Sunday, April 10, 2011

Enshrining heritage, contesting development?

As I was blearily scanning the local free paper while waiting for my taxi to the airport at 5 a.m., my eye was caught by a report on the statistics about the residential demographics in Pensacola’s downtown. This is a part of the city that there has clearly seen heavy reinvestment in in recent years, much of it of the “culture-led” variety and most of it involving entities like the University of West Florida’s Public History program, our host for the conference.

Historic Pensacola Village is in a ten- or twelve-block area of the downtown that combines the picturesqueness of a living history site with the consumer-centrism of a tourist town. It’s pretty, but rather eerily empty except when there’s some kind of organized group activity. Lawyers’ and realtors’ offices seem to dominate, with the usual scattering of galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. The “village” moniker seems contrived; this is very obviously a historic district that’s being asked to take a lead role in a redevelopment effort.

According to the director of the Downtown Improvement Board, writing in the free paper (Downtown Pensacola Crowd, April 2011, p. 4), it has been relatively successful in doing that, despite the ongoing implosion of Florida’s real estate market and general economic woes. He points out that the new residents in the downtown skew slightly female (56%) and older (a third are retirees). Race was not mentioned, interestingly, but I feel pretty confident predicting that it would also skew white. 88% have been to college; a third have completed some grad school. Polled about their reasons for moving downtown, they mentioned convenience; proximity to the waterfront, cultural attractions, and restaurants; and walkability (although 87% do own cars). Ads and articles in the paper, and a few days of walking around the neighborhood, reveal a now-standard repertoire of strategies for encouraging this new population trend: performances and festivals (jazz, crawfish, wine, and goombay), open-air markets, and various other activities that turn the preserved and renovated historic environment into a space for recreation and consumption (for example, a cell-phone-powered treasure hunt using neighborhood clues in search of a $10,000 diamond ring).

None of us likes to think that we’re a party to gentrification, but you know what, folks? This is what gentrification looks like, and there’s no getting around public history’s central role in helping it happen in Pensacola. At the two conference sessions focusing on gentrification and public history, which others have also blogged about here, the focus was on what we might do to counter the powerful push toward the upscale, the professional, the white, the middle-class.

One strategy, which I’m of two minds about, is to try to bring the processes of historic preservation and culture-led redevelopment themselves into the picture somehow. In The Tourist, his classic work of tourism theory, Dean MacCannell called this “enshrinement.” In MacCannell’s formulation, putting the mechanisms of heritage and preservation themselves on display—as the archaeology displays (above) around Historic Pensacola District do—actually enhances a place’s stature and appeal for visitors, thus furthering its transformation into a sacralized “must-see” destination for tourists.

I saw another instance of “enshrinement” in the headquarters of West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc., where an exhibit about the redevelopment of the downtown area has been put on permanent display after its run at the nearby Florida State Museum. This takes more of a public history approach, historicizing the choices and dilemmas faced by those seeking to reverse the area’s architectural and economic decline. The panels pose sharp questions and invite real reflection, potentially challenging the standard urban narrative of decline and rehabilitation.

But…its potential is limited by its location, and the fact that it’s now likely to be seen only by those already within the same demographic stratum that the redevelopment project overall is trying to attract (professionals, museum-goers, public historians and archaeologists themselves). How might we move these critical conversations into other venues and connect them with discussions about housing, jobs, environmental responsibility, and other pressing issues? In other words, how might we introduce a bit of needed grit into the redevelopment machine to buy some time for more widespread reevaluation of what it does?

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