For decades, historic preservation groups across the commonwealth have tried to preserve and protect historic homes and public buildings and foster awareness about where these structures fit into the evolution of our communities. But as many ardent preservationists grow older the challenge becomes how to lure younger people into the movement so someone will take up the banner and continue the mission.
That’s a dilemma facing many civic clubs and veterans groups, as well. As members of organizations grow older, they are finding that younger people have been drawn away to other interests or demands in their lives.
As the state marks Preservation Month in May, historic preservation advocates in Newburyport may have found an important way to capture the interest of a new, younger generation – one that might be the key for similar groups around the region.
Newburyport Preservation Trust members recognize that many younger people are concerned about sustainability and affordable housing, something that can come with preservation of smaller homes – not like the high-profile mansions “on the hill” or, in Newburyport’s case, on High Street. Newburyport’s Preservation Week – which actually runs this Friday through Sunday – is on the theme of “Small Houses, Big History,” to highlight some of the vernacular dwellings built for mill workers, clammers, fishermen and tradesmen in previous centuries. In communities like Lawrence, Salem, Amesbury and Haverhill, mill worker housing and other small, wood-framed structures were the affordable housing of the day, with many of them still serving as homes in the 21st century.
Young people are already part of the Preservation Trust, which will host four interns this summer – three from Newburyport High School and one from the Nock Middle School – creating a documentary film about the Clipper City, its architecture and its residents.
This is by no means the first time young preservationists have shown their involvement. On Valentine’s Day, a group of Newburyport High School students hung valentines on the doorknobs of old houses and public buildings in Newburyport to acknowledge the important place these structures hold in the community’s history.
The interest of young people seeking ways to increase resilience of communities along the coast in the face of climate change and rising seas, and preserving affordable housing opportunities, could be the stepping stones the next generation uses to take the reins at the Preservation Trust and historic preservation groups nationwide.
Preservation Trust member Patricia Peknik told reporter Amanda Getchell she believes “younger people feel so vulnerable because of climate change and resource scarcity ... and when I look at the kinds of people going into preservation studies and preservation professions nationally, they are all focused on sustainable and affordable housing practices.”
Most of the trust’s current members got involved because they found history compelling and wanted to preserve the city’s neighborhoods and character.
“But this next generation of preservationists got involved because they are planning for the future and care about environmental sustainability, affordability and inclusivity in the way we talk about the kinds of people who lived and worked in our communities,” Peknik said.
Encouraging that appreciation of a community’s roots – back to the workers in textile mills, leather tanneries and ropewalks – and helping maintain and preserve our affordable housing stock could be the link we need to connect generations of preservationists who want to help the earth while celebrating our history and communities.