Mount Vernon “turned over to the wreckers” in 1965

Working in Mt. Vernon gives me ample opportunities to enjoy the neighborhood’s historic architecture and our generous share of surface parking lots. Many of these lots date from the 1960s when plans to redevelop Mount Vernon as a center of high-rise apartment buildings and office towers stalled out. The Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Authority demolished scores of 19th century rows and mansions to clear the way for development but developers only completed a handful of the many proposed building projects.

Map courtesy University of Baltimore Langsdale Library Special Collections, BURHA, Series X. Urban Renewal Projects, Box 8. Mount Vernon Plan. Link.
Map courtesy University of Baltimore Langsdale Library Special Collections, BURHA, Series X. Urban Renewal Projects, Box 8. Mount Vernon Plan. Link.

I’d love to share a more detailed account of the history of parking in Mt. Vernon (or automobile culture in Baltimore more broadly) but you can get a taste from this 1965 Baltimore Sun piece, “Parking Lot Will Replace Landmark Preston St. House” by Frank P.L. Somerville, September 5, 1965:

“Plans to demolish another landmark in the Mount Vernon area, the white marble mansion on the southeast corner of St. Paul and Preston streets, were announced yesterday.

A spokesman for the William Cook-Brooks funeral establishment said the three-story house at 101 East Preston street will be razed, probably next month, to make room for a parking lot. …

The Donaldson House is another is a long string of Mount Vernon area landmarks turned over to the wreckers in recent years.

Other distinguished Nineteenth Century buildings removed from the once-fashionable area south of Mount Royal avenue include two mansion replaced by a tall apartment house at Calvert and Chase streets; half a block of St. Paul street houses that fave way to another large apartment building now under construction at St. Paul and Chase streets; a whole block of West Monument street houses razed by the Maryland Historical Society to provide a lot for a new wing; the Cadoa buildings on Franklin street, now the site of a parking lot owned by the Catholic Archdiocese; Greek Revival houses on Cathedral street and Park avenue demolished for new apartment construction and several houses on Charles Street between Eager and Chase streets recently replaced by parking lots or new construction.

Demolition crews are in the process of leveling three mansions at the northwest corner of Charles and Chase Street.”

Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting

This past October, I had the privilege of participating in a panel organized by Dr. Nicole King at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Baltimore, along with Ms. Linda Shopes, Dr. Denise Meringolo and Dr. Ed Orser. The theme of the panel — Baltimore City as Laboratory: Transformations of Urban Neighborhoods through Public History Programming — helped frame a discussion on how our work  used “public history programming to address complex issues of identity and social justice in urban space” led by  Linda Shopes, an editor of the influential 1991 The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History. I wrote the following short piece highlighting our work with the Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods project where I had the chance to work closely with both Linda and Ed on the development of tour programs and a website (still in development).

Over the past two years with Baltimore Heritage, I’ve worked on a handful of projects connecting historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization in the historic neighborhoods of West Baltimore. West Baltimore is not a likely place for this particular approach. I often encounter questions from both residents — and, perhaps even more often, people who live outside these neighborhoods — asking why bother with preserving or interpreting the history of neighborhoods and communities, whose struggles with abandonment, addiction, disinvestment and violence seem to overwhelm any other concerns? I can’t put this question aside quickly or easily so I’ll continue with this issue unresolved– how can our shared heritage be used to build better neighborhoods and better lives for West Baltimore residents?

Baltimore Heritage is a nonprofit historic preservation advocacy organization established in 1960. We’re a small group, two and a half staff supported by membership and programs, with a history of energetic preservation advocacy. My own position began in fall of 2009 with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to focus on African American heritage city-wide, matched by grants from the Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative which required us to focus these outreach efforts in support transit-oriented community development in an area of West Baltimore neighborhoods proposed for the development of a new light rail route known as the Red Line.

Although West Baltimore is not exceptional within the city, or certainly when compared to neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, the east side of Cleveland, or the South Bronx, in some West Baltimore neighborhoods the scale of vacancy and abandonment is incredible, shocking to visitors and a tragedy for residents who live next door to collapsing rowhouses, burnt-out factories and brownfields. Neighborhoods like Harlem Park, Upton, and Midtown Edmondson can be characterized by concentrated poverty and limited access to fresh food.  Despite these challenges, however, you can find unique historic architecture on almost every block, from pre-Civil War rowhouses to midcentury modern civic and educational buildings. Historic green spaces, like Lafayette Square or Franklin Square, are still well loved and well used by many neighborhood residents.

Any explanation of this confusing landscape must draw on intersecting histories of racial segregation, housing discrimination, community development and urban renewal. Following these threads can help us connect the beginning of these neighborhoods–developed as affluent, European suburbs in the late 19th century to the emergence of Old West Baltimore as one of a handful of segregated black communities in the city at the beginning of the 20th century. We can continue through the rapid racial transition that transformed whole swaths of West Baltimore from white to black during the 1950s and 1960s (deftly chronicled by Dr. Ed Orser in Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story) and the terrible mix of industrial job loss and urban renewal that gutted the heart of West Baltimore neighborhoods in the 1970s and 80s.

Dr. Ed Orser at Lauretta Avenue, Greater Rosemont Walking Tour

Our work in West Baltimore been a bit experimental, testing our hypothesis—heritage is an asset for West Baltimore’s community development—by exploring new ways to organize residents and reshape the perception of the historic built environment from a liability into an asset. Our experience so far has led us to a few ideas about what is important and what might work–

  • We are dedicated to a usable past that seeks out histories of development, struggle, and organizing that offer tools to better understand contemporary concerns.
  • We embrace difficult stories, recognizing the importance of stories around enslavement, civil rights, racism and urban renewal to shaping the history of these neighborhoods and continuing to engage residents and visitors at a visceral level.
  • We don’t work alone. Our research and interpretation seeks to engage residents and other stakeholders in the interpretation of local history and the development of tours.

Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods was one of our first large scale projects to address these themes of segregation and community development. With support from the Maryland Humanities Council and Free Fall Baltimore, we organized a series of four collaborative programs—a lecture on the local history of public housing and three walking tours in historically African American neighborhoods–Upton, Greater Rosemont, and Sharp Leadenhall–led by scholars from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, UMBC and Towson University working in collaboration with resident-led neighborhood organizations. Together these programs aimed to stimulate an informed discussion about the historical experiences of residents and institutions in Baltimore’s historically segregated African American communities in relation to contemporary debates on historic preservation and community development.

Tour group at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, Etting Street These three tours visited a diverse set of historic places, while considering issues from highway fights and anti-gentrification neighborhood organizing in South Baltimore through the flourishing of civil rights activism in churches and businesses in the neighborhoods of Old West Baltimore. We visited Thurgood Marshall’s elementary school. We walked by the only Baltimore dollar house where a black resident displaced by eminent domain during the highway fight successfully returned to his home. In church basements, we discussed topics from the feasibility of rowhouse rehabs to the potential of transit-oriented development in the broader Baltimore region. In a single month, we engaged nearly 250 people, an audience that was notably more diverse in age and race than many of our more conventionally presented tour programs. This project affirmed our confidence in our new strategies for collaboration and interpretation, strategies that we continue to use in the development of new tours and publications focused on themes including the Civil War history of West Baltimore.

The results of these explorations remain inconclusive. We’re still testing against the enduring challenges of decades of disinvestment along with our own limited capacity as a small nonprofit. I’m encouraged though by the idea that we’re not along. As we’ve searched for new ideas to apply to our own work, we’ve gotten to know a few of the organizations and individuals wrestling with these same concerns, testing their own approaches in local laboratories across the country. I’ll give you three examples–

  • Andrew Hurley’s work in St. Louis, documented in his recent book Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, offered historical and archeological research and interpretation to North St. Louis residents and organizations with the goal of supporting grassroots revitalization. Hurley observed, “Inner-city preservationists embarking on such a path can anticipate a  host of difficult decisions as they wrestle with the inevitable tension between community-building and economic-development goals.” – p.31
  • Cliveden, a 1760s mansion built for Revolutionary-era elite Benjamin Chew, had been a stodgy house museum through the early 2000s when they dedicated themselves to finding new relevance to their diverse, low-income neighborhood of Germantown, Philadelphia. In charting this new course, they decided to abandon the visitor, redefining their mission to serve as “a catalyst for preserving and reusing historic buildings to sustain economic development for historic Northwest Philadelphia and beyond.”
  • The Los Angeles Conservancy, supported by the same National Trust grant program as our work at Baltimore Heritage, hired a new organizer to greatly expand their outreach and advocacy in the segregated Latino communities of East LA, undertaking projects such as “Save Wyvernwood,” where they supported the efforts of a resident community in the 1939 Wyvernwood Garden Apartments to resist displacement and the demolition of their homes.

These examples are distinct, I know. At the same time, we’re all together wrestling with that same question I posed a few minutes ago. We’re not finding any easy answers but I do think we’re gaining confidence that public history and preservation scholars and professionals are right to ask this question.

Ned Kaufman, a long time director of historic preservation for the Municipal Art Society of New York, offered an answer of sorts in Place, Race, and Story: essays on the past and future of historic preservation, writing–

“History offers a way to establish a presence within the public space of political and cultural discourse–and without presence one can hardly hope for leverage. History can’t provide adequate housing, end discrimination or prevent redevelopment, but it can contribute to the debate that is necessary to achieving these goals.” – p.401

Reimagining the National Register Nomination Form

This post originally appeared as a proposal for THATCamp Prime 2010.

I propose a discussion of the National Register of Historic Places nomination form to reimagine the potential of historical research and documentation in the context of abundance of digital tools for the investigation and presentation of architectural and social history. The National Register nomination form dates back to the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and continues to reflect the technical limitations and, arguably, the ideological assumptions of architectural history during the 1960s. The rise of vernacular architecture and cultural landscape studies have directly challenged the tradition of engaging buildings and neighborhoods with a curatorial approach based in an art history. Questions of style, significance, context, and integrity are now contested and complicated in ways that may be poorly reflected within the limits laid out in National Register Bulletin 16A “How to Complete The National Register Nomination Form.” Beyond the scholarly transformation of architectural and social history, the existing form has been disrupted by the transition from a culture of of scarcity to a culture of abundance described by Roy Rozenweig. The capacity to conduct full-text searches of manuscript census documents across hundreds of years with Ancestry.com, browse dozens of digitized directories on the Internet Archive, download measured drawings or archival photos from a good portion of HABS/HAER, determine the extant status of buildings using Google Maps, create three-dimensional models with Photosynth, and manage nearly unlimited sources with Zotero must force a radical reconsideration of the process of object of local history research and documentation. None of this was possible in 1966. If we started from scratch today, what would the National Register nomination form look like?
I believe this question presents an opportunity to address engage with broader interests in linked data, social media, multimedia digital scholarship, geospatial data in the humanities, expanding scholarship to non-academic audiences, and the long-term preservation of digital work. To start here are a few specific examples of the limits and potential alternatives to the National Register nomination form,

  • The existing nomination form is largely textual, including a detailed written architectural descriptions. Could the supplementary documentation a National Register nomination include digital audio and video recordings of oral histories or historic events? 3D models of viewsheds? Datasets on demographic change at a block or neighborhood level?
  • The existing nomination form is clearly limited to a single author. How can attribution for collaborative authorship be addressed? Can a nomination be crowdsourced? How can alternate voices be integrated into the narrative? (CommentPress?)
  • The existing nomination form provides some structured data but it does not use a controlled vocabulary and fails to capture to dozens of references to building and architects found in the historic context of the nomination. Can  nominations be linked together with URIs that might represent architects, builders, owners, and buildings? (NC Architects & Builders?) Can unstructured natural language description be converted into semantic data? (OpenCalais?)
  • The existing nomination form provides a heading at the end of the form for a brief bibliography. Can RDF data be embedded in the nomination? Can references be linked directly to primary sources? (Document Cloud?)

While my proposal for THATCamp Columbus provided a number of examples for historic places databases, a few more inspirational examples include NYC Landmarks, PhilaPlace (also addressed in Mark Tebeau’s session from Columbus), Wikipedia Saves Public Art, and the Brooklyn Typology. Admittedly the National Register has started digitizing and sharing images on Flickr and expanding access to past National Register Nomination forms through the much improved NPS Focus database but basic issues with the format of the nomination still remain. This post is a bit of a departure from my initial proposal but I hope it clearly engages with my stated interest in non-academic and non-scholarly audiences (and is not too link heavy to read).

How do we share our knowledge of historic places?

I wrote this post back in January as a proposal for THATCamp Columbus.

How do scholars, activists, tourists, neighbors, city planners, and preservationists find and share information about historic places in their communities, in their cities, and in their regions? How do they identify relationships between places or understand the context within such places were constructed, occupied, or even destroyed? In most cases, anyone interested in these questions might rely on a wide range of tools and resources, such as calling a local historical society, finding a walking tour brochure at a local visitor center, visting the local history section of the neighborhood library, searching a web-based database provided by a State Historic Preservation Office, or simply searching online in the hope that someone might have already investigated the location. The latter is often productive but resources are currently fragmented both topically and geographically, as well as suffering from an absence of essential features such as mapping, sorting or filtering. If you are searching for information on historic theaters Cinema Treasures is indispensable, roadside architecture can be found at RoadsideArchitecture.com, the Labelscar retail history blog has documented hundreds of shopping malls but none of these sites allow the consideration of the unusual buildings within their local contexts. For example, what African-American neighborhood did the Comet Theater serve? What was located at the site of the Westland Mall prior to  its construction in 1969?

In addition, while a few websites offer a rich user experience, the web services provided by State Historic Preservation Offices are often severely limited by accident or by design (as some local and state governments license their data on historic places to private contracts if they maintain an updated database at all). Take a look at the National Register database provided by the Maryland Historical Trust or the basic PDF list provided by Virignia to get a sense of the limited services provided by government institutions in this regard. Even more effective examples, such as the Pennsylvania Historical Markers website or the National Register NPS Focus database, are often closed and provide few opportunities to even make comments, let alone access the underlying database for mashups or analysis. Regrettably, few preservation organizations even at a state or municipal level, let alone small museums, nonprofit preservation advocacy organizations, neighborhood and city historical societies, have sufficient technical expertise or capacity within their organizations to build and maintain new and effective web applications.

Even with the issues I’ve identified with both independent and publicly supported websites sharing data on historic places, the most serious issue is the great extent to which our knowledge of historic places is limited to the minds of a few individuals in our communities, in a box of documents sitting in a damp basement, or a drawer full of unlabeled photos at a neighborhood church. I’m curious to explore the potential of building websites that support sharing our knowledge of historic places, capturing new knowledge from those who hold it, and allowing scholars, activists, and interested citizens to explore this data at local, regional and national scales. Possible models for this approach may lie with smaller projects such as the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Database, the North Carolina Architects & Builders project, the University of Berkley’s California’s Living New Deal project, Teaching + Learning Cleveland, the Community Almanac from The Open Planning Project, the Open Plaques website, and dozens of others.