Historic Neglect

Tourists spend millions visiting our centuries-old attractions, helping to create thousands of jobs. Preserving our heritage, in other words, makes not just cultural but economic sense. So why aren’t we doing it better?

Carp was talking about culture and a sense of the past, of course. But we stand to lose out economically, too, if we don’t work hard to support our historical sites. More than 20 million international and domestic visitors came to the Boston area last year, and 9.9 million of them visited major museums and attractions in Boston and Cambridge. According to the U.S. Travel Association, these heritage travelers spend more money than average visitors. They come here for the history, in other words, and in doing so give our economy a huge boost. We need to keep them coming.

All of which raises an obvious question. If this city’s historical sites are so important to both our cultural and fiscal health, then why on earth aren’t we investing seriously in them?

 

That’s what I asked myself one day this past September, when I joined a crowd of 30 or so people that had gathered at the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, in the North End. We’d come to watch the Freedom Trail Foundation donate money from its Preservation Fund, for the second year in a row, to some Freedom Trail attractions. Mayor Menino was there, as were Freedom Trail guides dressed in Colonial costume and a number of Park Service rangers wearing earth-tone uniforms and straw hats. A light drizzle was falling as the ceremony began, and we all seemed to be wondering if we were going to get out of there before real rain came.

We’d assembled to see two giant cardboard checks change hands. One, for $25,000, was going to the city, to help with upkeep at the burial grounds. The other, for $75,000, was going directly to the Old North Church.

Addressing the crowd, Menino said a lot of cities “want to tear everything down and build anew, but we don’t do that here. We try to preserve the best we can.” With a smirk, he asked whether the giant checks had been signed, and everyone laughed. Reverend Stephen Ayres of the Old North Church then spoke about how the church’s 300th anniversary was on the horizon, and about how he now had the funds to paint the steeple in which Paul Revere hung his famous lanterns.

This was heartening to hear, but as I learned more about the Freedom Trail Foundation, I realized the size of the challenge that confronts all of us in this city even as we try to preserve just the historical sites that are on the Freedom Trail.

The Freedom Trail Foundation is a nonprofit established in 1964 to preserve the trail. There are widespread misperceptions about the organization’s relationship to the red line on the sidewalk. The foundation markets the Freedom Trail and conducts its own paid tours along it (they cost $13), but it plays no role as a formal overseer. Nobody does. Some sites are city-owned, while others are independently operated and have their own boards and budgets—and all of them, like the Paul Revere House, need far more money than their income from ticket sales, donations, and endowments can provide.

The Freedom Trail Foundation tries to help. It does so through its Preservation Fund grants, paid for almost entirely by people who are willing to donate an extra dollar for its walking tour. About 90,000 people do so annually, which means that in any given year the foundation has, roughly speaking, about $100,000 it can disburse—hence those two cardboard checks. Everything helps, of course, but that certainly can’t fund the kinds of ambitious, forward-looking maintenance and restoration efforts that are necessary to preserve this city’s historical legacy well into the future.

Here’s what’s crazy. Right now, the best way to raise money for a historical site in Boston is to wait for disaster to strike. Think of the fire at the Tea Party museum, and the effort in its aftermath to pour millions into rebuilding the place. Or think of what happened at the Old State House in 2005. After Hurricane Wilma caused extensive flooding, the Bostonian Society decided the building should be made permanently flood-proof—and within six months managed to raise $2 million, more than the place’s entire annual operating budget. There was also that moment at the Granary Burying Ground, in 2009, when a woman visiting the site fell through the earth and into a stairway leading to a crypt. Two years later, the city embarked on a $300,000 renovation. (A spokesperson for the city’s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative insists this wasn’t directly related to the woman’s fall, but the sequence of events certainly seems suggestive.)

Does it really have to be this way? Times are hard, of course. But given how important Boston’s historical identity is to its economic well-being, it’s now more important than ever to invest in preserving our signature historical sites. All of the millions that are pouring into venues like the MFA and the Tea Party museum show that there’s plenty of money and lots of goodwill out there—on the part of government entities, corporations, nonprofits, family foundations, and individual donors. So now we just have to get our priorities straight, and let our past lead us into the future.

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  • http://www.TheHistoryList.com Lee Wright

    Glad to see the city’s (and the area’s) rich history and historic sites highlighted.

    If anything, we may take for granted some of the nation’s most important historic sites as we rush past them on the way to work or to shop. One only has to look at what some other communities around the country do to turn much less well-known sites or events into big draws for tourists.

    The author correctly sites the several private non-profit efforts that literally saved many of these historic structures and maintain them to this day. Their role, along with that of the Freedom Trail Foundation, which does great work, should be recognized and supported by all of us.

    What is the role of our local and state government? What about a partnership that comes together around a handful of key events and examines them from the viewpoint of someone interested in learning about our history? What is the experience of someone who is interested in walking the Freedom Trail? Is the trail, today, well-marked? Is there signage along the way that helps inform and educate? How does the city welcome people who are interested in attending the daytime Fourth of July weekend events or any of the many other history-related events throughout the year? Do we take for granted the fact that tourists will always come and view police and other city services only as expenses, or do we work hard to make it a better experience for every person every year?

    A quick comparison of the visitor’s experience here and in other communities outside of the region would be eye-opening and might form the basis for reassessing the way public entities can support the long-standing efforts of the history and historic preservation organizations, including the interpreters, guides, and reenactors, who today welcome people from throughout the world who come here for our unique historic attractions.