Translating Community History engaged community members in two East Austin neighborhoods to honor the people & places of Austin’s cultural heritage
Austin, TX – The City of Austin’s Historic Preservation Office today announced the completion of a major multi-year project funded by a National Park Service Underrepresented Community Grant. In partnership with The Projecto and Open Chair, the Translating Community History project worked with community members in two East Austin focus areas to recognize the buildings and stories that make up Austin’s cultural heritage.
Translating Community History took an innovative approach, integrating historic research, community storytelling, and conversations around historic preservation tools. It included three major components:
- Neighborhood meetings and story-sharing in two focus areas, a portion of the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood and the College Heights subdivision in Blackshear Prospect Hill;
- National Register nominations for Huston-Tillotson University and Parque Zaragoza, two significant places with African American and Mexican American heritage; and
- Multi-part heritage projects for each focus area.
On December 27, 2017, the National Park Service awarded the City of Austin’s Historic Preservation Office an Underrepresented Community Grant of $43,200. The grant aims to increase the number of properties associated with historically underrepresented communities that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service administers the program, awarding roughly one dozen grants nationwide each year. (In Austin, properties listed individually in the National Register do not require additional City review for alterations or additions, while changes to properties in National Register districts are reviewed on an advisory basis.)
The Translating Community History project stems from a 2016 historic resources survey of Central East Austin. The survey identified 24 potential historic districts and nearly 300 potential historic landmarks, but it did not generate widespread interest in historic preservation. This project sought to develop a framework for proactive outreach to neighborhoods around preservation, in close collaboration with community stakeholders. Two community stakeholder groups were convened early to help shape the project, with representatives from local institutions, cultural organizations, and focus area residents. The stakeholder group selected the focus areas, advised City staff and consultants on outreach efforts, and outlined desired activities for the heritage projects.
“We were fortunate to work with dedicated community members to guide the project, and lucky to have grant funds to support a more creative approach,” said Cara Bertron, a senior planner in the Housing & Planning Department. “Staff and the community stakeholder groups both saw the heritage projects as a way to connect people’s stories with historic neighborhoods in a really different way.”
The heritage projects creatively knit together the past and present through historical narratives, present-day resident portraits, and personal stories. They also built on the earlier work of consultants The Projecto and Open Chair. The COVID-19 pandemic demanded swift action by the project team to adhere to safety guidelines while staying on track to complete the project. The consultant team held socially distanced outdoor portrait sessions, interviewed residents, and created videos and visual catalogs to highlight the stories of East Austin communities. Posters featuring some of the portraits have been installed temporarily in four East Austin locations.
Using this project as a model, Historic Preservation Office staff are discussing potential future expansions of the heritage project with other City staff.
Historic preservation can help stabilize communities by slowing the pace of demolitions, keeping smaller-scale houses standing, and recognizing and celebrating the stories that make places important—the heritage of Austin’s communities. While National Register designation is largely honorific, local designation as an individual historic landmark or a historic district includes design standards to safeguard Austin’s unique historic places.
To view the National Register nominations, catalogs, and videos, and learn more about the project, visit the Historic Preservation Office at austintexas.gov/page/current-projects. Learn more about The Projecto and Open Chair at theprojecto.org and theopenchair.co.