A string of historic anniversaries in Prince George’s County has preservationists calling for a more proactive approach to protect and promote historic sites before they fall under the threat of removal for redevelopment.
Alfonso Narvaez, chairman of the Prince George’s County Historical and Cultural Trust, a historic preservation nonprofit organization, moderated a forum Wednesday at the Darnall’s Chance House Museum in Upper Marlboro on the future of historic preservation and tourism, particularly in light of various upcoming historic anniversaries, from the War of 1812 to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Preservationists and historians are all too often reactionary,” Narvaez said. “Normally, preservation ends up acting as a rear guard, trying to stop things after the fact. We need to spell out what kind of community we want to see, and how we want to see the history around us interpreted.”
The forum was part of a series of events held by Narvaez’s group, along with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area Inc., a nonprofit focused on preserving historic places and marketing them to potential tourists, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to get input from residents on what they want to see happen at historic sites.
Aaron Marcovitch, executive director of ATHA, said that in northern Prince George’s, his group has been able to capitalize on various historic sites through various guided and non-guided tours, which he said can boost spending at nearby businesses.
Although a similar effort has begun in the Fort Washington area, he said it is more difficult in the southern part of the county.
“[In northern Prince George’s], it’s easier because you have all these municipalities [to coordinate with],” Marcovitch said. “But down here, things are looser and more spread out.”
Stephen Sonnett, president of Upper Marlboro’s Board of Commissioners, said his town has been constantly on the losing end of a struggle against the expansion of county government at the expense of Upper Marlboro’s “village” feel. The town is currently embroiled in a fight with Prince George’s County over the proposed demolition of a historic school in town to make way for a Family Justice Center, which would provide a variety of services for domestic violence victims.
“Even in the 1970s, a lot of village was left, but since then much has been replaced by [government buildings] and parking structures,” Sonnett said. “So the question for us is how can we balance those interests. We’ve got to protect what we have left.”
Bobby Bookwalter, 45, of Croom said residents need to take the initiative in protecting sites if government officials don’t step up.
“So many sites are lost just for the sake of redevelopment,” Bookwalter said. “These are treasures that need to be preserved, and there needs to be more public awareness of the history around us.”
Narvaez said after the forum that the next step is to put together a report on the series of forums and would like to continue the meetings to show there is a “historic preservation constituency” in the county.
“These events are a very positive way to make sure history has a seat at the table as we move forward with various developments,” Narvaez said. “Historic preservation tourism can be a very valuable asset, but we have to prove that there’s a constituency for it.”