Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Don't Let the History of Your Neighborhood be Lost

Apply for a DC Community Heritage Project Grant

For the past five years, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC (HCWDC) has made over 80 grants to citizens and organizations interested in preserving the heritage of the city’s unique neighborhoods, landmarks, and culture through the DC Community Heritage Project (DCCHP). The DCCHP is a collaborative effort of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the DC Historic Preservation Office, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. This year, HCWDC will maintain its commitment to preserving local history and culture, by investing in neighborhoods that have not yet had their stories told.

In recent years, D.C. has become a renaissance city, through an influx of buildings, monuments, and newly minted Washingtonians. With all this change, struggles in reconciling the old with the new are inevitable. As such, we are encouraging residents, long-time or newly-arrived, to preserve the histories they have come to appreciate.

Communities can have a powerful connection to the local school house, or the neighborhood church because of the powerful memories associated with these structures. A particularly cruel teacher or benevolent pastor are experiences shared by a group of people and talked about for years, that can eventually be raised to the level of local legend. When those memories are tied to a historic structure, the very character and culture of a neighborhood can seem to hinge on that building’s preservation. In 2009, Deanwood Heights Mainstreets produced their first walking tour of Deanwood's churches entitled “Faith and Foundation.” The group has received subsequent grants to document more houses of worship, and has added other historic Deanwood landmarks to the tour.

In 2010, Historic Mt. Pleasant Inc. combed the local archives to produce a survey of their neighborhood's historic storefronts from 1901-1938. The database they compiled includes ownership transfers, businesses operated, and architectural changes. The data reveals a past Mt. Pleasant dizzy with change and population growth, but it is open for interpretation, and available in full on Historic Mt. Pleasant's website.

But it is not just in the bricks and mortar of the cityscape that collective memory resides. In fact, the most powerful, yet ephemeral local histories reside in the minds of those who have lived them. These are the types of histories best preserved through oral history interviews. In 2007, Empower DC organized an oral history project that captured the memories of long time residents of Ivy City. The tapes revealed strong remembrances of the historic Crummell Elementary School, an endangered historic landmark and the focal point of the community. Empower DC has since expanded the oral history project and has produced a draft documentary film.

In 2009, Tendani Mpulubusi and Helping Inner City Kids Succeed produced an extraordinary documentary film on Barry Farm that explored the community's history and examined its present-day challenges. Barry Farm: Past and Present used interviews with scholars, community historians, students, and community leaders to tell a thoughtful and textured story about one of Ward 8's most historic neighborhoods.

The DCCHP seeks to preserve both the physical and the intellectual heritage of Washington’s neighborhoods. Last year, students and educators from John Eaton Elementary School used a grant from the DC Community Heritage Project to fund a study of the school's past. Students used architectural clues, oral history interviews, and archival research to piece together the history of Eaton Elementary and the surrounding portions of the Cleveland Park neighborhood. The project coordinators used the experience to create a lesson plan that they hope will be replicated by other schools in the District and across the country! The student history detectives were invited to present their findings at last year's 38th Annual DC Historical Studies Conference.

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide the skills and financial means for every neighborhood in Washington, DC to make its history known. We welcome new concepts from neighborhoods already reached by the DCCHP, but we need proposals from communities such as Trinidad, Lamond-Riggs, Lincoln Heights, Brightwood, and others that have not received a grant. Any DC resident with a story to tell about their community is encouraged to apply.

We strongly encourage first time applicants to attend one of our grant workshops. To register for a DCCHP Grant Workshop, please visit http://www.wdchumanities.org/grants/deadlines

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