Innovation Ecosystem

Consciousness raising

Providence Preservation Society develops a new strategic plan, focused on equity and people-centered planning

Image courtesy of the Providence Preservation Society

The cover of the draft of the new strategic plan for the Providence Preservation Society.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/15/21
An interview with Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, on the cusp of developing a new strategic plan focused on inclusion and diversity.
Is there an opportunity to create “a bench by the side of the road” in Providence, in partnership with the Toni Morrison Society, to honor the stories of slaves and their descendants in Rhode Island? How can the boundaries of neighborhoods be redefined by new kinds of housing developments? Which hospital or nursing home in Rhode Island will invest in developing worker housing with daycare centers on their campus? Is there a need to look at opportunities to increase the density of housing outside of vulnerable neighborhoods?
The conflict between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses around city planning was fought during the 1960s and 1970s, but the battle seems to continue across numerous urban fronts, from Woonsocket to Providence to Pawtucket, about what kinds of development will enhance the vibrancy of city life. Is there a way to have the conflict come to life in a series of dramatic presentations around the philosophical battles under girding the conflict between Jacobs and Moses? Would RISD be willing to create a traveling Chautauqua around the design questions raised by such a dramatic re-enactment?

PROVIDENCE – The opening paragraphs of the new strategic plan being developed by the Providence Preservation Society wrestle with a changing emphasis in its approach, putting a renewed focus on people and the communities where they live – and not just on buildings.

The new strategic direction of the Providence Preservation Society is focused on listening and inclusion, rather than a paternalistic, father-knows-best approach, according to Brent Runyon, the executive director.

As he explained some of the challenges during a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, the field of historic preservation has had “a history of being led by mostly male, white academics and architects.”

As a result, Runyon said, “There is very little trust in communities of color for preservationists.” For many living in the underserved communities of the city, “preservation” can sound like a code word for gentrification and displacement.

At a time when the state and the city are grappling with a housing crisis, Runyon expects that the Providence Preservation Society, which was founded in 1956,  will become more involved in housing advocacy, although exactly what that means has not been defined yet.

“I think we have to be,” Runyon said. When the Rhode Island Foundation sent out their survey about how the $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money should be spent, he continued, “I just put housing on every line, because I believe so strongly [in the need for housing]. “Sidewalks are bad and our sewers are crumbling, but if we don’t have housing for all the people who live here, or want to live here, that’s a real issue.”

Runyon predicted that he thinks the Providence Preservation Society will become a strong voice as an advocate for better housing. “I don’t know quite what positions we will take; that is certainly part of a larger discussion, one that will be informed by more diverse voices.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Brent Runyon, executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, on the cusp of launching a new strategic plan with an enlarged focus on inclusion, diversity, and sustainability.

ConvergenceRI: We are living in a time of great disruption, when it comes to defining community and neighborhood and even the definition of what “home” means. What role do you see the Providence Preservation Society playing in moving out of that disruption?
RUNYON: That is a great question. I think one thing is that the Providence Preservation Society, because it is a white-led organization, has a lot to learn about how a community is defined.

I think when we say “community,” we often mean one thing, or depending on the context, but, as I have learned over the last year, we really have to watch the words and think about what they mean, from whomever is at the other end of that statement.

So, I think for us, it is going to be a time of learning, listening, and I think that is something a lot of other organizations similar to us have to do.

ConvergenceRI: You seem to be talking about seeing the world through a different kind of equity lens than you have in the past. Can you be more specific about what you mean about the voices that you need to listen to?
RUNYON: When I talk to people, a lot of people love old buildings, a lot of people like preservation – even though the definition of preservation might mean different things to different people.

But, at least since the 1960s, when preservation was codified in the National Historic Preservation Act, [efforts around] “preservation” have been led by mostly male – and nearly all white – academics and architects. And, as we have been learning, as white people, we bring a certain lens to how the world works.

But, it doesn’t work that way for everyone. For many years, the Preservation Society has been focused on preserving buildings, because we believe in good buildings and quality design and good neighborhoods made up of good buildings – that those are good for people.

But that is sort of a very paternalistic attitude, in thinking that we know what is best for everyone.

And so, that is going to be a big shift [for us], in really trying to work with communities, to work with neighborhoods, to work with interest groups and with individuals, to understand how and why they value certain things in the physical spaces they occupy.

And then, how can we help develop the tools for preservation and planning, to add value to those things they already value.

ConvergenceRI: There is currently a largesse of $1.1 billion in unspent federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act that the state is in the midst of deciding how best to spend it.
A lot of that discussion has focused on housing, affordable housing, and the services that are needed for those who are “unhoused.”
What does not get talked about enough – and you alluded to it in your answers to my first questions – is: what does it mean to belong to a neighborhood?
The Providence Preservation Society is positioned to be able to influence some of those conversations. Could you talk about the kinds of questions that should be asked about these investments? If you were asked to become involved, what might you recommend?
RUNYON: There is a lot of nuance to housing and development of housing. I think some of the ideals we are hoping to inject into our work – and I would hope to bring to such discussions – it might be more as a questioner. As a white person in a seat of power, a table of power, if there are not others able to bring these issues up, I would try to ask: How is housing development going to be done equitably?

Often, [developers] want to put the people who need the most services in neighborhoods that are quote unquote “overburdened.” When you have that kind of neighborhood, where there is a lot of transition, it doesn’t add to stability. Stability helps people build wealth in the long term.

I think we have to look at equity in where housing – and which type of housing – is being built.

I do think that design is important. And, there are ways to increase density throughout all of our neighborhoods. As people, we are generally afraid of change, it takes a lot to get used to new things. But I think there are ways to do it gently, even though urgently, because there is a lot of land that can be developed throughout the city.

I think there has to be some mandate to increase density at all levels and just overcome this human nature that we have against change, especially when it is in our backyard.

I think I have also learned that we need people at the table with different perspectives. Because the people who show up the most to planning meetings are the same people, educated, predominantly white, those who have the time to participate, and who have some understanding of planning issues. We really have to have more people at the table in the discussion to capture those perspectives.

ConvergenceRI: This week, I did a long interview with Katie Hafner, a science writer who is doing a podcast about the lost women of science, women who have made enormous contributions but whose stories have not been told. When it comes to preservation, is there a need to tell the story of what happened in Providence and its neighborhoods?
RUNYON: There definitely is. There is actually a grant application right now called “Telling the Full American Story,” which is coming through the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the American Rescue Plan, so, it is actually coming from the federal government in supporting this fuller story telling about America.

In Providence, that is something we have been talking about a lot, the contributions of African Americans, Africans, Cape Verdeans, Latinos, Asians and others in Providence. Because the last really good survey documentation was done in the 1970s, by the state preservation office, there is a real lack of [data].

It will take resources and historians and community storytellers, and it is really important to uncover those stories, and it is going to be more and more important for preservation organizations going forward.

For instance, we are hopefully going to bring to life some of the information that was created as part of the state preservation commission expanding the National Registry Information for College Hill, about places associated with Blacks and Cape Verdeans.

What we are hoping to do, because that information lives in a report on a website, we are hoping to bring it to life, though some kind of urban trail, to make it more visible. That is an instance where we can take scholarship that was already done and then help bring it out into the public realm.

Another thing we worked a little bit with Rhode Island Latino Arts, documenting places that were associated with Latinos in Providence from the 1950s through he 1970s. Thye did the work, but we supported them with a small grant. We found that [almost] all of the places that they knew of, that were associated with Latinos, had been demolished,

Now we are rethinking, how can we help honor that intangible history, even if the place is now gone.

ConvergencRI: At the beginning of the 20th century, many homes were developed as worker residences. As part of a new future approach to housing development, is there a way for the Providence Preservation Society to connect the history of worker residences with the opportunities for developing worker residences today, with workers able to live right on the campuses of hospitals and nursing homes and schools?
RUNYON: That is certainly being done in other communities. In Baltimore, they developed an old mill and created an intentional community for younger teachers. And, it filled up quickly, because young teachers often do not earn enough money, so an intentional community was created. I thin it is definitely needed in Providence.

Our firefighters our police, our teachers, and our nurses, they can’t afford to live in the city of Providence. I think it would go a long way, being intentional, to develop housing for our service people, who we need to keep our community real and vibrant.

ConverenceRI: Moving forward with the new strategic plan, how important is it to make sure that you are reaching the right audience?
RUNYON That is a good question. We actually just retooled our staff and I hired an outreach coordinator. In the past, we often were wringing our hands, because we were not getting our message out there. Now we have a staff person whose job it is to communicate. We still have to break outside of our bubble.

To do that, she will be charged with engaging with people where they are – with neighborhood associations, with PTOs, with business groups, meeting people where they are, telling them who we are, and trying to build some level of trust.

That is going to be an uphill battle, because there is very little trust in communities of color for preservationists.

ConvergenceRI: What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
RUNYON: One thing we are really excited about, which goes beyond our advocacy, is our educational work. The fact is, most of the workforce in the construction trade have little or no training in how to deal with old houses. With 70 percent of our buildings in the city of Providence built before 1959, people who call us say they are concerned that they cannot find people who know how to treat their houses with the respect that they deserve.

We are working to train homeowners and people who want to be in the trades, as well as people who are already in the trades, to help them understand some basic principles about preservation.

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