Historic Preservation and Collective Memory | Preservation as an Agent of Social Justice

By Kira Lesley ::

Original Program cover from the Oriental Theater’s grand opening on December 31, 1927. Photo courtesy of Bud Holland and Portland Archives and Records Center.

I interned with the Architectural Heritage Center, located in the Southeast Portland Historic District. Although my research interests involve Portland’s development and land use,  I have only recently approached land use history’s intersection with historic preservation.  My work with PSU Public History graduate and current Education Manager for the Architectural Heritage Center Val Ballestrom provided me a meaningful introduction to the field. The AHC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Portland’s architectural heritage through education, awareness, and advocacy. The AHC recognizes the social, historical, and environmental benefits of preserving and reusing both elite and vernacular elements of the built environment.

Over the course of the term I attended an education subcommittee meeting and two educational programming events. I also met with Val several times to discuss basic questions about the operations of a nonprofit as well as the experience of moving into historic preservation from a public history background.

This internship sparked my interest in some of the theoretical issues involved in historic preservation and its intersection with public history. I met individuals in historic preservation who are interested in fostering relationships between the two fields. Those approaching preservation from a history perspective, like myself, are trained to speak to the social or historical significance of a district or building, but sometimes lack knowledge of architecture methods and integrity. On the other hand, historic preservationists have traditionally approached the field from a more technical perspective, one grounded in the essence of the buildings themselves rather than human interaction with them. I believe both approaches are necessary and complementary.

My culminating project for this internship is an exhibit I will be presenting in the winter on historic preservation and historical memory, using three Portland area case studies. The presentation examines the relationship between the preservation of built environment and that environment’s place in a city’s collective memory. I chose three case studies, each with different experience of historic preservation: the first and second Multnomah County poor farms, the New Chinatown/Japantown National Historic District and the Oriental Theatre.

My master’s thesis explores the question of why the Multnomah County poor farm was relocated in 1911 from its original location in the West Hills to what is now the Edgefield McMenamins in Troutdale. I grew up in Portland and over the years I have attended concerts and weddings at the Edgefield McMenamins, the site of the second poor farm. I had never heard of the original farm (sometimes called the Hillside Farm) even though it operated roughly the same number of years (forty) as the Edgefield farm. It was not until a 2013 Oregonian article about construction at the Oregon Zoo turning up human remains that I became aware of the poor farm.

My research for this presentation exposed me to the scholarly literature on the relationship between historic preservation and collective memory. I am especially fascinated by the implications of this relationship for education and planning. Further, I believe careful custodianship of the built environment has the potential to increase empathy and compassion. After all, it is much easier to dismiss or mythologize people and communities whose physical presence has been eradicated.

It is my belief that historic preservation of the built environment, though sometimes suffering accusation of elitism, can be a powerful tool for reclaiming the histories of disenfranchised people, and promoting equity and social justice. Many of us struggle to connect to spaces and landscapes that no longer exist. It is difficult to visualize something that is physically gone, and out of sight truly is out of mind.

I am excited for the ways that historic preservation can promote social justice and equity in history, development, and planning. My work at the AHC has afforded me the opportunity to explore these ideas while becoming acquainted with some of the legal, financial, and political issues historic preservation organizations face.