Whose Voices are We Hearing?

Last night I went to a presentation of the results from a historic survey conducted in a nearby Saint Paul neighborhood. It was generally a good presentation, with a lot of historic photos and some good rationale for areas for further study within the community.

One thing that really hit me, though, was the study's focus on demographic data. In many cases, the presenter would out up a slide of a house, call it the "SwensonJohnsonAnderson House," (for the original owners, which is standard preservation practice), and give a fair amount of detail about the owners, culled from sources such as the census, the Dual City Blue Books, and other demographic data  — along the lines of "Mr. SwensonJohnsonAnderson was a clerk for the Northern Pacific Railroad, whose family had emigrated to America from Sweden at the turn of the century."

To some extent, I understand this impulse. I know that the SHPO and Saint Paul HPC offices have asked for similar information from me in projects in the past, and I certainly know that much of the value of historic preservation is to use these buildings that remain to tell people's stories.

But I think, at this point of our history, it's wrong to tell the story in that way.

Bear with me.

We may know a lot about Mr. SwensonJohnsonAnderson from the records of the time. But in general, due to how records are collected, we know next to nothing about Mrs. SwensonJohnsonAnderson. Maybe she was Swedish as well, or for all we know, she was from Russia, or China, or anywhere else. Maybe she was Native American, or black, or Latina. While Mr. SwensonJohnsonAnderson toiled away at Northern Pacific, maybe she taught music, or took in laundry, or any of a dozen other ways women made money in those days that were not included in census definitions of employment. The data gives us next to no information about the SwensonJohnsonAnderson children. Sometimes, if Mr. SwensonJohnsonAnderson passed away, we gained a little more information about the widow SwensonJohnsonAnderson, but often this was not the case. In general, we get a little bit of prices information about one member of the milt, who happened to be the husband.

Now, some of you may be saying "Well, it's better to know at least a little about the family than nothing at all." Others may say "From that data, we can make assumptions about the rest of the family."

But I'm here to say that knowing that data, mainly only about the man of the family, is incredibly dangerous to historic preservation as a field and to our history in general.

It by nature prioritizes that data over what we don't know about that family, and gives us a flat and inaccurate portrayal of the family. It perpetuates the idea that America's history is one of middle class white people, which is not necessarily the case.

In recent years, when I've been asked to provide demographic information as a project, I've generally resisted doing so, precisely for these reasons — but I know the client wants it, so I am in an inheres conflict. And I'm particularly interested in knowing how other preservation professionals handle this dilemma.


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