Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Blessed Decatur


David Rotenstein, well known in the blogosphere as “Historian for Hire,” was in town the other day and asked me to look at and comment on the final report of a “Historic Resource Survey” of the City of Decatur, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta).  David has worked in and around Decatur for the last few years and coincidentally, I was born there (fleeing to the west at age four months). The report was pretty sorry, but, I fear, not atypical of what’s being churned out as ostensibly professional products all over the country. So with David’s permission, I want to share the review letter I sent him on January 31.

Dear David,

You’ve asked me to comment on the “Historic Resource Survey Final Report” for the City of Decatur, Georgia, dated September 1, 2009.

My qualifications for preparing such comments are outlined in the attached resumé; I should stipulate that most of my recent experience, and most of my writings, have to do with historic preservation and the broader field of cultural resource management (CRM) at the federal level, not in the context of local planning. However, I was involved in the development of federal standards and guidelines for local surveys imposed on State Historic Preservation Officers and local governments by the National Park Service, and have reviewed scores if not hundreds of survey reports over the course of my career. I should also stipulate that while I was born in Decatur in 1942, I left town with my family in 1943 and have not recently resided or worked there.

I should also say that over the last twenty years or so, I have come to be alarmed at what historic preservation and CRM have become in this country – particularly in terms of their growing disconnection from the living communities that they must serve if they are to make any sense as aspects of public policy. I’ve also been dismayed at the quality of scholarship (if it can be called that) represented by their typical products. My concerns are outlined in the attached chapter from my 2011 reader, A Companion to Cultural Resource Management (Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

The Decatur “Final Report” does nothing to encourage me; it is as classic an example as I have recently seen of what has made historic preservation in this country a pointless, overly costly, elitist, and socially irresponsible activity.

On page 2, the “Final Report” says that it was prepared following state and federal guidelines, and specifically cites the National Park Service’s “Guidelines for Local Surveys.” I helped develop those guidelines, and one thing we tried to emphasize was that local surveys must engage and involve the local community – for whom they are presumably done and whose interests they ought to serve. Nowhere in the “Final Report” do I see any evidence whatever of an effort to involve the community, or even to contact and consult with its members. It appears that the “Final Report” represents the work of presumed professionals in architectural history who came into Decatur and decided what they thought was important – never mind what the “locals” might think. I hasten to say that this sort of professional conceit is – sadly – increasingly common in historic preservation practice in this country, but that makes it no less irresponsible.

On page 5, we are told that the surveyors carried out historical research. If they did, it is very thinly reflected in the pages that follow. The focus of the work is overwhelmingly on architecture (itself not discussed in much detail); the social and cultural history of Decatur is scarcely touched upon, unless that history has been bland beyond belief. The “historical context” that begins on page 11 provides no context at all. It merely defines time periods and says the city grew as these periods progressed. Note, for instance, that:

(a) Apparently no Indians ever came close to Decatur; the place has no history prior to the “first European settlers.” One wonders, too, if all these settlers were “European;” I seem to recall that a lot of such settlers were accompanied (willingly or otherwise) by settlers of African origin.

(b) We are given no notion of why Decatur ever came to be; the “Final Report” just accepts that it came into existence and developed quietly thereafter. We are told that it “promoted itself as a quiet, prosperous small town” in the mid-1800s, which “offered a peaceful, healthful, and beautiful place to live.” Was there some economic basis for its prosperity? Some social or cultural basis for its perceived beauty? Some environmental reason for its healthfulness?

(c) Apparently no African-Americans have ever lived in Decatur, or if they have, they are invisible in its history. My family’s lore tells of much-respected African-American women who took care of my elder siblings and me; I wonder where they came from.

(d) Somehow Decatur seems to have escaped the Civil War untouched. I had the impression that Sherman’s army had some effect on the place, but I suppose I (and Wikipedia, for what that is worth) must be mistaken. Sherman’s depredations apparently had nothing to do with the fact that “none of these original historic structures (around the Square) remain.”

(e) Similarly, the difficulties surrounding Reconstruction seem to have had no impact on Decatur. What a blessed town it must be!

(f) Decatur’s growth has apparently been a sort of organic thing, perhaps fueled by photosynthesis. Neighborhoods simply “develop” or sometimes “are developed.” What motivated their development, and hence might have influenced their character, was apparently of no interest to the authors of the “Final Report.”

(g) Nothing seems to have happened in Decatur after the period 1940-60. This may reflect the author’s decision not to consider buildings unless they were at least fifty years old – a decision that may be justified in a mindless sort of way by the National Register of Historic Places’ general exclusion of properties achieving significance in the last fifty years. In most parts of the world, however – at least to the best of my knowledge – history did not stop fifty years ago, and in some places recent historical events have had profound impacts on both historic properties and the communities in which they exist. Apparently not in Decatur, however.

The bulk of the “Final Report” comprises “Neighborhood Summaries” made up of maps and very thin descriptions of Decatur’s neighborhoods, through which are woven largely unsubstantiated statements like “a good example,” “has kept its historic character,” and “not proposed as a historic district.” Presumably these are statements of opinion and intent by the authors – who I find nowhere identified by name, and whose qualifications, as far as I can tell, are nowhere presented.

Nor can I even determine from the “Final Report” how neighborhoods or specific properties were defined and selected for evaluation. For instance, my older sister, who actually remembers Decatur in the late 1930s/early 1940s, tells me of a neighborhood in which African-American families were concentrated. I imagine this neighborhood lost its distinctive character – for better or worse – during the social changes of the mid-late 20th century, but I have to wonder where it was, what surviving properties might be associated with it, and what cultural significance they may retain for Decatur’s African-American residents – who I cannot believe do not exist, despite their total invisibility in the “Final Report.”

In summary, the “Final Report” seems to be to be a deeply deficient product, notably in the following ways:

1. No evidence that the community was involved in any way in its production;

2. A remarkably vague, uncritical, bit of happy-talk about Decatur’s development instead of a useful discussion of the town’s history.

3. No representation of history as a basis for judging historical significance; evaluations were apparently done solely on the basis of perceived architectural merit.

4. Narrowly limited and usually unspecified bases for characterization and evaluation. The perceptions upon which evaluations were based were apparently only those of the anonymous outside professionals who performed the survey, and whose qualifications to make such evaluations are not even shared with those who, we are assured on pages 4-5, will benefit from them. The reader is expected, apparently, to accept these perceptions as gospel truth.

Again, I am sorry to say that in my experience these sorts of deficiencies are not uncommon among survey reports done for local governments, states, federal agencies and non-governmental organizations throughout the country, but in my opinion they are no less deficient for being common. Historic preservation has sunk very low when this sort of report passes for a professional planning document.

I hope this admittedly critical review is of some use to you.

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