recapture the spirit of inclusivity that shaped the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) and, arguably, the Historic Sites Act (1935) before it. Now almost 50 years old, the NHPA called for the preservation of our “historical and cultural foundations” and our “irreplaceable heritage,” including tribal and native Hawaiian heritage, for the benefit of “the American people.” The Historic Sites Act called for the preservation but also the restoration, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of sites, properties, buildings, and objects of national, historical...