We’re all familiar with endangered species lists. Birds, reptiles, even insects threatened with extinction receive crucial attention from governments and conservationists worried about their fate. But endangered buildings? Endangered islands? Endangered graveyards?
That’s the business of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which for 35 years has been sounding the alarm over the abuse and neglect of America’s cultural heritage. Each year the Trust issues a list of the 11 Most Endangered Places in the United States, from campsites of civil rights marchers in Alabama to ancient pictographs in Utah. This year’s list, released Wednesday, spotlights a Japanese-American internment camp in Idaho, a 19th-century Jewish funerary in Hartford, Conn., a crumbling adobe fort in Arizona where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed during the Mexican Revolution, and more.
As with species extinction, the culprits endangering historic places are familiar: development pressures, climate impacts such as sea level rise (the Boston Harbor Islands were listed last year, deferred maintenance of fading structures to make way for “the new.” And as with endangered species, the list is aimed at alerting the public to imperiled places before it’s too late.
“Historic places offer an opportunity to explore the truth of who we are,” Katherine Malone-France, the Trust’s chief preservation officer, said in an interview. “To lose any one of them is to diminish us all.”
The list also is a window into the changing nature of historic preservation over 35 years. No longer a dainty affair of interest mostly to ladies who lunch, preservation today confronts issues of equity, immigration, environmental justice, and the untold stories of marginalized communities. Malone-France says that 55 percent of the places on the list over the past decade have been associated with women or communities of color.
In 1988, the first year the Trust issued its endangered places list, the sites seemed fairly traditional: Civil War battlefields, 19th-century mills, Colonial-era churches, and presidential homes. Today the focus is not just on buildings or landscapes but on the human narratives embedded in the earth and wood. “What you see over the 35 years is an increasing value on the powerful alchemy of place and story,” said Malone-France.
She points to the Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome, Idaho, where 13,000 Japanese-American citizens were interred during World War II. It’s a profound site of conscience which is threatened, ironically perhaps, by a planned wind farm that could install turbines within the camp’s footprint and diminish the deep sense of isolation a visitor experiences there. Preservationists are grappling with how to reconcile two competing goods — remembrance and renewable energy — but the priority has to be avoiding desecration of the site.
Also on the list is the Olivewood Cemetery in Houston. Founded just 10 years after Emancipation, it is the resting place for thousands of freed slaves and their ancestors. Anyone who imagines historic preservation as the pastime of elites need only see the fierce efforts by grassroots volunteers to remove brambles and silt after every storm, when flooding from the nearby White Oak Bayou damages the burial plots.
Olivewood is a good example of how the preservation movement has dovetailed with growing awareness of climate change. Because of the carbon embodied in building materials, and the energy required to manufacture and transport them, it is almost always “greener” to save an existing building than erect a new one. In that sense, preservation is also climate action. Another site urgently in need of protection is Jamestown, Va. The country’s first English settlement is at risk because of rising water, sinking land, and increased rainfall.
Including an endangered place on the Trust’s list won’t stop the rain, or even slow the commercial development that encroaches on hallowed lands. But it can make a difference. Kathy Abbott, director of Boston Harbor Now, says that last year’s designation of the Harbor Islands helped fund efforts to preserve Native American archeologic sites dating back 12,000 years, such as shell middens discovered on Spectacle Island, that are vulnerable to storms and erosion linked to climate change. “It heightened all of our partners’ sensitivity and levels of work around climate, indigenous people, cultural resources and engagement,” she wrote in an email.
Telling our national stories, even — or especially — the difficult ones, helps us better prepare to write the next chapter, and maybe a happier ending. For today’s preservationists, saving America’s historic places is not about the past at all, but the future.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.