Denial of Access In the Name of “Historic Preservation”
I’m starting this post off with an anecdote (I do that a lot, don’t I). But it’s such a perfect anecdote that it really does belong here.
I recently attended an event in a historic building which lacked wheelchair access from the front, although it was accessible (kinda, you had to go down a sort of sketchy path to get there) from the back. As I was climbing the steps to the front door, a Black woman in a wheelchair rolled up. Without even really looking at her, the representative at the door said “oh, you can enter through the back.”
There are a lot of problems with what happened in this anecdote. Like the fact that the representative didn’t even acknowledge the woman, didn’t even say “hello, thank you for coming,” did not apologize for the fact that the front of the building was not accessible (and didn’t mention that the interior was largely inaccessible anyway), and apparently didn’t see anything even vaguely disconcerting in telling a Black woman to enter a building “through the back.” There was a time in this country, and it was not very long ago, when Black folks were expected to enter any building through the back. If at all.
Proceed to the back of the bus. Enter through the back. What do these things have in common? They are denials of personhood. They are denials of the equal right to access space. They both imply “we don’t really want you here, but we must allow you in, so we are going to begrudgingly allow you a form of ‘access’ to our space.” And they are extremely problematic.
“Historic preservation” is an excuse I see used to deny accessibility a lot. In part, it’s because I live 10 miles from the village of Mendocino, which is, quite literally, one big registered historic landmark. In 1971, huge chunks of the town applied for and were granted admission to the National Register of Historic Places. Mendocino takes historic preservation so seriously that they have a Historical Review Board to review any proposed activity, and I mean any proposed activity, which might impact the appearance of the town. Recent selections from their agendas include topics like whether or not signs can be moved two feet to the left, if someone can paint a shed, and if someone may erect a tent in a backyard for two days for an event.
The Historical Review Board is infamous for its draconian attitudes, and a lot of what goes on there is about power plays, unsurprisingly, for a small town.
What, exactly, does this have to do with accessibility? Well, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mendocino is highly committed to historic preservation and extremely inaccessible. Most of the businesses there are only accessible to people who can walk unassisted. Wheelchairs, walkers, and even canes are very difficult to use in Mendocino. The town has narrow, coarse, steeply sloped sidewalks (including original wooden sidewalks) which are extremely difficult to navigate (not least because they are often rendered innavigable with random objects like tables, chairs, discreetly positioned trash cans, and so forth). There are few curb cuts. I can walk unassisted and I have stacked (“fallen spectacularly and painfully,” in California argot) more times than I can count on the sidewalks of Mendocino. The doorways of businesses which one might theoretically reach in a wheelchair are often too narrow for a chair to get through, and almost all are “just one step” doorways. If you’re in a power chair, forget it.
What’s wrong with this picture?
If you can actually get inside a business, good luck getting around. Few businesses have chairs which people who need to rest can use. Most of the counters are so high that only adults of average height can see over them to do business with the clerks (I’m short enough that clerks often don’t see me or can’t assist me without coming out from behind the counter). Aisles are narrow and extremely cluttered. As for navigational aids to assist the visually impaired, forget it. And if you’re Deaf or hard of hearing? Again, good luck.
Mendocino has steadfastly refused to provide accommodations of any kind, under the guise of “historic preservation.” They didn’t have things like audible warnings at intersections, curb cuts, ramps, and other accessibility aids in the time period which Mendocino is attempting to crystallize itself in, therefore, they can’t be implemented in Mendocino. Even if this means deliberately excluding people, literally telling them that they (and their money) are not wanted in Mendocino. The argument is that accessibility would “ruin the experience” and “break the spell” for visitors to Mendocino.
Here’s one of the wooden sidewalks I mentioned. I am standing on the step one has to mount to get onto it from the North side…
And here’s the flight of stairs you have to mount if you want to access it from the South side. If you can’t navigate stairs, you’re forced into the street, which is to the immediate right of this image.
Yet, Mendocino allows cars, which is not historically accurate (the town is aiming for late 1800s). Mendocino also allows people of colour to enter its businesses, through the front door, even, which is also not historically accurate. Interracial marriages and same sex commitment ceremonies can be performed in Mendocino’s churches: Not historically accurate. The female residents are allowed to go to the polls on election day, even!
In fact, Mendocino is doing what any organization/group/etc committed to historic preservation does in the modern era: They are trying to retain the flavour and sense of history, without overriding social progress. The residents of Mendocino would be infuriated if someone suggested that interracial marriages in the town should be banned because they aren’t historically accurate. As well they should be. Because they recognize that history is problematic. It’s not all good. There are some things which are best left in the past.
This does not, apparently, apply to ableism. Because No Historic Building Ever Ever had any sort of accessibility accommodations, this means that no building in Mendocino can be accessible. Besides, accessibility accommodations are ugly and annoying and how many people with disabilities are there, anyway? Why do these people want special treatment? That’s the kind of attitude that prevails in Mendocino, and among many historic preservationists and laypeople scrambling to come up with an excuse for evading accessibility requests (let alone requirements) and it is extremely frustrating.
Here’s the front entrance to the Mendocino Hotel, right on Main Street. It’s a little hard to see in this picture but there’s a sign which indicates that access for wheelchair users can be found around the side. Evidently the “separate but equal” doctrine is still alive and well at the Mendocino Hotel. Let’s go check that out, shall we?
Enter through the rear, please!
Because there’s no reason it needs to be like that. Accessibility accommodations can be (and are) tastefully implemented. There are ways to make buildings accessible without compromising their historic integrity. These methods would involve the use of technology which was not present in the past, but electricity is a relatively recent invention and no one no seems to have a problem with the fact that most buildings are electrified these days. So, clearly, people are willing to use modern technology when its convenient or when they are required to do so for safety reasons (I don’t see people complaining about smoke detectors in historic buildings, for example). Indeed, designing accessibility accommodations which fit seamlessly with an area of historic preservation would be a really interesting design challenge, and one which I think could be met in some very creative ways.
Here’s one of Mendocino’s most famous historic sights, which apparently sighted people with disabilities don’t need to see. This building, incidentally, is the bank; check out their inaccessible ATM:
No talking ATM option, and while it’s not clear here, parts of the Braille are worn away. There are also a number of signs (not pictured) spelling out various quirks of the ATM which people would actually need to know about to use it successfully.
So, why won’t Mendocino and the numerous places like it across the United States meet the needs of the roughly 20% of the American population which is classified as disabled? Why do so many people cry “historic preservation” when they are approached about the possibility of implementing accommodations anywhere, not just in Mendocino? Why is “historic preservation” so selective? Surely it has nothing to do with internalized ableism!
I didn’t stage this. I swear. I just happened to notice, while I was wandering around town documenting accessibility fail, that this mobility scooter was left outside an inaccessible business.