Managing History Blog 4, A Spectre Haunting Elfreth’s Alley

Andrew Hurley’s book Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, was somewhat different than what I had predicted it would be like from the title. It’s not that the book doesn’t live up to the title but rather that it bucks the previous use of the word “revitalization” in connection with “inner cities” with its premise regarding collaborative urban history as a tool for preservation and renewal in urban settings. Often times these words together are advocating for some sort of coded gentrification but Hurley’s work is in opposition to this and in fact advocates giving inner city residents a sense of personal investment in historical narratives. It is completely counter to past coded use of “revitalization.” The conflict faced in trying to do public history in a capitalist society is central to Hurley’s work. Hurley uses several chapters to draw on specific attempts at such revitalization, and where they failed and/or succeeded. There is a particular focus given to efforts in St. Louis, although Hurley does attempt a broader survey of public history projects across the nation. In the final chapter Hurley makes his advocacy all the more explicit by going into research methodology and laying out a guide for public historians.

This tension created by capitalism is present from the first page of the preface In Hurley’s book and is something to consider in our own work with Elfreth’s Alley. We face a somewhat different situation due to the socio-economic differences between Elfreth’s Alley and the inner city as described in Hurley’s work, but capitalism is still a concern. Creating an exhibit or other such historical work for Elfreth’s Alley has to be done so in the context of doing “good” historical work but we also at all times must be conscious of how this will engage the public and those who reside in the alley. It’s not an impossible proposition to revitalize Elfreth’s Alley in such a way but the spectre of capitalism does hang over our work whether or not we’re conscious of it at all times. Hurley’s work while not entirely mirroring our situation does provide a guide that may prove helpful in the coming weeks.

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