by 2 May 08, 2013
My favorite professor in college used to talk about the American South as if it were a dirty joke. He would slam down his copy of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, hunker low over his desk, and leaning towards us, whisper “I think this is a story about ghosts.”
Dr. Wayne Stengel loves the American South: even the admittedly creepy and embarrassing parts. Another of his anecdotes that I still hold dear comes from a discussion regarding preservation – of structures, of customs, and of cultures. With that same infectious drama, he said, “Katie, have you ever seen a nation more ashamed of its own history? We can’t even let a building stand unused for more than a couple of decades before we tear it down to build a mall.” That following summer, I studied abroad in the British Isles and quickly realized the meaning behind his complaint. Once you’ve been inside a bookshop that is older than your entire country, your perception on “old buildings” shifts considerably.
In modern America, we are all about the shiny and new. But there are some unsung heroes out there who are in fact working to save the architectural structures that so beautifully represent our country’s past. In my home state of Arkansas, those heroes are the hardworking, South-loving, Natural State-celebrating employees of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (AHPP). As one of the agencies of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, AHPP is passionate about protecting the physical and cultural aspects of Arkansas’ past.
From their website: The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program identifies, evaluates, registers, and preserves the state's historic and cultural resources and seeks to instill a preservation ethic in future generations of Arkansans. The agency also houses the Main Street Arkansas program, which works with local communities to revitalize downtown commercial areas.
I had the good fortune to work with the amazing folks at AHPP some years ago. While there, I learned more about my state than in all my middle school years of Arkansas History combined. I grew to appreciate the historical and cultural background of Arkansas, as well as the rest of the South; yes, even the creepy, barn-burning parts of that background.
Last week I was invited to rejoin my tribe of preservationists at their yearly crawfish boil: Preservation Crustaceans. As I pulled up to the event, (which, eerily enough, was being hosted at a historic orphanage built in 1910), Dr. Stengel’s words were tumbling around in my head. St. Joseph’s Orphanage is a huge, menacing structure with crucifixes everywhere; as I walked through a light rain toward the entrance, I thought of all the little children who had grown up there, as well as all the soldiers who had sought refuge there during World War I. The story of St. Joseph’s, like many buildings on the Historic Register, is a story about ghosts.
In the basement mess hall, the Preservation Crustacean celebration was warm and bright: trays of crawfish, cold beers, and like-minded sentimentalists. There was music and general merry-making, and tours available for those interested. AHPP was selling hip shirts and coozies with "This Place Matters" printed on them. Overall, it was an incredibly uplifting evening spent with proud Arkansans and the spiciest crawdads and sausage I've ever eaten.
The event was comfortable and pleasant and as I walked back out to my car, I realized that I had not only reunited with old colleagues, but also with a passion for the South that perhaps only Stengel – and maybe Faulkner himself – could understand.
“The past is never dead. It's not even past.” - William Faulkner
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