While the number of people living in concentrated poverty in the United States has decreased between 1990 and 2000, the land area considered severely distressed (where 40% or more of residents live below the poverty level) has increased. This situation poses unique challenges for what to do with the people but also the places that have been left behind in an increasingly information-based global economy.
Community development – defined as “a group of people in a community reaching a decision to initiate a social action process…” (Christenson, 1980) – has promoted affordable housing, commercial development, crime prevention, and youth programs among other things. But it is argued that community development practitioners have not taken full advantage of the history and culture of areas, thus overlooking valuable tools and partnerships to assist in development efforts.
In recent years historic preservation has been suggested as an integral component for community revitalization, especially renewal of our older neighborhoods. Preservationists themselves have actively made an effort to become involved in community revitalization activities. The question then is how to take preservationists interest in community development and through a “social invention” to use historic preservation and the awareness of the importance of history and culture to buttress and reinforce community development efforts in severely distressed areas.
These ideas are explored by reflecting upon a case study of the Ransom Place Historic District in Indianapolis, Indiana – a traditionally African-American neighborhood that throughout the 1990’s sought to use the African-American heritage of the neighborhood to stimulate renewal. The efforts of an African-American preservation visionary Jean Spears are described and analyzed, as well as the good work of those who supported her including J. Reid Williamson, Jr., President of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (HLFI); Suzanne T. Rollins, also from HLFI; David Baker, Administrator, Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission; Dorothy Jones with the Business Operations Services, Inc. Community Development Corporation; Dr. Stanley Warren, Chair of the African-American Landmarks Committee of HLFI; and Spears’ own daughter Claudia Polley who assisted in her mother’s efforts, founded the National Association for African-American Heritage Preservation, Inc. and has since gone on to an international career in museum planning and management.
Ultimately, the case study is used as a theory-building exercise to draw some conclusions on how to infuse community development activities with a historic preservation consciousness, and to use an awareness of local history and culture (or what I call a preservation consciousness) as a tool for renewal – especially in severely distressed areas and in conditions of concentrated poverty.
We reflect upon the case in order to distill principles of good practice for an integrated approach to historic preservation and community development. This investigation is seen as being very timely because of the increasing popularity of the asset-based approach to community development which has, to date, failed to adequately consider the contribution of historic and cultural resources to promoting sustainable development in low-income communities.
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