The Historical Imperative

Preservation and Its Role in Economic Liberation

Tom Sebacher


Vesna Gusman Art

Willful Ignorance

This essay is written as a philosophical, political, and economic statement. In the built environment, historic preservation has a habit of sponsoring high-value repurposing of buildings, a tactic whose consequences the field has only recently come to reckon with. As my professor at Southeast Missouri State University offered a host of reasons for economic preservation and strove to push for the city of Cape Girardeau to repurpose a historic theater on one of the main streets, the practical reality of the situation came to a head.

The property was to be partially expanded and turned into luxury apartments and several commercial spaces for a community whose luxury apartments were already empty. And with the consuming question of “will we save the Broadway Theater?” another question reared its ugly head: “what is the point of saving the Broadway?”

On a very theoretical statistical level, increasing the property values by reinvesting in the theater would be an economic no-brainer. However, in the City of Cape Girardeau, a municipality torn apart by a growing homelessness crisis and a harshening racial divide, I asked a question in our discussion of economic principles: “What are we preserving, for who, and who will live there?”

Building luxury apartments in a city with empty luxury apartments nobody can afford seems like an incredible waste of time, money, and effort. Yet it made “good economic sense” to reinvest into the theater. In a city with a high turnover in its existing commercial spaces, especially due to disputes between landlords and tenants, what would several more commercial spaces achieve?

In a town of 40,000 people with more than 90 homeless people, who would be living in these luxury apartments? Why do we need them? Yet in the field of historic preservation, these questions are always met with the equivalent of putting in earplugs, covering one’s ears, and screaming “I can’t hear you!”

“Economic Development” and the Role of Landlords

Despite this emphasis on “economic development” in the field of historic preservation, little attention is paid to the actions of the local aristocracy. Large landowners hold all the power, especially in rural and semi-rural economic and political environments. Yet the local population is always ignored in favor of listening to those with the power, who are most often elected.

Our landed aristocracy is obviously not going to take steps to jeopardize their dominance over community politics, economics, and society. Why do we assume they will “use their powers for good?” In Cape Girardeau, “reinvestment” leads to rent increases, which increases the likelihood of eviction and homelessness and forces many businesses to either move or shut down. Despite this, preservation is heralded as “good economic sense,” and its enduring effects remain unexamined.

The problems facing tenants are most often the fault of the sociopolitical environment in which they live, rather than due to one or two bad landlords. The constant election of landlords to positions of authority in municipal and county governments is more of a threat to preservation than an “unwillingness” to preserve historic properties. It is also incredibly arrogant to assume people who live in a community would prefer building new buildings to restoring old ones when no survey of people in the community forms the basis of this thinking.

Mao Zedong noted that “without investigation, there cannot possibly be any right to speak.” Preservation professionals who do not investigate the conditions they are attempting to rectify have no right to try to resolve the adverse conditions they are discussing. If they do not go out to the community and become united with the people, they have no right to ask anything of the people who live in the community.

This important principle is something professional historians have no idea how to do. If you seek to preserve the history of a community, you must deeply understand it in the present and what it presently needs. Ignoring these needs and asking the community to do something about this “cool building” will display only that the preservation professional is out-of-touch with the practical realities of daily life. When they face struggle, the professional will then find themselves without allies, and blame the “backwardness” or “ignorance” of the community.

Addressing the powers that be (in this case, the landlords) is only one (particularly ineffective) tool of ensuring things get done. And it creates a dependency upon the existing power structure that is fundamentally opposed to the mission of historic preservation in general. We are supposedly acting in a “politically neutral” way, but when any struggles arise, we run to the same authorities for the same things rather than critically taking stock of whether these people are actually allies.

Gentrification and Historic Preservation

“Gentrification.” What an odd word; what an odd concept, what a two-edged sword…. The word gentrification has outlived its usefulness. Too many connotations no longer apply. Perhaps “economic integration” is a better description of the role preservation can play.

— Donovan Rypkema, Economics of Historic Preservation

When taking into account the arguments I made against the involvement of landlords in historic preservation, as well as their significant role as power-brokers in rural communities, it becomes obvious why Rypkema makes this statement. He is used to dealing with power-brokers rather than people in their day-to-day lives. Arrogantly, he elevates himself above members of his community because of his professional qualification and fails to understand the opposition from community members with boots on the ground.

When discussing gentrification, it is important not to merely speak to preservation organizations and local leaders, but to people who actually live their day-to-day lives in the community. Mao again argued very bluntly that “the masses have boundless creative power,” and that “we ourselves are often childish and ignorant.” The masses are not a preacher at an influential church, or a member of the city council, or the mayor, but the people who are forced to encounter the conditions of life we are trying to resolve.

The mayor doesn’t typically live in poverty. Nor do city council members often take public transport. Nor do wealthy, influential preachers tend to struggle for food. So why presume they are experts on the nuances of these things? If they have investigated the day-to-day real conditions under which the masses live, then they have the right to speak. If they have not, they have none.

These people who do not experience the adverse effects of increased property values and redevelopment of historic properties cannot possibly understand them. Unless they engage in the struggles of a tenant against a landlord who wants to increase rent because a historic district increased the property values, we cannot expect them to understand the real nature of such a conflict. If they are the landlord who wants to increase rent, as so often is the case in rural communities, then they additionally have no reason to fight against themselves by improving the lives of tenants.

Historical Communities as a Criterion of Integrity

The primary imperative behind preservation is to preserve properties for the people for whom they have historic significance. Accordingly, forcing out the majority of the people to whom it holds this significance is an act of historic destruction which is both irreversible and highly unethical. Preserving a historically black church within a historically black district will be perverse if no actions are taken to ensure that the people who live there will be able to continue to do so.

Let’s examine the black church example. If the historically black church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this will increase the property values. This may lead to investment from white people outside of the community, and to whom the church itself has no apparent significance. Some well-meaning professionals may believe that this is a net positive.

However, the increased investment does not guarantee that the people who live in the black community will be able to afford living there afterward, or that they will be employed in new businesses if some should choose to relocate there, or that this will not form a perverse sort of colonial relation between the historically black community and an outside group of majority white investors.

These are not unforeseeable results. I would argue they are probable results, due to my own investigations and the investigations of others with whom I have worked. Additionally, we can merely examine the theoretical results absent the influence of the Main Street Program. It is a very simple exercise to counter Rypkema’s argument that “Displacement of residents is not a necessary outcome of historic preservation.”

Rypkema’s lack of critical engagement with the topic at hand and the available sources proves fatal to his argument. All his quoted sources are either from power brokers or publications affiliated with the type of thinking of the Main Street Program. To preserve a community, we must preserve the people who live there. Otherwise the historic properties in the local area have lost their integrity.

Here, it seems obvious that the masses themselves are a vital source of context from which properties derive their significance and retain their potential to convey it. Without the masses of people who are the “motive force in the making of world history,” there is no history to be found in a place.

Marxist Tactics: The Dual Power

The idea of circumventing the “legitimate” political authorities might be frightening to preservation professionals, but it is necessary to examine the tactic critically before immediately discarding it. The professional preservation community has discredited itself by emphasizing preservation at all costs regardless of the practical consequences.

What practical purpose does rehabilitating a historic theater play? Who will visit this theater? Who will work there? My professor at SEMO did not ask these critical questions. What will the long-term effects of this rehabilitation be? Who will ultimately benefit from the restoration, and what divisions within the local community will lead to disproportionate distribution of resulting benefits? Again, little consideration was given these essential questions.

The first step of any endeavor is to answer the question: “who are our allies; who are our enemies?” The answer to this question will be essential moving forward. If we are to say that we are on the side of the community, we must understand who within that community we wish to address. Communities are never homogeneous in the complex realities of daily life. So who are we addressing? Who will support our message to these people? How do we build support among the powerless for their struggle against those in power?

Historic preservationists have long pretended to be politically neutral. But retaining historical integrity is not a neutral proposition; it argues for the restoration of power to the masses. Without understanding this, preservation efforts cannot achieve anything.

We are addressing the people to whom places hold significance, not the people who hold power over the properties. Historic integrity of community is irrecoverable, but people in power are willful and capricious, and can be replaced or circumvented. The goal must be to absorb the profession into the community to build a basis of support independent of the political prison of petty politics.

This means that preservationists must study the implications of the alternatives. Our alternative to the power of the government is the power of the masses: the Dual Power. Any failure to build support within the community on the ground — not in the offices of government — is a failure of the preservation professional. For this reason, an extensive understanding of mass politics and mass tactics is necessary.

Investigating Solutions

What are our solutions? The arguments that preceded this are designed to push us toward a framework by which we can find ideas from the people to solve the problems confronting them. I cannot speak to specific political tactics, as this would be too general; I have not investigated every preservation situation, and so have no right to speak to all of them.

Using the tools of investigation, criticism, and self-criticism (analyzing the results of our efforts), effective political, economic, and cultural tactics will arise. The Dual Power is the antidote to professional arrogance. Understanding the struggles of the masses and their ideas on possible solutions is essential to deriving the correct tactics to resolve any particular situation in any particular context.

This means preservation professionals cannot simply sit at their desks in their offices, or go to city council meetings. It means they must speak to the homeless, the poor, the people who live in their communities and struggle in their communities. It means that they must not make undue assumptions on the priorities of these people.

The preservationist must understand their community so thoroughly through historical and political investigation that they can distill the ideas of the masses into solutions. The professionalism of the field has destroyed its potential. It has created a harsh divide between the professional and the people they supposedly seek to represent in the field of preservation. Only through serving the masses with “heart and soul” and understanding their life struggles can the professional truly preserve history.



Tom Sebacher

Genderfluid BA in Philosophy, BS in History, masters student at Southeast Missouri State. I write about philosophy, history, and politics.