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Rethinking Historic Preservation

Historic preservation of the built environment is an overlooked, but critical component in the 'rise of a creative class'.
March 24, 2003, 12am PST | Martha Frish and Rebecca Severson
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Martha FrishRebecca Severson Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has received considerable press in the last few months. Florida's "creativity index" is based on his theory that the presence of creative people leads to urban economic development, and he has brought visibility to the idea that the presence of artists is linked to a larger economic vitality and job growth. This is an important insight, but there also should be a greater recognition of some related issues:

  • That access to art is pervasive: one simply needs to be educated to see, feel, hear, smell and/or taste "art";
  • That millions of Americans are informal artists, creating art every day; and
  • That artistic contributions to society at large are not limited to the "creative class."

Thus, Florida's work skims over the visual and tangible fabric of what makes those cities appealing to artists in the first place. In many cases, that fabric--"the built environment"--is the infrastructure of buildings, streets, parks and public and private spaces that make a place feel distinctive from others. That distinctiveness is perceived by those who live, work and play in those environments, and to the extent that it has drawn young college graduates and empty nesters to settle in previously unfashionable urban neighborhoods, it has helped to keep cities socio-economically and racially integrated.

This awareness of surrounding space is sometimes considered to fall within the purview of the field of historic preservation. However, historic preservation is often dismissed as being elitist, concerned with "dead white men's houses" or maintaining museum-quality facilities commemorating the seemingly irrelevant. And, admittedly, the early history of historic preservation in the United States was almost exclusively devoted to the commemoration of dead white men.

In the year 2003, however, this compartmentalization of preservation does everyone a disservice. A better way to define historic preservation--short of developing a new name for it--is the promotion of an awareness of the variety and distinctiveness of the elements within the built environment that have existed for a number of years. For example, these elements might include the cliff-like wall of Michigan Avenue in Chicago; they might also include the small geometric ornament on the front porch of a house or the entrance of an Art Deco office building in Manhattan.

We need to think about what contribution "the built environment" can offer to informal arts activities and to those who don't think of themselves as artists or members of the "creative class." For example, Sadie Thorson is an African American woman who is a regular attendee at a south side Chicago quilting guild that meets in a local park. She tells of how she is always looking for inspiration:

"It's a big world out there and quilters can get a lot out of it. Every day you see colors, you see patterns and after a while you start to see things and pick them out. I was coming down the street over here and saw the patterns in the street -- I found my next quilt!"

This woman typifies the ways in which people can benefit from an awareness of "the built environment." However, large numbers of people are largely unable to verbalize exactly why individual spaces feel so good to be in, or to look at. One reason for this inability to verbalize is that in the United States, for example, a visual education has largely disappeared from the public schools. And if human beings can't articulate in words how things affect them, they tend to discount the importance of that effect.

There is a rich visual vocabulary that can be taught, and that can enhance even the daily experience of walking down the street. Through such an education in "the built environment," many people would be better able to perceive, enjoy and be inspired by the quality of the spaces, facades, streets and vistas around them. Once the value of daily creativity is recognized--whether in quilting, or woodcarving, or painting--the visual and tangible fabric of what makes those cities appealing to both informal artists and the creative class will occupy a more respected role in civic life.


Martha Frish, AICP, teaches Real Estate Development in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Historic Preservation Program. She holds an M.A. in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell and an M.S. in Non-Profit Management from New York University. Rebecca Severson works as a public interest anthropologist at The Field Museum. She was the lead ethnographer for the recently finished, Informal Arts: Finding Cohesion, Capacity and Other Cultural Benefits in Unexpected Places.

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