On Public History and Gentrification

“Public historians can participate in the process of placemaking and contribute to local residents’ sense of place by adding a sense of location to local residents’ sense of emotional attachment, helping residents and visitors alike to see what ordinarily cannot be seen: both the memories attached to places and the larger social and economic processes that shaped how the places were made.”
– David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory”

If placemaking is one practical application of public history, could peacemaking be another? Conflict resolution is usually seen as antithetical to scholarship: the point is to contest, to critique, to problematize. But could methods of public history also be applied to promote understanding among people with divergent experiences and aims, even as we understand the divergence to be informed by historical inequalities of access to power?

Before going into praxis, let’s talk about a particular place: Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in Los Angeles that is experiencing gentrification as a result of relatively low rents and proximity to the Arts District/downtown Los Angeles.

To the discerning public humanist, reading “low rents” signals histories of institutionalized discrimination and economic subjugation, leading to the current situation; historical institutionalized racism in the form of redlining versus contemporary institutionalized racism in the form of speculative property investment that converts homes to condos, renovated “flips,” or gyms and other non-residential uses. Of course, this is a reductive summary. To begin to know the history of the neighborhood would require many rich and varied sources of information including oral histories, census data, videos, and maps.

Gentrification is ongoing. As Boyle Heights residents face the threat of displacement with rent increases, community activists have staged protests against recently arrived art galleries, resulting in the closure of one particularly contested art space. These conflicts, between residents and developers, between protesters and art institutions, are important and should be archived in a way that situates them in the history of the place and the people who have lived there.

In the fall of 2016, I presented an idea to our Methods of Public Humanities course of a digital public archive on the history of gentrification in Boyle Heights. This would serve the double function of preserving memory and visualizing knowledge in ways that could help facilitate understanding. After reading David Glassberg’s “Public History and the Study of Memory,” I am particularly inspired by the possibilities of applied public history. Glassberg wrote, “[Public historians] confront the problem of historical representation on a daily basis, immersed in a world in which the boundaries between knower and known, between subjectivity and objectivity, have long been collapsed.” (23)

Perhaps peacemaking is not an application of public history, but a potential outcome. We know that archives are not neutral; that privilege is embedded into the very structure of an archive. If this archive project were to be realized, the project’s leadership team needs to include Boyle Heights residents–otherwise, it risks perpetuating the same issue it seeks to understand. As Glassberg wrote, “In presenting history to the public, [public historians] soon discover that the public is presenting history back to them as well.” (23)

Works Cited

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian, vol. 18, no. 2, 1996, pp. 7–23., www.jstor.org/stable/3377910

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.