January 29, 2018
What does it mean to be a preservationist? How does the built environment that surrounds you impact your daily life? Why does it matter? It’s never too early or too late to think about these questions, especially according to today’s guests, Matthew Craig and Christian Hughes. Matthew, Christian, and I talked about their work through the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh to encourage young people to engage with ideas of historic preservation in their communities. This kind of engagement can come in a variety of forms, including a limited series of podcasts featuring high school students who worked with Christian at Pittsburgh’s Perry Traditional Academy. This is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] What does it mean to be a preservationist? How does the built environment that surrounds you impact your daily life? Why does it even matter? It’s never too early or too late to think about these sorts of questions, especially according to today’s guests, Matthew Craig and Christian Hughes. Matthew, Christian, and I talked about their work through the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh to encourage young people to engage with the ideas of historic preservation in their own communities. This kind of engagement can come in a variety of forms, including a limited series of podcasts featuring high school students who worked with Christian at Pittsburgh’s Perry Traditional Academy. Get ready to get hip, because this is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding; you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Matthew Craig, who is the executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh. The YPA is a non-profit that uses community engagement and education to advocate for the preservation of historic sites and structures all throughout the greater Pittsburgh region. And they’re a non-profit that’s dedicated to preservation and education while also engaging young persons to get involved in the historic preservation field. Also joining us today is Christian Hughes. Christian is a native of Detroit, Michigan and a 2014 graduate of Hampton University. He’s the founder and education director of Drafting Dreams, an organization purposed to expose students in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade to principles of architecture and urban design through creative exercises and design-oriented curricula. So we have some pretty diverse guests here with us today and we’re going to be talking all about the Young Preservationists Association as well as their work on their preservation podcast of their own to engage young students in the history of their communities. It’s great to have you both here with us today, Matt and Christian.
So, Matthew, just to kind of get this conversation started, how did you get involved in history? And how did you end up becoming the executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh?
[MC] Well, we’re very pleased to have a chance to talk to you about the work that we’re doing; and through the magic of radio, we can be coming to you from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My interest in history just goes back to being very curious about, really, the founding fathers of our country and this wonderful shared historical journey that our nation has been on. And so when I saw that the Young Preservationists Association was looking to hire a full-time executive director, I just got very excited about the prospect of the work that they had done and very interested in what we could all accomplish together. So my interest comes from the history of the buildings, mostly about the people whose lives ran through those buildings. I don’t have as much of an architectural background as my dear friend Christian, here, does. So my interest mostly is in the history of the people themselves who have lived in those spaces, but also in the new history that can be made by restoring those places and bringing them back into use by the community.
[NR] And, Christian, how about yourself? Matthew sort of mentioned your background in architecture. But why don’t you tell everybody kind of what you do now and also how you got into that.
[CH] So I teach architecture to students kindergarten through 12th grade and that was based on off of a desire to contribute to a solution for the lack of diversity within the profession. And teaching architecture to students kindergarten through twelfth grade, I then fell in love with the questions that the students would ask about some of the pasts of the buildings that we would look at or some of the historical things that happened in history that maybe have affected blighted buildings. So then I grew more and more interested. And the story of the buildings – so similar to how Matthew’s curiosity of the people that may have went through these buildings primed him to be here, my curiosity was what actually happened outside of the buildings that affected maybe the people and their lives inside of the buildings. So that’s how I got around to including history into what I teach. I am also working on my license as a professional architect, as the built environment has always been an interest of mine.
[MC] And if the buildings themselves are mute, they won’t say anything; and that’s one of the things that we discussed here among the work that we do. That it’s important for somebody or some groups of somebodies to learn those stories and to teach others. Because if you see a blighted building, you say, “Ah, that’s an eye sore and we should tear it down.” But if you tell somebody about the history that happened there, they go, “Oh, my goodness, no, we definitely need to save it.” So we need to speak for the built environment as a way to honor those who came before and the work that they did and the statements that they were trying to make.
[NR] So, Matthew, why don’t you tell us a little bit about the Young Preservationists Association itself? I mean, we mentioned that you’re the executive director, but who are they? Where did they come about? What are they doing today? Then maybe we can drill down into some of these programs and other great things that you’re working on. But tell us a little bit the organization.
[MC] Yeah, it’s a wonderful question. Thank you. The Young Preservationists Association was started about fifteen years ago by Dan Holland; and Dan had a great phrase about giving life to history. And he was really interested with what was happening with younger people and their involvement in environmental issues. And he thought that teaching younger people about the history of architecture and historical preservation, he felt that that would really strike a chord. And we’re finding in our work now fifteen years later that it really does strike a chord. I don’t know if it has as universal of an interest as the environment does because the environment is something that people can experience every day, everywhere that they are; and historical preservation does require some time to explore the issues. So it just felt like given the importance as far as an economic development piece and just the honoring of the people who had built the built environment as we call it, that it was just an important organization to be created.
And now all these years later we’re finding that there are these other young preservation groups that were inspired by ours. They thought, “Oh, that’s great. We should have a young preservationists group here in Buffalo or Columbus or Indianapolis.” About two years ago, we started with a few other groups, an organization called the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists. And that was really just a way to create a network of all the different groups around the region that are trying to do the same kind of work that we are and that we might be able to share best practices and hard lessons so that we can all move forward together.
[NR] And what kind of programming are you guys working on? Give us maybe a sample of some of the things [of] the day-to-day work of the Young Preservationists Group in Pittsburgh.
[MC] What we’re focused on right now, and this is a project that Christian and I have been talking about for some time. There’s a place here called the National Negro Opera House. And so the thing that we have been able to grow into is that our group was always very good about finding the where and the what, which buildings needed to be saved. And we had something that we called the top 10 list where we were able to sort of remind the community that these were the places that might be overlooked and needed to get some attention. But the one thing that we weren’t quite able to do in our past was the how. How do you fix it? How do you bring the community together? How do you bring the resources to bear? Because some of these things are very expensive.
So over the last year and a half I’ve been taking a course with the National Development Council on how to become an economic development professional, and to learn about historic tax credits, and low-income tax credits, and to learn how to build a consensus among the community so that we cannot just point to the building and say, “Oh somebody should fix that.” But that we would be able to help bring the tools. You know, spearhead an effort.
So the National Negro Opera House is a very important place here in Pittsburgh. Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, had lived there. A woman named Mary Cardwell Dawson had started a group called the National Negro Opera Company there. And so the National Trust has just released an African-American Cultural Trust Fund, and there is a potential for us to get some grant money from them. But also we’ve gone to the city of Pittsburgh and the mayor’s office to see if they can also bring some resources to bear, trying to bring together a whole group of people to work on something. So it’s this whole idea of young preservationists in action. And Christian, given his architectural understanding, will be one of our leads on this project. And this compliments the work that we did that caught your attention, the preservation podcasts, and we also have done a lecture series here called Saving Sacred Spaces, because one of the important things that’s happening here in Pittsburgh is the Diocese of Pittsburgh is going through a historic contraction. There’s going to be a lot of historic churches and things that are going to go on the market, and we would just like to find a safe place for those all to land.
[NR] And Christian, why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of the work that you’re doing and how you’re involved with the Young Preservationists Association yourself?
[CH] So some of the work that I’m doing is focusing on a lot of the what I call “vulnerable communities.” So communities that are experiencing high blight, and have low resources, and have been historically economically disinvensted in. So for what I do, it’s kind of a two punch approach with being a part of these local grassroots organizations that are on the front line to revitalize these neighborhoods as well as to include youth in those efforts. And using a lot of the efforts, the kind of redevelopment efforts that the neighborhoods are leading, to include the students and to be able to propose design ideas, design solutions and things of that nature, which then allowed for my path initially to cross with the Young Preservationists Association as we both kind of had our eyes on a school in Homewood, a neighborhood here in Pittsburgh that has been economically disinvested in that is primarily African-American. And then looking at that school, we had been – that school had been hot topic for a while about what to do with it, where it should go. So that’s how we linked trains, if you will.
Then, as I started participating with the Young Preservationists Association, I then began to understand how they were looking to this where and how. As Matthew mentioned it’s one thing to say, “Oh, there is a building, it can be saved. It needs to be saved.” There is a whole other thing to go through the motions of actually saving it and that is what really drew what I do into what the preservationist do. So now here we are as Matthew mentioned with not just the National Negro Opera House project but the Preservation Podcast Association getting youth to understand historic preservation from the perspective that we see it. Not necessarily saving buildings – well not just saving buildings rather -but understanding the personal dignity, the pride that comes into actually saving those buildings.
[MH] And, Nick, just to let you know what we feel about the work that Christian has done. This past year we named him as our Dan Holland Young Preservationist of the Year because he’s been one of those persons as his boat rises he’s going to bring up a lot of boats with him. I think that we really wanted to thank him for the efforts that he’s done to reach into vulnerable communities and really help them see their own self-worth in the process of trying to save the buildings and their neighborhoods.
[NR] That’s fantastic and great to here and always exciting to hear about sort of the folks who are going to be taking this movement into the next generation. Why don’t we take a quick break? And when we come back we can talk a little bit more in-depth about your podcast and what kind of work that has been engaging in and then also maybe take a look at what’s next both for Young Preservationist Association as well as preservation in general and where you see that headed throughout the entire Rust Belt like you were talking about. And we’ll do that right back here on PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] Like a lot of people around the country there is a good chance you’re thinking about the Superbowl coming up this weekend. As a Ravens fan, I feel a certain connection with other avian sports team so I’ll be rooting for the Eagles. But even if you’re not excited about the game you might want to keep your eyes open for your favorite historic buildings.
For example, before last year’s kick off of Superbowl LI, Fox Sports aired a special reading with Johnny Cash’s Ragged Old Flag in which Maryland’s Queen Anne’s County Courthouse was prominently featured. The courthouse dates back to the 1790s and is believed to be the oldest, continuously operated courthouse in Maryland. Its arch windows are featured prominently in the ragged old flag’s spot as if to provide a literal window into the past.
I can’t blame them for choosing to show those windows. They are detailed in the National Register of Historic Places Nominations as a character-defining architectural feature. The video also briefly features the original 30′ x 42′ Garrison flag that was flying during the battle of Fort McHenry. It’s owned by Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore City and now apart of the Smithsonian Institution. You can check out the video plus some behind the scenes interviews including one with a circuit court judge from Queen Anne’s County, Maryland at PreservationMaryland.org or you can hold off on that and get back to PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to email@example.com and well try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Matthew Craig, the executive director of Young Preservation Association. And also joining us is Christian Hughes who has been working with Young Preservation Association as well as a variety of different organizations to engage young students K through 12 in architecture, urban planning as well as historic preservation. And when we last spoke we were talking about the work of the Young Preservation Association of Pittsburgh and some of the programs that they’re doing and how they’re moving from simply pointing out projects and problems to actually being a part of the solution and working in them. And, Matthew, you mentioned sort of in passing one of the things that caught our eye which was the podcast that you’ve put together. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what kind of podcasting you’re doing because it’s slightly different than PreserveCast. It is a podcast, yes, but it has a different sort of focus. So why don’t you tell us about where that came from and what you guys are doing with it?
[MC] Well, this is a project that was initially begun by one of our board members, a gentleman named Sanjeev Baidyaroy and it was something that really caught Christian’s eye because it so neatly coincided with the work that he was doing. Basically what we did was through a… We make learning grants, which is run through a group here called The Sprout Fund and while I’m mentioning funding I would also like to give a shout out to the Allegheny Foundation who has supported our work for the last three years. But this grant through Sprout Fund was to go into a local high school, Perry Traditional Academy, and to teach their broadcasting students about podcasting. But it was to teach them about preservation and historic preservation in their neighborhood. But when you’re talking to students about such an intricately-detailed topic we had to figure out where they were coming from as individuals, meet them where they were, and then try to lead them to where we wanted to teach them.
I would just like to say that there are a lot of challenges involved here and one of them was attendance. It was difficult for us to get a full attendance from the students and it’s something that the school itself wrestles with. And one of the most heartwarming experiences about this for me was that at one point Christian just said to the students, “What do I need to do to reach you and have you participate in what’s going on here?” And I was so moved when one of the students said, “Could you provide us with breakfast?” And so this man got up every day at 5:30 and made pancakes and sausages and brought in orange juice so that the students could have something to eat. And boy, didn’t you notice that attendance just skyrocketed. But the key issue for us – and I’ll let Christian talk more about this because he was so much more involved – but the key piece for us in this experience of working with the students was in connecting their own experience and their own self-dignity in their day-to-day experience of their neighborhoods. And when they could see that if somebody fixed up a house in that neighborhood, it actually lifted up everybody, and they could see their own self-worth in that effort. And I think that was kind of the light bulb moment.
[NR] Yeah. I’d love to hear from Christian about that, and about how you actually put these podcasts together, and what the end product sounded like as well.
[CH] So the end product of the Preservation Podcast Initiative were these five podcasts in addition to a what we call a walking tour. So in each of the podcasts the students do a variety of things from interviewing a local historian, to discussing what preservation is to them, and how they see it. And there’s even one podcast tucked in there – I do believe it’s the fifth one – where it’s just a random class session that we had where we had a very candid discussion about what it really and truly meant to save buildings. Then the interactive walking tour is on the website. What it is, it’s a map of what is called Art Rooney’s neighborhood, which was illustrated by Kathy Rooney. And you’re able to go on, and you’re able to click on most of the buildings on it, and you’re able to hear audio of the students – a small clip, a snippet, rather – of the students’ research that they had done on each area and they’re giving you a recital sort of, of the history that they looked up.
Honestly, I’m so overwhelmed every time I talk about this project emotionally, that I really don’t even know where to start because it was such a difficult project to do. Not because the students were difficult, but because of the system that we were walking into. We had to go in and actually create a shift in the paradigm of how the students learned and engaged with this unfamiliar concept of preservation. But after having done that and, again, after having provided the breakfast we had students come into that class that were not enrolled in the class trying to come in the class. The attendance went from maybe an average of ten students to an average of about twenty, of which the students, the – I was about to call them professor – the teacher, rather, had really never seen that many students in the class.
We started off by teaching them just generally what is preservation and that was boring the life out of them. So that is how we kind of came to this, “Well, what is it that we need to do to increase participation?” But the one thing that we did notice that the students were always on their phones. Which is typical of this generation, right? Completely glued to our phones and we sat there and we wondered, “Well, let’s try meeting them where they’re at?” So we started beginning to I guess build this bond with them by using the Snapchat app to be able to have them record their peers and then playback that recording on a Bluetooth speaker so that they can begin to understand this concept of recording and listening and editing in the manner that they already understand it. They all had Snapchat accounts. I have a Snapchat account. This was very easy and very simple so that when we started working with the Saturday Light Brigade on the audiological component it was almost a breeze.
[NR] So, Christain, let me ask you this. I mean, obviously, you’re very emotional about this and for good reason. It sounds like it was a really impressive and sort of exciting opportunity but for people around the country who are listening to this who might be thinking, “Well, we want to engage similar students on a similar type of project.” Or “we want to get young people talking about preservation about historic places and that sort of thing,” any advice? I mean, not sort of the nitty-gritty details stuff but sort of big picture thing? I mean, obviously one of your takeaways was to try and engage them with something they’re already kind of familiar with like a phone or to ask them what matters to them but any other big takeaways or things that you sort of learned through the process?
[CH] You have to understand what their experience is. Whether that’s a class period, two class periods and understanding that experience is really – I do a thing in all of my classes where I sit down. I don’t like to stand in the front. I like to sit at one of the desks and we talk. So then that already releases some of the pressure. And then understanding what their experiences are, especially if you’re teaching a subject like preservation, right? You get to understand what areas that their physical or built environments they may see as problems, threats, etc. And then you can then begin to tailor what it is that you’re going to teach, especially if it’s architectural or historic preservation, around those experiences. Once you then begin to understand an experience and tailor whatever your learning outcomes or program objectives are around that experience it then allows them to be more engaged because it is now about them. And once you make it about them they will be here for it.
[MC] And that’s a key piece too, Nick, because one thing that I believe that Christian brings as a teacher is the empathy he has for the experience of the students. We had mentioned the walking tour for Art Rooney’s neighborhood. For those of you in Baltimore or around the country, Art Rooney is the gentleman who started the Pittsburgh Steelers so he’s one of the great legends of this area. But I was thinking about something that just happened to one of our great ball players here, Andrew McCutchen. And he said that the key connection that he had with his manager, Clint Hurdle was that Clint said to him on the first day, “I need you to know that you can trust me and I need you to know that I care about you.”
And that just reminds me of one of the class periods where there was a student that was struggling and Christian said to him, “Look, I need you to know that I care about what happens to you and what your experience is. I care about this.” And that was one of the things that started to break the ice. So I think that anybody that would want to replicate this, and I would hope that everyone preservation group in the country would want to do that, It’s just that you have to find out where the students are coming from and one of the podcasts that you should do is say to them, “Tell me about how it feels to walk around in your neighborhood. What’s your experience walking around place by place?
[NR] Yeah. It’s a really good way to kind of drill home as well as the value of place and hearing people talk about place. It’s a way to get people to talk about what matters to them and it really gets them to start thinking about it. It’s sort of this idea, this concept of mindfulness of actually being aware of what’s around you. It’s all too often we kind of just moving around not thinking about that and that’s an interesting task to do. I have to know, will you do it again? Are there plans to continue on and do a second season or another cohort of this?
[CH] Season two. Look out for it. [laughter]
[MC] Yeah. Definitely, we would love to just keep building upon this. The great dream would be that after we’re able to teach the students about these concepts that we would then be able to engage them in what some of the work feels like. What does it take to do carpentry? To do bricklaying? To do drywall? There’s a lot of empowerment involved in learning how to do things yourself.
[NR] And is that the hope? That you’re putting that piece together? And in the meantime, we can expect more podcasts?
[MC] I’d just say, “Stay tuned.”
[NR] So more broadly speaking, what’s next for Young Preservationists Association? It sounds like you’re investing in property redevelopment or at least getting involved in that world of economic redevelopment and actually taking a seat at the table to be involved in these projects. Obviously, it sounds like you want to get more involved and make these experiences with students even deeper. Any other things on the horizon that we should keep an eye out?
[MC] Well, what’s been great has been this business of consulting that has started to bear fruit. We’re working with another group that is trying to save an old Alcoa research building and they’re trying to make it into a sort of economic hub for Westmoreland County, which is just east of Pittsburgh. And so this idea of being able to create these places… that it’s preserving a historically significant building. But what do you put in there? And so the notion that this property that had serviced its community for such a long time might take on a new life that would also be part of the solution for where the community itself is lacking. I think those things are really very exciting. So that we’re able to put more tools into our toolbox and having developers or people who are hoping to do that kind of work coming here and asking for assistance, I think that’s very gratifying.
And we’d also like to continue to inspire other young preservation groups. Like I would hope that in Baltimore that there might be a young preservation group. I’d heard about one that used to exist in Annapolis and they’re called [Young] Friends of Annapolis. And they were very significant I believe in the middle 1980s when the Naval Academy was starting to expand and they wanted to expand into the historic district of Annapolis. And these young folks really stepped forward and they didn’t just put a brake pedal on those plans. They worked respectively with the Navy and they came up with a really wonderful plan that just was a win-win for everybody involved. But then everybody in that group got married and moved on and there is no Young Friends of Annapolis anymore.
[NR] Yeah. That is a problem with young people. They do tend to get older.
[MC] They do get older. I don’t know if I even qualify for Young Preservationists. But I want all your radio listeners to picture me as being 35.
[NR] Okay [laughter].
[MC] I just want to say, “We just want to inspire other groups to pick up the work. “The harvest is full, but the workers are few.”
[NR] And, Christian, you’re obviously on a track to become a licensed architect. Once that happens, do you still intend on staying involved on this side?
[CH] Yes, definitely. Because the key, I guess, myself being a licensed architect is that on the preservationist’s side, once we’re done talking about the work, I can roll up my sleeves and do it. Right? We don’t have an architect in-house so to speak. You know, some of these services that typically are required to move these projects from concept to creation are professionals such as architects and even general contractors on the board and on the team. So I definitely do plan on staying with the Young Preservationists regarding this work, especially considering the fact that I am 26 there’s a whole life ahead of me. So I’ve got time on my side.
[NR] Yeah, absolutely. Well if folks listening to this want to learn more about your work, get to know more about you, listen to the podcasts, Matthew and Christian, how do they do that? What’s the best way to get in touch or to learn more?
[CH] Well, the great thing these days is that it’s so easy to reach out to a group such as ours. We can be found on the web at young preservationists, plural, Young Preservationists.org. And, of course, we also have a presence on Facebook and Instagram, if anybody wants to kind of follow our progress on those sites.
[NR] And, Christian, is that the best way to find you as well?
[C] So the best way to find me is through my organization, Drafting Dreams, of which I am the Chief Executive Dreamer for teaching architecture to students kindergarten through twelfth grade. So if you were to go to DraftingDreams.org and you’ll be able to find some of the work that we’ve done inclusive of our partnership with the Young Preservationists Association. And we also can be found on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/DraftingDreams and on Instagram @DraftingDreams.
[NR] Before we depart here we ask what tends to be the most difficult question of every interview about favorite historic place, and so we want to pitch that question. Christian, maybe we’ll let you take a swing at it first. What’s your favorite historic building or place?
[CH] I have two. I have a favorite historic place that isn’t maybe grandly historic and a favorite historic building. So my favorite historic building is in, I do believe this is in Quebec, Chateau Frontenac – either Quebec or Montreal, I can’t really remember. But it’s a grand and old castle and it is just very beautiful and ornate. So that is my favorite building.
My favorite historical place is actually a place in North Carolina where my family is from, Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. And it’s historical to me because my great-grandfather in the early 1900s purchased 32 and a half acres of land, and paid for it in 3 years, and it is the land that we as a family still return to and it was a farm. That was a large feat for an African-American at that time.
[NR] Yeah. That’s a large feat for anyone. That’s a big deal. That’s pretty cool. Matthew, how about yourself?
[MC] My favorite place is – when Henry Ford had put together his fortune, he decided he wanted to be a historic preservationist and he created a place called Greenfield Village, which is right outside of Detroit in Dearborn, Michigan. And he went and collected all of these different historic places and put them all in one spot. And my favorite specific historic building is there. He has the original Wright Brothers’ Bicycle Shop that had been in Dayton, Ohio. So those are my favorite places. But I’d also like to say my next most favorite historic building is the next one that we get to save.
[NR] The next one that we get to save. Well, that’s a fantastic way to bring this to a conclusion. I feel like we’ve just barely scratched the surface of all that you are both working on and it’s so exciting to see it. And we’re looking forward to seeing what’s next and to hearing the next season of podcasts produced by your young preservationists with the Young Preservationist Association of Pittsburgh. Thanks again for joining us today. We look forward to talking to you again in the future.
[MC] You’re very welcome and before we let you go we just want to thank you and your staff for the wonderful work that you all are doing. And I think that getting the word out is, it’s so key. So thank you very much.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
To listen to the Preservation Podcasts produced by students of Perry Traditional Academy and the Young Preservation Association of Pittsburgh, visit their website here.