By John Ruch
The hot trend in historic preservation is diversifying who and what gets remembered beyond ye olde rich, straight, white people and their mansions. Nedra Deadwyler is among the movement’s Atlanta pioneers with Civil Bikes, a program of tours of Sweet Auburn’s history and life.
Still lagging is diversifying who makes those decisions and writes those histories in a preservation world structured around arcane rules and gatekeepers. Now Deadwyler is taking a crack at that, too, with Save Your Spaces, a May 21 day-long “preservation festival” that aims to “educate, inspire and activate the everyday person to become involved in cultural heritage and historic preservation.”
The idea is “rethinking and democratizing what is significant, what is historic, what is important,” said Deadwyler, who hopes to make Save Your Spaces an annual event and maybe even an organization. Either way, it’s a separate effort from Civil Bikes, she said.
The free program of workshops and short-film screenings will blend do-it-yourself documentation and connections to preservation experts and efforts. “Everyone’s welcome,” said Deadwyler, but the focus is on the history of minority and marginalized communities: Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQ, women, immigrant and/or working class.
Indicative of the sort of spaces that might be saved is where the festival will be held — two community-based hubs in gentrifying neighborhoods. The Ke’nekt Cooperative is a business incubator in Westview and CreateATL is a coworking, event and business startup space in Adair Park.
Deadwyler said the presenter mix is “a little bit of grassroots and some professionals,” but the program is all about involving regular people. “It’s not really directed toward preservationists… It’s to empower people to do the work of preservation,” she said.
The expert panelists include Hope Iglehart, the new director of engagement and African American heritage at the nonprofit Historic Athens, and Shari Williams, leader of archaeological investigations at an area in rural Alabama called the Ridge where Indigenous and settler communities — of both free and enslaved people — long lived. Former Atlanta City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong, an attorney and event sponsor, will speak about preservation law.
Community organizations represented in the workshops include Sweet Auburn Works and the Early Edgewood-Candler Park BiRacial History Project. Government experts will include Melissa Jest, the African American programs coordinator for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division, and Matt Adams, the City of Atlanta’s interim assistant director of the Historic Preservation Studio. Among the technical topics of discussion will be the concepts of “land stewardship” and land trusts to preserve landscapes in perpetuity and “embed anti-racist thinking” in the strategy.
DIY projects in heritage and history are a major focus, such as a workshop on making one’s own historic-marker sign, the results of which will be displayed at Adair Park’s MINT Gallery. Dr. Christopher Jarrett, an Atlanta physician who hails from Sierra Leone, will show his film about that country’s Tour de Lunsar bicycle race. Artemus Jenkins, a photographer and filmmaker who hosts regular screenings at Castleberry Hill’s Peters Street Station gallery, will hold a “walking workshop” to teach people how to document their community with photographs — a recognition of the importance of today’s culture and place.
Not on that list are Atlanta’s established preservation organizations, though that’s a world Deadwyler knows well enough. Besides founding Civil Bikes eight years ago, she’s a recent recipient of a master’s in heritage preservation from Georgia State University and served a couple of years ago on the board of Historic Atlanta, a nonprofit focused on underrepresented history.
Deadwyler said it’s not that she avoided including established organizations, but rather that she focused on those whose method is to “really empower community people.” The traditional preservation world often views grassroots engagement as “chaos,” she said. “People embody their histories… We live it anyway. Why not just go ahead and express it and acknowledge it and embrace it?”
Atlanta is notorious for woefully undemocratic processes on how things get built and is facing a new era of populist pressure to change that “Atlanta Way.” Save Your Spaces has the air of pointing out the similar lack of input on the other end of the construction timescale — what gets preserved and remembered in a demolition-happy town. Diversifying history here often isn’t so much about getting woke as it is about fighting a culture of anti-preservation — the destruction or displacement of entire communities, either deliberate and celebratory or indirect and downplayed. The results for poor and Black communities are as obvious as Downtown’s stadiums and highways that now commemorate powerful people and corporations.
“Even for white people in the South, it’s the same way,” said Deadwyler. “There’s not enough about Cabbagetown… [and other locations of] poor white people’s lives and experiences — and that’s just talking about Black and white [histories].”
Preservation from the bottom up sure sounds like a way for communities to understand their self-worth and to lend a hand to perpetually understaffed, under-resourced preservation organizations. That goes double when it comes to preserving history that a majority may prefer to leave buried, steamrolled or otherwise put out of sight and mind. Deadwyler points to the continuing culture war over The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a 2019 set of stories that won the Pulitzer for centering slavery as a prime mover in American history, but also was criticized by some historians and modified by its editors for some inaccuracies.
“I think it still is a fight,” Deadwyler said of historical preservation and interpretation. “The way we talk about history, it’s really all about power. The way we talk about it really can change the power structure.”
For Save Your Spaces registration and more details, including volunteer opportunities, see saveyourspaces.org.
Cabbagetown, not even crickets. This stuff snoozes. You need more Buckhead City folderol.
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