As a YPA board member, one of our goals is to consider historic preservation as an important tool for redevelopment, and not as an afterthought of the planning process. In this blog I want to write about something close to me; that is, how to talk about the fragmented history of minorities in Pittsburgh and how the goals of historic preservation can help make those histories visible.
September 15 through October 15 marks the recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month, a type of celebration that still feels foreign in a place like Pittsburgh. However, it has been during the last couple of years that a lot has been said in excitement about the rapidly growing Latino population in the city: City counselors recognized the first Latino Day on April 19th and Latinos are positively contributing to communities like Beechview and Brookline.
The Roberto Clemente Bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, during a boxing event where Pittsburgh boxers faced off against Cuban boxers.
Most of this is rooted in the idea that Pittsburgh’s Latino population was non-existent until recently and that finding someone who spoke Spanish was as rare as finding parking in the South Side on a Saturday night. That is definitely true but it also isn’t. Latinos have a rich history in the region: After WWI Mexican workers formed significant segments of the labor force in the steel mills. It is sparsely documented, but exists as part of the song “The Ballad of Pennsylvania” written by some of such immigrants, Lupe Martínez and Pedro Rocha in 1928. Now, the University of Pittsburgh’s Eduardo Lozano Latin American Collection is one of the finest Latin American book collections in the country. Other examples are more ironic. Little about the “Mexican War Streets” celebrates Mexican heritage despite being one of the Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation’s most successful preservation projects. Baseball player Roberto Clemente, from Puerto Rico, reached iconic stature in no other place but Pittsburgh, becoming a Hispanic inspiration to many. After the many things named after him nationally, few of them are in Western Pennsylvania.
This mural in Allentown shows what looks like a Puerto Rican flag as part of the design.
The truth is that Pennsylvania has always been diverse and it will continue to be. Yet, historic preservation has done little to address this reality. There is a growing perception that historic preservation is more focused in saving sites associated with rich white men’s history, especially in a place like Pittsburgh where industrialists take center stage in the city’s past. It was only until the 80s that some preservation organizations made deliberate efforts to incorporate African-American heritage into historic preservation, let alone Latino or Asian history. When these communities are asked to think about preservation, it is largely a recent history of challenging community building. And so I can’t help but beg the question: can preservation be a meaningful tool to minority groups that lack adequate culturally competent and linguistically appropriate places? Can the Latino community in Pittsburgh even afford historic preservation, and if so, what should it look like?
Here are 4 ways to talk about preservation in the Latino community:
Black Pittsburgh history is Latino history too.
The Latino community cannot relate to the struggles of African-Americans. But looked more closely, the experiences are more similar than we think. The mere existence of an Afro-Latino identity only highlights the legitimacy of such intersection.
Here is an example: Pittsburgh is home to the National Negro Opera House, the first black opera house in the country and one which YPA has actively participated in protecting as a historic landmark. Among many black celebrities, Roberto Clemente also lived there. Much like blacks, Latinos were barred from staying in other places reserved for whites due to segregation. Even some of Teenie Harris photographs, which famously chronicle African American life in the Hill District, debut Caribbean and Puerto Rican people among them.
Blacks and Latinos have always lived in the same neighborhoods and visited the same stores. There are even similar acts of racial privilege and discrimination within the Hispanic community itself. Preserving African American spaces advances the Latino community too.
National Negro Opera House
Sense of Place
A challenge to the Latino identity in Pittsburgh is that the community is dispersed, unlike in other cities with Latino neighborhoods. On top of that, the community is also diverse in education level, economic status, and unique ethnic background. As many people point out, there is no one Latino community; there are many of them.
This is exactly the type of challenge historic preservation can help address. Preserving the historic and architectural character of the neighborhood provides the sense of place which the Latino community currently lacks. This can be true even if the area is a “Latino” space or not. Historic preservation could help Latino communities think about placemaking in their communities, reconnect with structures that had historically been deemed outside their culture, and discover how their presence is tied to the revitalization efforts shaping neighborhoods where they live.
Historic preservation attracts investment
Investment is exactly what some minorities neighborhoods in the city need. The rehabilitation of historic buildings can not only be key to providing affordable housing options for Latinos living in Pittsburgh, it can also provide other benefits like addressing blight, improve the homes where the community lives, and beautifying the physical space.
Places are icebergs
To explore the narrative of Latinos in Pittsburgh is to understand an overarching process of how old and new immigrants of different cultures can bridge generational and cultural divides. Places are physical manifestations of that; they embody collective and individual memories of connection, exclusion, and struggle. Preservation in Latino places is not just about historic buildings, but more so about their invisible meanings. In this way, historic places are icebergs.
Historic preservation can help Latinos achieve a spirit of place and recontextualize the idea that the Latino community can become just as vibrant as what was there before. The architectural preservation of buildings in emerging Latino communities can materialize a vibrant community, but it will take other unusual strategies for preserving and interpreting complex communities to anchor them into a legitimate part of Pittsburgh.
This blog was written by Rene Cuenca, YPA Board Member.