"Urban Renewal, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."
YouTube. Accessed October 10, 2017.
I've always found the intersection of urban studies and public history to be problematic because, at its worst, the white middle-class gaze predominates, set upon the bodies and memories of Black and Brown folk. This week's readings highlighted such issues. Andrew Hurley's Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, for instance, while deeply insightful, at times reads like a field guide for white public history practitioners entering "foreign" communities of color. He addresses "white scholars working in partnership with African American communities," faulting them for not addressing "racially charged themes" responsibly (163). As a public historian of color, I was reminded that my white colleagues can opt in and out of engaging such themes (as opposed to understanding them as a lived reality, inseparable from our work). Likewise, Hurley implicitly speaks to white public historians when he reminds his audience to "expect communities of color to take exception to academic critiques that undermine sources of racial pride" (163). I have to wonder how differently these issues would be discussed if this book were penned by a Black or Brown public historian, especially one who wrote with their colleagues of color in mind.
Patrick Grossi is more self-conscious of this issue in his article "Plan or Be Planned For," about the Funeral for a Home project – "There is something deeply presumptuous about a group of young white professionals inserting themselves into a black neighborhood that has experienced both untimely funerals and demolitions over the years, and asking them to participate in a spectacle that incorporates elements of both" (19). This brief concession leads into some allusions about gentrification, as well as the history of Mantua. Yet the project itself is described as "a model for collaborative programming ... [inviting] practitioners to think seriously about the racial dynamics and efforts toward engagement present in their work" (14). Therein lies the contention. Oftentimes, too much emphasis is placed on the edification of white practitioners and audiences rather than on the support of communities of color. Both white project leaders and white spectators tend to take up too much space on projects. The photos of the over four hundred attendees (24) and of the post-service meal (26) make me wonder – for whom was this project created?
Pastor Harry Moore, Sr. asked a similar question of Funeral's project leaders in the beginning: "What is your goal here? What made you guys want to do this?" This is a question every public historian should ask themselves – especially white project leaders inserting themselves into the histories of POC. This detailed description of the planning process written by Sue Bell Yank (an arts commentator and one of the Funeral book authors) contrasts with Grossi's narrative. While Yank highlights frictions, uncertainties, and hiccups in the planning process, Grossi's published article is much more opaque – emphasizing what practitioners can learn from the project's premise rather than its flaws. The project leaders' vagueness about objectives and outcomes, as well as their inexperience with local dynamics made community members wary. One must set aside one's own goals out of deference for the community, while also not forcing the community to strain for narrative or intention. Yank commends the project leaders for what she perceives to be a successful balancing act: "they have allowed a culture to which they do not belong to collaboratively determine the contextual framework and realize a large part of the content of the event, while simultaneously seizing certain aesthetic opportunities when they arise."
In The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden describes how institutions and agencies "are challenged daily to become accountable to the diverse urban public" (7). Indeed, "outreach" as a concept proceeds from the white institution's historical failure to include community members of color as both interpreters and target audience members. "Inreach" similarly proceeds from the white institution's tokenization of its limited or nonexistent pool of POC staff and/or its occupation and gentrification of communities of color (both physically and epistemically). As such, she stresses the necessity of project leaders to "work for the community ... rather than trying to control grand plans and strategies from the top down" (77). So-called professional public historians must learn humility, and offer our services to disenfranchised populations without demanding conformity to our narratives. It is not community members' collective responsibility to commit the time and labor to support our creative visions, or be treated as props to legitimize class projects. Public history must be transported out of the white middle-class professional world. But for now, institutions ought to offer up resources and forums as tools and sites to enact communal historiographic reparation.