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Cultural Diversity in Historic Preservation: Where We Have Been, Where We Are Going
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My 1992 Forum Journal essay on cultural diversity in historic preservation was part of a special issue devoted to the diversity topic. It followed the 1991 National Preservation Conference held in San Francisco, Calif., that marked the 25th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. This conference identified diversity as one of the major forces that would shape not only historic preservation, but all aspects of American society in the next quarter century. This projection was based on the demographics resulting from changes in United States immigration policy dating back to the mid-1960s.

Accordingly, the succeeding National Preservation Conference, held in 1992 in Miami, Fla., focused on diversity. The 1992 conference also inaugurated the offering of scholarships to diverse attendees. For the 1992 Forum Journal essay, I reviewed more than 70 abstracts submitted to the National Trust in response to its call for papers for the Miami conference. These abstracts represented the experiences of dozens of preservationists who undertook diversity projects or made astute observations about the cultural heritage of diverse communities.

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2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the diversity scholar program at the National Preservation Conference. To date, more than 1,200 scholars have received scholarships to attend the conference. Pictured here are attendees at the 2011 conference in Buffalo.

What is different today? The subject of diversity is no longer an edgy topic in the historic preservation field. It is part of the mainstream of historic preservation goals and objectives as well as projects and programs. Much more work is being done with diverse historic places and in cooperation with diverse communities. However, when viewed within the totality of the historic preservation field, the number of diverse historic properties that are officially recognized and preserved still constitutes a small percentage of the total activity.

The ideas presented in my earlier essay point the way toward overcoming this gap. More official recognition should be given to intangible culture, beyond just American Indian tribal historic preservation programs. Yet historic preservation tools remain fairly static; few adjustments have been made to established criteria and standards in order to accommodate cultural differences and the priorities of cultural groups. In order to meet the cultural heritage needs of the nation's diverse population, the field needs to "recalibrate" its current tool box and develop new approaches in partnership with the nation's cultural groups.

Few topics in contemporary American life have so gripped the public's attention as has "cultural diversity." The topic is prominent in daily newspapers, on television, and in the vehicles of mass advertising. It is physically evident in many hometowns where cultural groups either congregate in definable ethnic communities or live among other groups, producing neighborhoods in which dozens of languages are spoken. To travelers, other parts of the country take on a new character as growing populations of immigrants who arrived on our shores in the past quarter of a century are incorporated.

A term of recent vintage, "cultural diversity" generally is used to denote the changing ethnic composition of the United States through immigration of individuals from Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, or Southeast Asia and their concentration in certain states and cities. The emergence of such ethnic groups with long roots in American society, as Africans and those from certain Asian groups to positions of public prominence, bolsters the perception of the growing diversity of the nation.

Localities in which ethnic changes are the most pronounced will certainly witness a change in the balance of political power that will influence all other aspects of the community. A recent article in The New York Times reflects the tenor of the times: It reported that New York politicians are reaching out into "uncharted territory" in pursuing the votes of the foreign born, "who could one day be as much a force as the turn-of-the-century immigrants who gave political muscle to the Democratic machine of Tammany Hall and gave city politics a decidedly Irish cast." This profound change inspires both fear and confidence. It causes concern about the effects of a churning ethnic mix in disadvantaged urban areas but also serves as a reassuring reminder...

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