Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Connecting Preservation to Community: Washington, D.C.’s Community Heritage Project

An Article By Bell Clement

Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood  is the sort of neighborhood often overlooked by preservationists and historians.  Tucked into a corner of the city between the Anacostia River and the District’s Maryland border, a far reach from the Capital’s monumental core., it is a quiet, residential community, built up by black, working-class Washingtonians in the early twentieth century.

Yet over the past five years, Deanwood has become a hub of preservation and local history activity.  Residents have published a book of community history, created a neighborhood heritage trail, and assisted in the landmarking of several neighborhood sites, with more projects to come.  How did this happen ?

Members of the Deanwood History Committee (left to right,
Barbara J. Moore, Alverna M. Miller, Deidre R. Gantt [standing],
Elaine King Bowman, and Kia Chatmon)  gather at the First Baptist Church
of Deanwood toreview material for their book, Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood.

“The first time we came together as the Deanwood History Committee was when the Historic Preservation Office asked us to help with a survey of neighborhood architecture,” says Kia Chatmon, a member of the Committee and its current chair.  “We saw pretty quickly that we needed to assemble a neighborhood history, if the architectural survey was to have any context.”

“One thing we’ve learned,” says Patsy Fletcher, Community Outreach Coordinator for D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office, and the staffer who asked Deanwood residents’ help with the survey , “is that there’s no way to interest residents in historic preservation until they‘re engaged with neighborhood history.”  

Washington, D.C.’s effort to nurture that kind of engagement has produced the D.C. Community Heritage Project.  Now entering its sixth year, the CHP is a collaborative of community historians supported by a partnership including the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. (HCWDC), D.C’s. Historic Preservation Office (HPO), and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Initiated in 2005, the CHP has assisted dozens of community heritage projects across the District’s eight wards. The CHP has supported the work of the Deanwood History Committee, and provided funding for Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood,  brought out Arcadia Publishing in 2008.

The CHP got its start as a response to the real estate frenzy that transformed Washington during the mid-2000’s. New money and new people were flooding old established D.C. neighborhoods.  “People loved that there was new investment in their neighborhood, of course.” says Fletcher, “The concern was, with all these new voices in the mix, a loss of a feeling of ownership on the part of long-term residents.”  The “last straw,” says Fletcher, were the moves to rename old neighborhoods.  In these “re-brandings”, old “Sursam Corda” became “NoMa” (“north of Massachusetts Avenue”).  Old “East of the River” became “River East.” Says Fletcher, “People just couldn’t take it.”

A small group, including Fletcher herself and academic historians involved in D.C. neighborhoods, came together to look for ways to respond.  They envisioned a framework that would support residents in telling their own stories of the communities in which they lived.  

The group sought help from the Humanities Council, which now hosts the Project.  Says HCWDC Executive Director Joy Austin, “The Humanities Council’s mission is to provide the collaborative environment, skills-building, and funding needed to undergird the efforts of people here in the District to tell their stories.  The CHP effort fit right in to that.”  The synergy between the Humanities Council and HPO is an important factor in the Project’s success.  Says Fletcher, “Leadership at HPO saw clearly that to be successful in District neighborhoods, we would need a ‘softer, gentler’ approach to preservation.  Working in tandem with the Humanities Council and its deep community network allowed us to implement that.”

The central challenge facing the Project was to figure out how to generate a community-driven program. As a response to initiatives that seemed to impose community history “from the outside,” how was the CHP to be different ?  “We didn’t want to become the very thing we were criticizing,” says Fletcher “so at the start we asked community activists to tell us what their needs were, and what a heritage project might do to meet them.”

That first CHP convening occurred in June 2005, and “we got an earful,” says Executive Director Austin.  “We learned right away that if you bring community historians from across the city together, you set off a storm of cross-pollenation .  So we do citywide convenings twice a year, to keep practitioners in touch with each other.”  Another result is that as activists learn about projects in other neighborhoods they’d like to start in their own communities, they ask for help building the skills they need .  “So,” says Austin, “we host workshops throughout the year – trainings in newsletter and brochure production, videography, document preservation, and oral history.”

The Project also addresses funding.  Says Austin, “What we see demonstrated through the CHP is that small amounts of funding, if channeled directly to the grassroots, can make a powerful difference.  Lots of worthwhile community projects stall just short of completion for want of a bit of money.”  CHP grants – none more than $2,000 - make it possible for community projects to pay for digital scans of old newspapers, or photographic reproductions or oral history transcriptions.

As with other CHP-supported projects, some of the outcomes of the Deanwood History Committee’s work – its  publications or the recent landmarkings – are easy to identify.  Other effects are more difficult to trace, but equally important.  “We have produced a record of the history of the community here,” says Chatmon.  “Now, when people or businesses come to Deanwood, they know they aren’t dealing with a blank slate, but with a place that has a specific past, a specific heritage.”

A key lesson, underscored through the Project’s first five years, is that  sustaining community leadership in preservation initiatives is hard work.  Says Fletcher, “that ‘softer, gentler’ preservation we practice – it’s tough.  This effort has to be led by the people on the front lines of the projects.  That means constant work at keeping communication open, and  incorporating  new ideas as needs change.  This is not a ‘set it and forget it’ kind of effort.”

Hard work, but worth it.  Continues Fletcher, “As a preservationist, there is nothing like that moment when  somebody from a community history project - a neighborhood resident, not somebody with special preservation training – makes the connection between the neighborhood stories they’re assembling and a particular site: ‘So that’s why this building is here; that’s what it has meant over the years.  This is a treasure, and it’s a part of  this community !’  That’s the moment I love to see.”
- Bell Clement

Bell Clement is a graduate student at George Washington University’s Department of History.  She is a past recipient of Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. grant support in her research on the District’s Fourteenth Street corridor.

The Humanities Council is currently accepting proposals for 2011 DC Community Heritage Project Grants. Applicants are highly encouraged to attend a grants assistance workshop, though it is not required. All proposals are due May 6th by 5pm.

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