Robert E. Lee Monument
The bronzed monument in the likeness of Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. (Photo by: Harry Kollatz, Jr.)
Welcome back to Sunday Story. I hope you all had a lovely holiday. I return today with a reminder, a nudge, if you will. The Valentine’s Community Conversation returns this Tuesday at 6 p.m., at the museum. This is the third conversation of this season. The last two — on public transportation (or the lack thereof) and quality, affordable housing (ditto) — were terrific. Thank you to those who came.
Tuesday’s topic is historic preservation, and if you’re thinking, “historic preservation, old buildings, old neighborhoods, yawn, what’s on Netflix,” let us begin with a few questions crackling in the air at the start of a new year in this old city.
Consider an oak tree that stands where a horse trough once sat on a triangle-shaped piece of land at the mouth of a historic road in a neighborhood once known as the Harlem of the South. (This name bestowed before a freeway cut a concrete trough through the neighborhood.)
Should said tree be cut down and the road’s end closed to make way for a long-overdue monument to the African-American business pioneer Maggie Lena Walker in this community where she made an indelible mark?
What of the Confederate monuments lining Monument Avenue? Should they remain or should Richmond follow in the footsteps of New Orleans, where its City Council recently voted to remove monuments of two generals, Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, and the Confederacy’s president Jefferson Davis?
And Shockoe Bottom? What should be done in this neighborhood of multiple incarnations to preserve and interpret a time when it played a central role in the nation’s history of buying and selling human beings?
These are contentious debates for a reason — just as on a smaller scale is the question of whether new construction in a historic district should look new or mimic the old. They all speak to the identity of a place. They’re about the stories we choose to tell and the ones we don’t, what is valued and not valued during a particular point in time. The challenge of historic preservationists is not just how to save a building or protect a neighborhood — and that’s always a challenge —but which ones to save and why now and to what end.
And it’s constantly changing because “what people consider to be culturally and historically significant is constantly changing,” says Cyane Crump, one of Tuesday’s panelists and the executive director of Historic Richmond, a historic preservation nonprofit. “We have to constantly expand our perspective.”
Take Shockoe Bottom, says Kim Chen, a city preservation planner, who also will join the panel. When it was first nominated to the National Historic Register in the early 1980s, the application made no mention of the slave trade. “None. None whatsoever,” Chen says. “I don’t know if that was intentional, but at the time not a lot of dialogue about Richmond’s history.” In the early 2000s, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods rewrote the nomination to focus on the slave trade and its role in Richmond’s economic history, says Chen, who helped write the nomination.
“It’s one of the things that so fascinates me,” she says. “This might be the narrative today, but as social consciousness changes or interest levels change or as new information comes to light, the narrative changes.”
Chen, who teaches in VCU's Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, assigned her students a project last semester grappling with Monument Avenue and its Confederate monuments. “And what I tried hard to get them to understand is that it’s complex. What is important to me may not be important to the next person. There are layers of history here and how do we honor all of those layers, all those voices?”
This reconciliation of multiple histories, the delving into darker, more painful histories is a modern big-picture challenge of preservationists, Chen says.
Put another way: “How do communities have an honest conversation and find a balance?” says Elizabeth Kostelny, Preservation Virginia’s chief executive officer, who also will be on Tuesday’s panel.
The mandate of preservationists, Kostelny says, is not simply to look backward, but to cast forward, to find the ways in which historic places can be relevant in people’s daily lives.
“Oftentimes, if you say you are a preservationist, people think you stand in front of a bulldozer and stop progress, but that’s not the conversation,” she says. “The conversation is really about how historic places are a part of progress and an important part of progress.”
Which requires historic preservationists to think creatively about what tools to use for preservation. Historic Richmond is constantly wrestling with what priority it gives to what projects both in terms of what it can spend and how it will advocate for a certain property, Crump says. In many ways, Richmond has been ahead of the curve, Chen says. It was just the fourth city in the country (after Charleston, New Orleans and Philadelphia) to enact a local historic designation to its zoning ordinance. That was in 1957, in the era when so many historic structures were razed for interstates and in the name of urban renewal.
“We’ve gone from one City Old and Historic District (in Church Hill) with roughly 300 buildings to 16 districts with more than 4,000 properties,” she says.
These neighborhoods, thus protected from unchecked demolition or infill development are preserving an authenticity that is increasingly desirable – and marketable – to newcomers.
Along those lines, preservationists will be monitoring any proposed legislation in the upcoming session that may threaten historic rehab tax credits. The programs came under renewed scrutiny with the 2011 and 2014 tax fraud convictions of developers Justin French and Billy Jefferson. Two bills introduced in the last session would have sunset the credits.
Without federal and state historic rehab tax credits, Chen says, “Richmond probably would have rolled up its sidewalks (during the housing crash). There was no new construction. The renovation of buildings using tax credits kept the real estate market in the city viable.”
The tax credits “mean jobs,” Crump says, referring to a 2014 VCU study commissioned by Preservation Virginia. That study found that the total economic impact in the state from historic rehabilitation spending from 1997 to 2013 was an estimated $3.93 billion.
In Richmond, tax credits and local tax abatement programs sparked the rebirths of Shockoe Slip, Shockoe Bottom, Scott’s Addition and Manchester.
There is this myth, the three preservationists say, that historic preservation is something static when it never has been. As the story of a place expands so, too, must its preservation movement.
“It’s about adaptation,” Kostelny says. “There’s a recognition that a lot of people are acting like preservationists who don’t call themselves preservationists. The people moving to the Fan, the people opening up coffee shops in Scott’s Addition and renting apartments in converted warehouses, they may not realize they’re preservationists, but they are.”
Join us for the next of The Valentine's Community Conversations, on historic preservation, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 6-8 p.m.
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