The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Register and Controversial Sites

Doing some research a little while back, I began looking up locations that met the criteria for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), but where I suspected that controversy surrounding the meaning/role of the places might block them from having actually been listed. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that most of those I thought of were either listed, or at least had been recommended as eligible for listing*.

Probably emblematic of this is the Stonewall Inn, a prominent 60s-era gay bar in New York which was routinely raided by the police. One night, in 1969, a raid did not go as planned, and riots began. The riots were, in many ways, the ignition of the modern gay-rights movement. Whether one is in favor of or against gay rights, it is hard to argue that the movement hasn't had a strong impact on U.S. politics and society since 1969, and therefore has affected "the broad patterns of history", which is the criteria for listing a place on the National Register for it's role in/contribution to historic events.

I have discovered that telling people that the Stonewall Inn is on the NRHP usually gets one of two reactions: 1) for people who are in favor of gay people having the same rights as everyone else**, it seems appropriate that the location so closely linked with the start if the gay rights movement should be listed; 2) for people who are opposed to gay people having the same rights as everyone else***, finding that the Stonewall Inn is listed leads to reactions ranging from irritation to outrage. There is this notion that NRHP listing somehow puts a mark of approval or acceptance on a location.

But this isn't the case.

Listing on the NRHP is rather like Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" - it isn't an endorsement or an accolade, but a recognition of the impact that a place or events associated with it has had on history****. This impact can be good, it can also be bad, or it can even be neutral but pervasive. This seems appropriate - what seems bad or controversial now may seem like the obviously right thing to do down the line (remember, ending slavery was controversial enough that it contributed to the breakout of the Civil War), and remember things that are either controversial or even negative but influential is necessary to maintaining an accurate view of our past and not creating false legends.

It's important to remember that we are shaped just as much by our desire to maintain the status quo, often (perhaps typically) unthinkingly, as we are by a desire to improve things. Aspects of our past which we would like to not think about, regardless of the reason, are nonetheless important. What's more, one group's abomination may be another group's shrine. I like the fact that the NRHP is not a monument to our greatness as a nation, but instead is a reminder of the various types of things that have shaped us. While I think that the Stonewall Inn stands for the start of something good, even if I didn't, it would still belong on the register because it is difficult to imagine current politics and religion without the outcome of the riots. Likewise, places associated with people who I do not hold in esteem, but who nonetheless altered the United States in significant ways, also belong on it.

*This is a bit of an arcane regulatory thing. Actually having a property listed on the NRHP can often be something of a drawn-out process. As it is federal agencies that usually do the work, and the process can take a fair amount of time and money, the regulations that protect cultural resources protect both those that are listed and those that have been found eligible for listing, even if they are not actually listed. This can save time and money on the part of federal agencies, and it also provides some (admittedly limited, as the historic preservation laws have no real teeth) protection to resources that haven't been listed but are known to be important.

**In other words, people who don't think that someone should be penalized for no reason other than old superstitious dogma.

***In other words, people who believe old superstitious dogma, regardless of how they try to rationalize it.

****True story - Time magazine has listed some truly vile individuals as the "Man of the Year" not because the magazine endorsed them - often the accompanying articles have been extremely critical - but because they made a huge impact. It is worth noting, though, that both Time and the NRHP can sometimes bend to political pressure and not list something important but unpopular.

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