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Monday, June 01, 2015

Diversity and National Historic Landmarks?

Trying to leverage ethnic and social diversity into the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) program is like trying to get Christianity to embrace polytheism. Or maybe to get Judaism or Islam to do so, since Christians do have that weird Trinity thing.

That was the thought that kept coming to me as I rode the Washington Metro home last Thursday from a meeting that the National Park Service (NPS) held on the subject – that is, on diversity in the NHL program – at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. I’d taken part at the request of NPS Associate Director Stephanie Toothman and NHL/National Register boss Paul Louther, but I’m still trying to figure out why they invited me. Maybe as a token bow to my non-loyal opposition status, or my faltering work on National Register Bulletin 38, or something.

Wait a minute, I hear people asking. The National Historic Landmarks Program?

Yes, there is such a program – established under the 1935 Historic Sites Act and still chugging along, because Washington DC almost never terminates something once it’s started. And because it justifies the conduct of “theme studies” upon the basis of which places are nominated as Landmarks; such studies are nice, generally meaningless bits of vote-candy that members of congress can dole out to preservation-minded constituents. Never mind that enactment of the National Historic Preservation act (NHPA) in 1966 made the program irrelevant by creating the much more inclusive (though still sadly limited) National Register of Historic Places.

I found myself throughout the day feeling a real sense of cognitive dissonance. Many of the people participating – mostly academics and representatives of “diversity” communities ranging from African-American to LGBT – didn’t seem really to know that there WAS a NHPA, or what the National Register was. It was like they had somehow discovered the NHL program without learning anything about what’s happened since 1935. I found myself (to my considerable alarm) sympathizing with Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Executive Director John Fowler as he struggled manfully to convey a glimmer of how what they were talking about did and didn’t relate to NHPA Section 106. Eyes glazed over.

What they were talking about was how to get more diversity-related places – that is, places associated with ethnic and social minorities – nominated to the NHL list. Nomination as an NHL involves preparing documentation that if anything is even more onerous than what has to be compiled for a National Register nomination, and they then must be processed by an advisory committee to the Secretary of the Interior before being, maybe, inscribed by the Secretary in the list. They must be found by the Secretary to be “nationally significant” in commemorating and illustrating the nation’s history.

Nationally significant. Think about that for a moment.  Suppose you’re, say, a Sikh American living in Kansas City, and your local house of worship is very, very important in maintaining your community identity. So you decide to nominate it as an NHL.  How do you show that it’s “nationally significant” when most Sikh Americans live on the two coasts and in a few non-coastal cities that aren’t KC? And why should its “national” significance matter anyway?

And suppose you do somehow get it listed; what good does it do you? Or do it, or do your community? Well, if a federal agency is going to muck it up, then the agency has to go through what amounts to NHPA Section 106 review with NPS involvement, but unless you’re a real fan of NPS, that’s a pretty thin advantage vis-à-vis just getting it included in the National Register – or, for that matter, when and if the federal threat arises, getting it recognized as eligible for the Register.  Other than that…

Well, there’s the pride factor; getting it listed is something the community can point to with pride. That was made much of at the Alexandria confab. But is going through a laborious nomination process to get your house of worship listed the most efficient way to generate pride in and respect for the KC Sikh community? If it were up to me, I think I’d want to consider options.

Plus there’s this question: who the devil is the Secretary of the Interior to decide what’s most important in the heritage of American Sikhs, or anybody else? What kind of democracy are we living in?

The case that kept being brought up as an example of NHLs as beacons of diversity was that of the World War II Japanese-American internment camps; it was said that the theme study leading to the listing of many camps, and their listing, has been very important to the Nisei/Sansei community. That’s undoubtedly true, but in the one internment camp case with which I’ve been involved – that of Tule Lake, California – NHL listing has been a somewhat mixed blessing. Because of the NHL program’s strict nomination procedures, only a small portion of the camp could be listed, though the whole place is obviously eligible for the National Register. Now there’s a proposal for an airfield expansion, requiring FAA assistance and therefore Section 106 review, and the local powers behind the project get confused (to put it charitably) about why they need to consider impacts on anything but the officially listed NHL. At last report, this was causing the camp’s veterans and their families considerable trouble.  Had the focus of attention from the beginning been Register eligibility rather than on NHL nomination, their lives would probably be simpler and the camp would get more thoughtful consideration.

My quick spiel to the assembled enthusiasts in Alexandria (we were limited to 5 minutes) proposed, of course, that the NHL program is a silly anachronism that’s long outlived its usefulness and ought to be done away with. Needless to say, this was not well received.

In fact, it pretty clearly wasn’t received at all. Aside from one academic who scolded from the podium that “in fact, mister King, NHLs ARE important” (oh; thanks for that), everyone happily went on to talk about the challenges of nominating places – and, amusingly, non-places like distinctive cultural practices and beliefs. And of course, to complain about how the program really, truly, needs more money from congress.

NPS did provide a pretty nice free lunch, though.


Thomas F King said...

There WAS some insightful discussion at the confab about how unreasonably the notion of “integrity” is interpreted when applied to NHLs, but the discussion could just as accurately have focused on National Register properties.

Anonymous said...

NHLs and their natural counterparts, National Natural Landmarks, are very worthwhile designations, as long as they are not watered down by local listings. They should be extra special places of national significance - the San Fran Cable Cars NHL, the Barringer Meteor Crater NNL - not just another obscure government list, like the NR. Who decides what rises to the level of NHL or NNL ? What's the process ? I guess it's the same thing as deciding what new monument or heritage center will be allowed on the mall, where, and what it will look like. Or what paintings will hang where in the National Gallery, or what the exhibits in any of the mall museums will be about and look like. The process does the best that it can with good intentions, but it is not democratic, because there is no way to please everybody or represent everybody, or satisfy every taste and preference. This is also true of every federal interpretaive facility anywhere in the US. The NPS still instructs the public in the local development and the"Pueblo" ancestry of Chaco, and grants the Pueblo Tribes veto power over what is said and done about Chaco, even though fewer and fewer people still believe the great houses of Chaco had anything to do with the modern Pueblos. The NHL and NNLs are a form of interpreation, more art than science, and there is no way to make them consistent, 100% inclusive, or foolproof. But they are worthwhile because they can at least impress and please most of the people most of the time, and the cachet helps bring in tourist dollars to some areas that need them.