AMERICA's ethnic minorities are awakening to the importance of preserving more of their historical and cultural landmarks. During National Historic Preservation Week (May 8-14), citizens of African, Asian, and Hispanic origin - as well as those of Anglo-European background - will find meaning in this year's theme, ``Historic Preservation: The People's Choice.'' J. Jackson Walter, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has mandated a permanent place on all future trust conference programs for the discussion of minority issues.
``I think we are beginning to cut through a myth, a myth that preservation is very elitist and very white. More people of all colors and backgrounds now feel they can participate. We in the trust must work hard to establish that partnership with the minorities. We can't just recognize partial history and shunt everyone else to the side.''
Case study: California
Asian-Americans and other ethnic minority groups will become more actively involved ``after we eliminate the concept that historic preservation is a luxury commodity available to only the privileged few, says Eugene M. Itogawa of Sacramento, Calif., a historian with California's Department of Parks and Recreation.
``Ethnic minority groups concerned with self-survival may not consider preservation a high priority,'' he comments. ``Yet the historic preservation movement must recognize the importance of attracting and maintaining ethnic minority interest in preserving the nation's cultural and physical environment.''
While today, Mr. Itogawa continues, 1 out of every 5 Californians is Hispanic, by the year 2030 it is projected that Hispanics will be the state's largest ethnic group. The state will become increasingly non-Anglo, with a multi-ethnic majority represented by Hispanics, blacks, and Asian-Americans.
Early preservation efforts in California were aimed at Spanish missions and adobes, properties related to the gold rush, and houses associated with prominent pioneer families. Later survey efforts managed with the state cited over 49,000 properties in 120 California cities and counties. Yet less than 5 percent were connected with ethnic minority groups, according to Itogawa.
In 1980, California redressed this imbalance through an agreement with five ethnic minority surveyors, who conducted an inventory and documented the contributions of blacks, American Indians, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Hispanics. Each submitted 100 individual historic properties.
Neighborhood surveys selected many areas related to the ethnic minority experience, such as Hispanic East Los Angeles, the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland, the Hispanic barrio of San Diego, the Italian North Beach area of San Francisco, and Japan Town of San Jose.
Results of this statewide survey will be published this summer. The state has already been asked to fund additional surveys of the Filipino, Portuguese, and Armenian communities.
Community involvement yields sites
Many local California communities are conducting their own surveys. For instance, the Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County, a nonprofit organization consisting of five minority councils, has completed an independent survey of Japanese-American properties in Orange County. It intends, alternately, to survey cultural resources of blacks, Vietnamese, Asian Indians, and Chinese-Americans in the county.
Some of the properties identified are already on the National Register of Historic Places or will be submitted for consideration. Others will be considered for the National Historic Landmarks Program.
``Now that we have identified many sites,'' says Itogawa, ``the big problem is [raising] money to do something about them. Another is to restore and preserve in a manner that is sensitive to the cultural perceptions of the minority groups that are associated with them.
``The state historical preservation offices need many more folklorists, cultural anthropologists, and other professionals trained in identifying and protecting these kinds of values and these kinds of cultural and historic properties.''
Need to train minorities
There has been a dearth of recognition of the contribution of minorities in the building of this country, says Norma Cozart, head of the program office for the Inner City Ventures Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation office in Washington.
Likewise, she says, there is a dearth of minority preservationists and related professionals:
``The question is: How we get to our predominantly black universities and interest them in developing a curriculum in the field of preservation, to help train a corps of minority preservation professionals?
``It will take years, but we must begin somewhere,'' Ms. Cozart continues.
``We have opened up a dialogue. We have recognized the need, and the fact that this country is indeed a melting pot of many cultures. Now we must decide which minority sites are worthy and deal with documenting them and getting them recognized.''
Meanwhile, James H. Charleton, a historian at the National Park Service, has been preparing a theme study of nationally significant minority and ethnic sites for potential designation as national historic landmarks.
What sites, he asks, do we use to recognize native Americans? Are the sites associated with the early years of immigrant groups vital to understanding their experience here? Or are those that reflect their achievements and triumphs more important?
Should we, even if we could, preserve urban slums, ghettos and barrios, sweatshops, slave villages, Japanese-American internment camps, and other evidences of suffering? Or should we concentrate only on those sites that demonstrate evidences of achievement?
Mr. Charleton says that both should be preserved, taking into careful account the wishes of the groups being considered and giving them a voice as to how they will be represented in the listing program.
The initial stage of the theme study was the examination of some 40 properties - predominantly urban historic districts - to determine whether they meet the criteria for national historic landmark designation.
Some of the districts have been listed in the National Register or recorded by the Historic American Building Survey. All are of fundamental historical importance to the ethnic and minority groups and to the communities in which they are situated.
Typical examples are the North End of Boston, the Lower East Side of New York City, Ybor City in Florida, Panna Maria in Texas, and Chinatown in San Francisco.
Study to be presented in 1989
The ethnic and minority theme study is due to be presented to the National Park System board next spring. ``It will close a great gap in our listing program of national historical landmarks, which is that period of heavy migrations to the United States of roughly 1830 to 1930,'' says Charleton. There are now virtually no national historic landmarks that commemorate the Irish, Italians, Germans, Eastern Europeans, Jewish, Asians, Chicanos, and so many other groups.
``At the same time, however, these groups have enjoyed a resurgence of identification and justifiable pride in their achievements. Why have the roots phenomenon and the historic preservation movement not joined forces sooner? If we can forge such an alliance, our movement will be infinitely stronger.''