This post was originally published on Defender Network

By Aswad Walker

The Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy in partnership with the Emancipation Park Conservancy recently hosted a community forum, “Historic Preservation vs. Wealth Building: Is Equity Possible?”

Zion Escobar, executive director of the HFTC emphatically answers that question in the affirmative.

“Yes, equity is possible, yes it will be challenging to ensure 360-degree accountability, and yes the challenge is well worth it given the outcome of generational wealth building,” said Escobar, foreshadowing the direction of the event’s conversation facilitated by moderator and ABC13 anchor Erica Simon and focused on the insights of three panelists from across the country with decades of real-world experiences and victories in this battle space.

Those panelists included Brent Leggs, executive director, African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (Washington D.C.); Chenee Joseph, president & CEO, Sweet Auburn Historic District Development Corporation (Atlanta); and Marimba Milliones, president & CEO Hill Community Development Corporation (Pittsburgh).

But before the panel discussion and Q&A, Simon shared these critical pieces of information:

  • Within the Freedmen’s Town Heritage District, 31.9% of contributing historical resources are assessed as being in below-average condition.
  • 17.7% of contributing historical resources are assessed as being unsound or in poor condition and at risk of collapse or demolition.
  • 63% of contributing historical resources are occupied by renters.
  • Eleven vacant properties owned by the City of Houston pose the highest risk for insensitive new construction such as high-rise commercial projects.

“So, after decades of disinvestment, exclusionary policies, urban renewal, gentrification, the stats highlight why obviously there’s such a critical need for an equitable approach to all of this, to historic preservation as a whole and economic investment in Freedmen’s Town and beyond,” said Simon.

The forum comes as, according to the HFTC, the City of Houston is in the process of realigning its objectives in response to Freedmen’s Town, which has “found a way for decades to survive despite countless numbers of failed masterplans that focused on one problem, which was affordable housing.”

The premise of the forum rested upon the idea that for equity to be possible, a combination of economic development, historical preservation and sustainability must be in play.

Q&A Highlights

Q: Is an equitable model combining preservation, wealth building, and heritage tourism even possible?

LEGGS: I would say it is, for sure. Our approach is, the very first step is to protect. You cannot build an economy and a heritage tourism economy if the historic resources don’t exist. So, you got to protect the assets. And then… [you’ve got to use] real estate as an economic development strategy… linking together culture and development.

JOSEPH: There also has to be respect and inclusion for the entities that own those properties. Because what happens a lot of times when we have tourism is that there is an unintentional and sometimes intentional exploitation that occurs. There has to be this balance. Because it’s great that we want to bring people into the neighborhood, but we also have to make sure that we share in those profits and all the fruits that are produced so that we can continue to provide something that people would want to come and see.

Q: How do you do preservation right?

LEGGS: We are great at elevating these threats [to historic places] through a moral imperative. We’re not so strong at making the economic argument about the economic impact of historic preservation… [and] we might be putting the preservation economy into a box if we are only looking at it through the lens of heritage tourism. It is real estate development, It is arts and culture development. It is affordable housing and so much more than just heritage tourism or a tourism economy.

JOSEPH: I also think it’s education, because as our neighborhoods revitalize and we try to mitigate the gentrification as much as possible, you have all these new people showing up, and they really don’t know anything about why this place is important… and being respectful of the fabric of why this neighborhood exists.

Q: How do you inform young people about what’s going on (gentrification, etc.) when young people don’t take the time to come be informed?

MILLIONES: I think that connecting with existing organizations and systems that house or support young people is really where we should be. And I think folks like us can create curriculums and make it easier for folks to get young people involved and interested. One of the things I’m really big on in the Hill is being tech-forward. I want to see all of the murals have a QR code where you can pull up the artist, metaverse, etc. Those are the types of things that will keep young people engaged. But the information is not going to change. So, we can start working on the stories of our neighborhood locally, and taking it to the community center, the schools, and say, “Hey, can you start sharing this with the kids.”

Q: How do you partner with city governments to do this work?

JOSEPH: We, as community development corporations are taken for granted, regardless of who your administration is. The majority of the affordable housing units that are on the ground right now are held by CDCs. And CDCs have maintained that affordability whether or not a subsidy was available. And yet, when resources do become available, what we’re told is, “You don’t necessarily have the capacity.” That’s the code word. That can put a strain on a relationship. So, what we have to do is go back to the advocacy and the organizing. When we’ve got the support of the people, that will bring the attention that we need a lot of times in government spaces because they realize it’s not just this little organization that you’re having to contend with, you’re dealing with a whole neighborhood here, a whole community that determines whether or not you’re going to be re-elected. So, now, you’re going to have to listen. We talk about all the time, having a seat at the table. We’re having to remind our government officials, we built the table.

LEGGS: (Regarding the politics of preservation), what I’ve seen in engaging with mayors all across the country, they need to be educated. They are novice in their understanding of the economic and cultural benefits of preservation.

Q: How do we get folk who left our historic Black communities to come back home to uplift those communities?

MILLIONES: I think we have to find not just ways for people to come home physically, but for people to come home in other ways. Maybe you can give to an annual campaign. Maybe you can invest significantly into this specific project. Maybe you can provide technical assistance to some of the programs at no additional cost. How can you be connected to home is the fundamental question that I’m asking myself right now.