In its heyday in the United States, urban renewal helped spur the creation of social justice movements and historic preservation. As public historians understand the effects of this period and seek to explain it to the public, we may also be playing a role in current urban renewal efforts – particularly preservationists. The presenters in the There Goes the Neighborhood: Public History and Urban Renewal Then and Now in Montreal, Quebec; Derry, Northern Ireland; and Lowell, Massachusetts roundtable brought these issues to the fore, and spurred a very successful discussion about the problems and meaning of urban renewal efforts throughout the country.
Within a few minutes of brainstorming, the group had filled the dry erase boards of the conference room with examples of the results of urban renewal: the branding of preservation as obstructionist, the erasure of memories, gentrification and displacement, and nostalgia for a true or imagined past to name only a few. All of these themes were evident in the case studies presented by Cathy Stanton and Margo Shea. Though Derry and Lowell are quite different, they both showed the promise and politics of urban renewal. In each case, new development was touted as the promise for decades of social problems but in each the question of whether these efforts had made a better community – and if so, for whom - remained.
To conclude, focus was drawn specifically to what public historians can do to ameliorate or avoid in new projects those that are evident in older ones. Perhaps one of the more intriguing ideas suggested was to bring the local and regional history we present as close to the present as possible or politically feasible. Helping people in our communities understand the reasoning behind the built environment that they experience may help foster critical thinking about proposed or current changes. Also, it is essential to make and use community connections to bring more voices to the tables where decisions about the future of cities are made. The group dynamic of the roundtable was excellent, and I am looking forward to participating in more sessions in the future.