Comment to the ACHP on “Notice of Proposed Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization”

In April of 2016, I sent a reply to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation commenting on their draft Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization. I thought it useful to post my comments here as they overlap with many of the ideas that I discuss on this web site.

From: Jeremy Wells
Subject: Comment on the “Proposed Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization”
Date: April 4, 2016 at 11:11:41 PM EDT
To: “” <>

Thank you for considering my comments on the “Proposed Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization.” While I very much appreciate what the ACHP is trying to do in addressing an important problem, I think the overall approach is myopic and ignores significant structural problems in the existing regulatory framework upon which most of the ACHP’s work has traditionally been based. Specifically:

  1. The document speaks much about stakeholder engagement and community values, but because the entire perspective of the proposal is embedded in the existing regulatory framework, this cannot occur. Let’s be honest here: the system espoused in the NHPA and is associated regulations privileges expert rule and sidelines the values of most stakeholders (this is a fundamental claim in the work of critical heritage theorists, such as Laurajane Smith (2006) who present independently verified empirical evidence for this claim). This document should accurately describe whose values actually drive NR considerations (i.e., conventional experts, not communities) or do what is promised and open the door to considering the values of more stakeholders, such as divorcing this policy document from its total reliance on the regulatory environment.
  2. I am distressed by the use of the term “historic preservation values” in this document, which is code to mean only those values that conform with what’s included in the NHPA and associated implementing regulations.
  3. The statement, “Effective citizen engagement allows community residents to identify resources they care about and share their views on local historic and cultural significance” is patently absurd in the context of this document which only allows NR-sanctioned values to be used.
  4. NR criteria are an impediment to the right-sizing process at best and a tool to deny human rights at worst. As Michael R. Allen observes, “The National Register privileges appearance over community will, public commemoration and economic value.” If the US were to ever become a signatory to UNESCO’s “Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage”, the logical conclusion is that the ACHP would have to officially recognize that, at times, the NR process works by “denying the human rights of the local population” as William Logan (2007) warns. If a local population says its heritage is important, but this heritage doesn’t fit the NR criteria, experts still ought to take the community’s assessment at face value.
  5. Of all the sections in the document, I am most disturbed by the section describing the “participation” of Native Americans. It is disrespectful and ignorant of the colonialist perspective enshrined in the NHPA and its implementing regulations, which requires that Native Americans “translate” their values into the values of the dominant culture in order to be properly heard. The language included in this proposal ignores this problem in its entirety.
  6. The document is overly concerned with “properties” and “buildings” and ignores the equally, if not more important concepts of “place” and “landscapes”.

I am not asking the ACHP to change laws, which is clearly the charge of Congress. Instead, as an American citizen and a stakeholder, I simply ask the ACHP to tell the truth about the limitations inherent in what it is advocating in this policy document and not use language that obscures these issues. Surely, in this document, the ACHP can advocate a policy that recognizes ways to integrate conservation with right-sizing that is not entirely reliant on the existing, compromised, regulatory system. For instance, a small step in this regard could be the following disclaimer:

As used in this document, the practice of ‘historic preservation’ is dependent on the determination of significance and authenticity by experts trained in art/historical methods. As such, there can be a disconnect between what an expert thinks is “historic” and what most stakeholders consider to be “historic”. Ultimately, unless community stakeholders can make an argument using the art/historical language of the expert, their views on historical significance and authenticity cannot be considered due to limitations in how the National Historic Preservation Act and its implementing regulations are framed. There exists, therefore, the possibility that community revitalization is sometimes impeded by conventional historic preservation practice where a community disagrees with experts in terms of what is and is not historically significant.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


-Jeremy Wells

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