January 16, 2009

I wrote this for the Preservation Massachusetts newslettter that went out today, and since I spent so much time on it, I thought I would post it here too.  I really tried to make it clear that the issue of relevancy and the issue of diversity are pretty well tied up with one another in the preservation field:


In my job as a Circuit Rider, I get to work with a wide range of historic properties all over eastern Massachusetts. However, although the properties can be very different from one another, the people who call the Circuit Riders tend to have a lot in common.   But every once in a while, a property’s fate hinges on the participation of a racially and culturally diverse population.  The Wollaston Theater is one of those properties.

The Wollaston Theater is a single-screen, classical revival-style building on a bustling commercial street near downtown Quincy. Known locally as “The Wolly”, the theater operated as a first-run movie theater until the 1990’s, when it began to fall into disrepair.  The Boston Globe reports that a group of individuals in the arts have entered into a purchase and sale agreement with the estate that owns the building; reportedly, the new owners intend to keep the theater in use as some type of performance or cultural center. 

Since the 1980’s, the Wollaston’s North Quincy neighborhood has also been home to many Chinese and other Asian immigrants.  According to The Next American City, Quincy’s Asian-American population stands at around 14,000, or around 17% of the town’s total population.  When I was contacted by a concerned local citizen about the theater’s recent sale, we spent much of our meeting talking not only about the theater, but about the community around it.  My client worried that it would be difficult to form a collaborative, diverse coalition of advocates – not because the theater didn’t matter to all of the neighborhood’s residents, but because she had no knowledge of any Chinese-Americans in Quincy who worked in preservation.  And unfortunately, neither did I, and neither did my coworkers, although the city has no shortage of knowledgeable preservation professionals. 

From my perspective as a Circuit Rider and someone relatively new to the field of preservation, the Wollaston Theater is not only a building to be saved, but an opportunity to start a conversation about the issues of diversity, relevancy, and communication that characterize the historic preservation field.  The field has worked hard in recent years to broaden both its participants and the types of resources it celebrates, but there is definitely more work to be done. Riding the “Circuit” around eastern Massachusetts has shown me how few new Americans are engaged with historic preservation.  And I don’t believe that this is primarily because the buildings often represent Anglo-American history or because historic preservation is a luxury business, but because preservation organizations have failed to create sustained and meaningful relationships with new American individuals, groups, and organizations.

It also seems to me that historic preservation may be in a bit of an identity crisis, which makes this a great time to start talking about relevancy, diversity, and the future of this field.  In its struggle to explain itself (and support itself financially), the field is looking to the environmental movement, to modernism, and to financial incentives, to name just a few, in order to make its case to the world.  But at its core, the field is about remembering, demystifying, celebrating, and criticizing our past.  It’s a field of memory, and as this country’s collective memory changes to embrace the narratives of a broader population, so must the participants in the work of preservation. I believe that the Wollaston Theater and cases like it are a golden opportunity for Preservation Massachusetts, since they give us a chance to listen to new voices and engage new partners in the act of remembering and interpreting this country’s history.  More importantly, I also hope that these kinds of partnerships will reenergize the field of preservation - a field that means so much to me, but can feel so remote to many - and help it forge a more modern, inclusive identity that reflects the critical importance of this work, now and in the future.

Copyright Anne Dodge, 2009   •   Contact acdodge at gmail dot com