Civil Rights

Preservation without Gentrification? PPS charts a new course

“As preservationists, we believe that good buildings contribute to a good quality of life, a good city, a good environment,” said PPS Executive Director Brent Runyan. “That doesn’t mean we don’t care about buildings, but we don’t care about buildings as though they don’t have people in them. We’re going to prioritize what our work does for and to people. That’s a big shift.”
Photo for Preservation without Gentrification? PPS charts a new course

Published on November 20, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) announced the rollout of a new strategic plan that will “shape the future of preservation into one that is more equitable than ever before.” The PPS plan seeks to “expand its sphere of influence beyond its traditional constituencies to better serve the whole of Providence, as well as co-create new tools that help all neighborhoods shape their futures while preserving their pasts.”

In the fall of 2020, PPS’s board and staff took part in anti-racism awareness workshops conducted by Rhode Island for Community and Justice. Alongside preservation colleagues nationally, the organization began working to acknowledge the culpability of preservation in the nation’s legacy of injustice. It is now undertaking a review of all its programs, including the Historic Property Markers.

To begin putting their new guiding principles into action, PPS is launching several initiatives. PPS is working with the South Providence Neighborhood Association to build meaningful relationships and co-create tools that can positively affect neighborhoods underserved by preservation. They are also working to secure funding to continue their workforce training program in construction skills specific to old buildings.

In a press release PPS writes:

“PPS takes history seriously, and in doing so recognizes the disproportionate impact and consequences that preservation can have on some residents of Providence, particularly people of color, immigrants, and those with limited financial means. Historic preservation has a role to play in addressing 21st Century challenges related to affordable housing, environmental justice, and telling the full American story, and [PPS] recognizes that it can only succeed by connecting meaningfully with all the communities of Providence.”

UpriseRI spoke with PPS Executive Director Brent Runyan about the the new strategic plan and “democratizing preservation.”

UpriseRI: I love preservation on the one hand, but on the other hand I know that preservation oftentimes leads to gentrification. If we think about Benefit Street, which is a beautiful row of houses and a big success story in preservation – we essentially evicted a Black community. What I got from your press release is that the Providence Preservation Society is going to be reprioritizing, in some ways, what preservation means here in Providence with an end towards preventing that sort of thing in the future. But I’d like you to explain it.

Brent Runyan: This is a conversation we’re having nationally at different preservation organizations. We got started in 1956 because of the threat to Benefit Street. It was because of Brown University doing demolition to make dormitories. They’d already done one whole block of demolition and there was another one planned. So the PPS was organized and influenced by architectural historians who saw value in the buildings. We weren’t influenced by sociologists. In the fifties there were systems in place and racism – systemic racism – was not being discussed. It just was.

PPS was in lockstep with the predominant thinking of that time, except we were a little bit innovative because what we were going to do was urban renewal. The city was planning to demolish Benefit Street, but we said let’s do something different. Let’s use preservation and infill instead of demolition. PPS focused on preserving the buildings not on preserving people in place. That wasn’t a concern at the time. It was more – restore the buildings and get middle-class people to move back to the city because in the fifties, people were fleeing.

UpriseRI: White flight.

Runyan: Right. They were civic minded in one sense, but there was less concern about people of color and poor people. And it wasn’t just PPS, but it was the orbit in which we operated.

UpriseRI: I wasn’t trying to cast aspersions on just PPS…

Industrial Trust Company aka Superman Building

Runyan: That’s okay. We have to examine ourselves. It wasn’t just PPS, it was the systems under which PPS operated. Today we have to examine the operators who glom onto what PPS is doing, because people are using our arguments for preserving the Superman Building to say, “Why fix Superman if Kennedy Plaza is going to remain the the way it is? Let’s get rid of all the poor people.” There are people using our arguments for their own agendas, just as in the fifties and sixties there were people buying up houses because they saw that there was an effort to improve the area. People were saying, “I’m going to buy that house and get rid of the poor people.” It was this whole system of gentrification and displacement.

UpriseRI: Right now, people are working on ideas that might avoid gentrifying an area when neighborhood conditions are improved. For instance, I write a lot about the Port of Providence. There’s work there to limit the polluting industries so people can breathe. But there’s also a fear that if we were to improve conditions in the Port, the communities that live there wouldn’t benefit from it. They would just have to move, for economic reasons, to a part of the state with more terrible infrastructure that hurts their health. How do you keep people in their homes as an area is improved and housing rates rise?

Runyan: One of the systems in which we operate is capitalism and without some kind of social guards in place gentrification will happen. It’s inevitable. There are things that I’ve seen in other communities – co-housing, land trusts, easements that a lot of our CDCs [Community Development Corporations] put on places they renovate – but these don’t necessarily affect the house across the street, if a private person owns it.

UpriseRI: That’s the plan, right? You go to a street that’s blighted and you start fixing up the worst houses – those that are empty that you can get cheap. Other houses start to rise in value and the whole street goes up a level, which is very nice for the people who live there, but only if they can afford to continue to live there. They may find themselves suddenly priced out of their own home, because somebody fixed up a few houses nearby.

Runyan: In my opinion people who have been in their home for awhile – or if they’re older or on fixed income – there should be some tax abatement as taxes start to rise. I had this conversation with Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos. Preservation is important. Everybody wants their neighborhood to be improved, but it’s the public policy side that needs to ensure that people aren’t displaced. It’s not the capitalists who are going to do that. You have to have the public policy side working and that’s where advocates come in.

Church on Adelaide

When we did anti-racism training with our board and staff last fall, we used a real life case study, the church on Adelaide Avenue. That’s a former African-American church that’s been vacant for 10 years. And it was right where the historic district ends, which is mostly full of well-to-do white people, but when the neighborhood began it wasn’t. That was real quandry because we wanted preservation of the church. It was important architecturally, but also culturally. But the developer was planning to build small units, probably pricing the units higher than most people in neighborhood could afford, so the neighborhood was seeing this as gentrification. Then a third voice came in, this young guy from the neighborhood who said, “I need a place in my neighborhood I can move to, there’s not enough housing.” He could afford it the higher rates. PPS didn’t know where to come in, so we didn’t say anything.

I don’t know how we’re going to get involved in these advocacy issues going forward, but we are more aware that our voice is important. And if we use it without thinking of the potential negative outcomes, that’s bad.

UpriseRI: You said that the PPS has been working through some new policies…

Runyan: Aspirations.

UpriseRI: So tell me a little bit about that conversation. What were the issues you were trying to address and what are you moving towards?

Runyan: One of them is putting people first. As preservationists, we believe that good buildings contribute to a good quality of life, a good city, a good environment. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about buildings, but we don’t care about buildings as though they don’t have people in them. We’re going to prioritize what our work does for and to people. That’s a big shift. I think we’ve always thought it, but we’ve never said it explicitly.

We’ve been thinking about a kind of restorative justice – a restorative agenda – and how it looks for our work to be restorative to the harms that we in preservation have caused. There’s a lot of harm, and we’re trying to think, “How can we repair harm and how can we avoid harm in the future?” My entire staff, every time we think about something, like a special event in South Providence, we think, what are the potential outcomes? What are the potential harms? How do we work with the neighborhood to provide potential benefit to them? Let’s say it’s a fundraiser for us. We need the money, but can there be other benefits? It’s a different kind of thinking. This is a national thing, a kind of balancing the scales. For instance, right now, less than 10% of nationally registered places have an association with nonwhite history.

UpriseRI: Less than 10% have an association with non-white history. Wow.

Runyan: A stated documented association with nonwhite history. Most markers probably have some association with nonwhite history, but not explicitly. Rhode Island recently amended the National Register information for College Hill to include the contributions of Black people. African-Americans and Cape Verdeans should have been in there from the beginning, but in the seventies they were going with documented history – and the documentation was all about white people. That’s an example of repairing the harm and uplifting the history.

We want to do a similar thing with our historic house marker program. Probably every name in the program is a white name. They built the houses, they were the architects. Now, I don’t know that we’re going to have time to be historians and dig up histories, but how can we honor a cultural history or a place associated with cultural history? Maybe it has a different nomenclature, but we’re trying to think about how to do that.

Marker on the PPS Office Building

UpriseRI: The PPS offices, where we are now, was the first Black public schoolhouse in Providence, for instance.

Runyan: Exactly. And then all the stuff that Rhode Island Latino Arts is doing – we supported them by getting a grant several years ago to try to document places that we could list on the National Register, but all the places they identified, that were old enough, have been demolished. How can we honor those sites? Is there a way to do that?

UpriseRI: I can see something like that being done. There’s a marker for the Celebrity Club, and that’s been torn down, and I’ve seen the marker for the Snow Town Uprising.

Runyan: Yeah. We have to figure out how to do it. One thing we’re cognizant of is that we can’t go out and put a marker on a place as significant for Latino history because it’s not our history to tell. So we have to figure out how to form trust with communities of color and the organizations that work there and form some kind of arrangement to do that. And that may look completely different than a house marker. I don’t know.

UpriseRI: So the first step in that is this new set of priorities to position yourselves so communities can come to see you as a trusted partner and not necessarily someone who’s interested in the same old stuff since 1956.

Runyan: I think we start to do that by acknowledging the harm that has been done – that we’ve done – and taking concrete steps to repair the harm and make the work we do more equitable. We want to rebalance our advocacy to be at least 50% not on the East Side of Providence. That’s a five-year goal. But to do that we need people to ask us to help. We can’t just be paternalistic and step in uninvited.

UpriseRI: Like the Prince Hall Masonic Temple near the Port. It’s a beautiful building, but it just got decimated by fire, and is on your most endangered properties list. That building needs a lot of love, but unless there’s a community that wants to give love to this building, it’s going to be hard to step in.

Runyan: Exactly. We’ve actually been working with people on that since January and we have formed a level of trust. It’s getting to a point where it’s a little bit beyond our ability to provide resources, but that’s a great example. We just asked, “How can we help?” We want to just be helpful, but figuring out what tools we can provide has been challenging. Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of One Neighborhood Builders, during our strategic planning interview with her, asked, “What does PPS bring to the table?” It’s a good question. What do we bring to the table? What we bring, I think, is level of confidence, if people can trust us. We’re established, reputable.

We’ve also been talking a lot about allocating resources. If we’re raising a lot of money, how is that being used to benefit communities of color that haven’t been advantaged for so long?

Broad Street Synagogue

Your comment about the most endangered properties, that is something we talked about because we ask for suggestions from the community, right? But who is actually hearing us? It’s our community – a certain type of person who is interested in preservation. I guarantee you that no one who lives around the Broad Street Synagogue, for example, has any idea that we consider that our most endangered property. Our five-year goal is to increase the percentage of places on the list from communities of color or underrepresented communities in preservation. How are we going to do that? I have no idea.

UpriseRI: One of the things I’ve learned over the 10 years I’ve been doing my work is that sometimes you just have to just be in spaces where you’re the only one who looks you. Get comfortable being an outsider and learn to listen, and not impose yourself. Work to understand and decenter yourself. This is something that takes getting used to. I like to think that people trust me. But when I first showed up, no one had any reason to trust this cisgendered middle aged white guy. Part of the process is to constantly check yourself and constantly reappraise and truly listen when people tell you you’re getting it wrong.

Kennedy Plaza

You had mentioned PPS’s arguments being used by groups with agendas and you mentioned Kennedy Plaza and the Superman building. That’s something I think about a lot because right now it feels to me that the effort to move or get rid of the buses in the Kennedy Plaza is all about not wanting poor people there because owners feel the presence of poor people and people of color hurts the value of their properties. How do you keep people from using your arguments? What kind of arguments can you construct to make it less likely that they can use your arguments?

Runyan: Patricia Raub is on our board. I only knew her as an architectural historian when I asked her to join the board but she has been key to us understanding the nuances of Kennedy Plaza. I’m a rider. Patrica isn’t, but she’s involved with the RI Transit Riders. She’s really informed our positioning. We’ve been advocating, not for a particular location, but for whatever is done to be for the benefit of the riders. But as far as how to formulate arguments, I think we have to ask, “Why is it important to preserve Superman?”

In the past, we would talk about the architecture, but what we have to think about is the whole area. It should be for everyone. Superman should include affordability because a thriving downtown has to include all people at all levels. We have to be more explicit in stating the things we care about, but we don’t quite have it worked out what that would look like. With regards to the bus hub, you run into politics there. We’ve come down to supporting a solution that would include better services for the riders, even if it’s not in Kennedy Plaza.

UpriseRI: That does seem to be where we’re heading.

Runyan: Will we ever get a building built in Kennedy Plaza? I doubt it.

UpriseRI: And do we want that? I keep hearing about turning it into more green space. Turning it all into a miniature Central Park. I also don’t think moving the bus hub will get rid of the poor people. Burnside Park is still a nice place with benches and a fountain and advocacy groups reaching out to people there. Church Beyond the Walls is there, servicing the homeless, for instance.

Is there anything else I should be asking about?

Runyan: There’s been a dearth of people who are trained in how to work on the old buildings in a formal way. Since the sixties, there’s been a decline in people with that knowledge. If you think about any construction training program in the state, none of them have anything to do with old buildings, yet more than 70% of all the buildings in Providence are old. So we started a window workshop program for under and unemployed people a couple of years ago, and we’ve graduated 17 people. I think 80% of them are working in the field now.

We paid for them to go through the program. They get out and they earn at least $15 an hour – usually more. We’re really focused on trying to open a community shop where we can do more training and then people can come in and rent the tools they need. We’ve had several people who started their own business. There are low barrier to entry. But there’s also training for homeowners who want to understand how to do something in their house. We started with windows, and we’re hoping to branch out into plaster, masonry, slate, all these things. Related to that is the fact that a lot of us do our own rehab. We want to help people form a community around being a rehabber because a lot of times people do things that are bad for their buildings.

They don’t understand that there are better ways to do rehab and they don’t understand when they should do something versus when they should hire someone. We had a contractor referral list – reputable people that other members have used – we want to make that more public. We want to provide how-to videos, training, and some kind of online community for people to ask questions. The housing crisis is not just about building new housing. It’s also about helping people preserve what they have and live in a better way – making it healthier, more energy efficient and things like that.

UpriseRI: I really hope that PPS can lead a national conversation on changing the way we think about preservation and gentrification. Thank you for your time.

Founded in 1956, The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) supports and advocates for historic preservation, thoughtful design, and people-centered planning. PPS is one of the nation’s oldest and most respected preservation organizations and is supported, in part, by 500 local and regional members. Over its more than 60 years, PPS has accomplished its mission through education and advocacy, and has established itself as a leader in citywide planning and preservation.

Did you enjoy this article?


More Civil Rights Coverage