Some time ago I mentioned Seattle’s reporter on the “Heritage Beat”, Knute Berger, who posts by the name Mossback. Over the summer, while I was gone, mossback produced a really to-the-point column on heritage preservation: Help wanted: A ‘Sierra Club’ for historic preservation to fight development. Unusually for heritage conservation advocates, Mossback cares as much about indigenous archaeology as about historic buildings, and he does a terrific job writing about both. Take for example, the following quote, from the above article, which speaks to many of the same issues currently plaguing the Glenrose Cannery site (it’s long, so you’ll have to click below):
Cultural resource professionals are the ones asking the kinds of questions that excite me as a journalist who wants to know more about this place. What does a mountain mean to people who have lived here 10,000 years? What should it be called, Rainier or Tahoma or Tacoma or Ti’Swaq (“tea-swawk”), as some Puyallup tribal members have proposed? What is in that pile of 3,000-year-old seashells? How did people live here in ancient times, and was it anything like we live now? Is that Denny’s diner in Ballard really a landmark, even if it’s only 40 years old? Is the place we want to expand the 520 bridge a burial ground of someone’s ancestors? What are the histories worth uncovering, and which are best left alone?
To me the preservation of our collective heritage is a no-brainer. But unfortunately, while it is important, it is often an after-thought, or worse, it’s considered a nuisance or waste of time.
This is because the laws seem designed to mitigate the damage of so-called progress. So much of the resource work isn’t for the joy of knowledge, of getting closer to our past. It’s on a check list of hurdles, the list of risks to be documented.
The money and the momentum are not with historic preservation or archaeology or expanding our knowledge and heritage, or confirming our connections to place. The momentum is with the builders, the developers, the engineers, the transportation policy makers, the shovel-ready folks who don’t care much about the past. They want a future built on a blank slate.
Our modern economy pushes and encourages us to bulldoze and steamroller the past, despite the rules. It often pretends that history is something that happened somewhere else, or casts it as a barrier to a brighter future.
That’s just one snippet from the article (emphasis in original) which in a narrow sense is about the massive road development along the Seattle waterfront, but in a broader sense is about how we talk about “cultural resources”. As he continues:
I’ll be honest with you. People have no idea what “cultural resources” are. “Cultural” sounds like art, and “resources” are something you exploit, or use up. Forests are called “resources” now. People are called “resources” too, just like coal and oil: “human resources.” Who ever wants to go to the Human Resources Department? Sounds like they will serve you up as Soylent Green. History, culture and heritage, apparently, have no inherent value except as a consumables, a resource.
Most people have never heard of NEPA, SEPA, SHPOs, TCPs or Section 106. Most people don’t know that protecting cultural resources is something written into our laws, rules, and regulations.
But people are interested in artifacts, landscapes, landmarks, graves, myths, and most of all, stories.
Mossback: get out of my head! I mean, I use the “Cultural Resource Management” speak as well but it is entirely true: call something a resource – a human, an archaeological site, a tree – and it is automatically categorized as something to be consumed. I am nobody’s goddamn resource. We could really, really use a Mossback up here in Soviet Canuckistan. Note the high quality of the comments on his pieces as well. Maybe he likes poutine? Maple Syrup? Roe on Kelp? Maybe the ASBC should try to bring him up, or the archaeology forum.
I’m just gonna quickly mention, because I pilfered some of his prose, that Mossback has a book out called Pugetopolis, which looks excellent, and a wide-ranging blog of the same name. Also, he is currently soliciting for Heritage Turkeys 2010 – bad heritage decisions from the archaeological and architectural perspective, and he explicitly looks for examples from this side of the border (2009 list). Go to it! Email him your Turkeys, or post them here, but let’s also have a discussion about his highly apt article.