| Chicago's former St. Boniface Catholic Church |
closed in 1990. Recently slated to become senior
housing, the building's latest development
has been stalled yet again.
Last month, the architectural marvels of Chicago’s Loop served as the setting for a colloquium on protecting urban cultural heritage. TheCenter for Art, Museum, and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University’s lawschool hosted "Protecting Cultural Heritage from Disaster" on September 22, featuring guest lecturer Ryan Rowberry, Assistant Professor of Law at Georgia State University. His background in cultural heritage law is certainly influenced by his Rhodes Scholarship in medieval history at Oxford. Both fields of study shaped his lecture topic – the preservation of cultural heritage in urban landscapes.
Professor Rowberry began his talk with a question that often crosses our minds here at ARCA – why does cultural heritage matter? I found it ironic that he posed such a question having traveled from Atlanta, a city that has largely forsaken its connection with the past in the name of downtown economic development. Yet there are those in the Atlanta area like him who are researching this issue from all sides. In particular he mentioned a study at Emory University which found that connections to the past help people frame their own life experience within a much bigger picture. They thus feel stronger for having that connection. Who knew that cultural heritage can have a positive effect on community health?
Professor Rowberry’s main focus was the effect that disasters and population growth are having on cities. Barcelona, Istanbul, LA, and London are a few examples he used to illustrate the challenges of historic preservation in the face of explosive population surges. An ancient city with a proud past, Istanbul’s population has ballooned to approximately 18 million people in under two centuries. How are these cities, and others like them, dealing with ever expanding boundaries AND preserving their cultural property at the same time?
The first step is to know what you have. Many city and local governments are starting to develop databases to inventory cultural property. While it sounds like a daunting task, the exciting thing about such massive data gathering projects is that you can engage the public by getting them to help! I loved this part of the lecture the most because it ties in strongly to the question of HOW to get people to care about cultural heritage. Not everyone will be interested in what’s happening to a monument half a world away, but they may care about what happens to that old storefront down the street! I urge you to go online and check out projects like SurveyLA in Los Angeles or The Arches Project in the UK. There are many others that might be closer to you. Make contact and let them know about an interesting building or local historical spot they might not have registered yet. Donate your knowledge, time, or even some funds!
Reuse of historic structures is another strategy that is starting to gain support in many cities. In my old Chicago neighborhood there was one church that had been rebuilt into condominiums and another is currently slated to be converted into senior housing. Professor Rowberry cited the defunct bullfighting stadium in Barcelona (the Plaza Monumental) and the efforts of the Emir of Qatar to fund its conversion into a mosque.
The importance of being prepared at the government level was also emphasized. Our speaker stressed how crucial it is to streamline lengthy environmental and historical procedures before the next disaster occurs. I was most skeptical of this third strategy, and not for lack of thought or detail put into it. I spent several years as a state employee and I know how hard it is to get governments to practice foresight. However, it is important to keep in mind that this was a lecture at a law school. What I flinched at, the dozen or so law students in attendance were probably eager to sink their teeth into.
The Art Law Colloquium at DePaul University College of Law was a lunch hour well spent. A handful of scholars from Chicago’s museums and universities attended in addition to the legal minds that were present. Having recently returned from the ARCA summer program in Amelia I was heartened to know that there are organizations like the Center for Art, Museum, and Cultural Heritage Law in cities other than the great art market centers of the world. And in my own hometown, no less! Thanks to Center director Patty Gerstenblith and her students for hosting this colloquium and to Professor Rowberry for sharing his time and experience.