Thursday, March 27, 2014

Reclaiming Yesterday – A Signature 1990 Cemetery Project

It was painful last month listening to a city administrator, one of the best, explain to city officials in Durham, North Carolina where I live that our community’s cemeteries have once again fallen into neglect.

The reason?  Because its funding has been short changed funded over the years similar to nearly every area related to general upkeep and appearance, so much so, that there had only been barely enough to cover burials.

It is emblematic of 75 years of neglect that is threatening Durham’s sense of place and the economic development potential it leverages.

I learned recently from Ellyn Shea, a certified arborist and urban forest activist who blogs on Green Infrastructure and Arborism that in 1825, park-like cemeteries as we know them today evolved even before urban park systems as a fusion of nature, art, reverence for the dead and education.

They are an important part of our urban forests, sequestering carbon, controlling climate, and cleansing air and storm runoff; a gift of life to those of us who remain from those who have passed on.

Cemeteries are also places to get in touch with the roots of a community, which is why we included them in inventories of things for visitors to see and do.

An element of Durham’s sense of place is not only the historic cemeteries such as Maplewood, White Rock and Geer - a slave cemetery - but hundreds of small, rural-like family cemeteries sporadically located in roadside groves throughout the city and county.

Their neglect is a lesson taught many times but never learned in any enduring way by city officials, dating back decades before my relocation here twenty-five years ago to jumpstart and lead Durham’s first official community marketing agency.

We were charged with protecting Durham’s sense of place by leveraging it into visitor-centric economic and cultural development, a career from which I retired nearly five years ago.

At that same time, Durham officials organized the Durham Service Corps (DSC,) a year-round program for young adults ages 18-23 as one of twelve across the nation to adapt lessons learned from the Civil Conservation Corps of the 1930s to help at-risk youth.

Reclaiming Yesterday -The Geer Cemetery Project was just one of a number of remarkable DSC projects before it faded a few years after from lack of funding and capacity, a victim of Durham’s fixation with grants-driven projects, an approach that leads to the thinning, if not cannibalization, of sustainability.

A summary of the DSC project survives thanks to a recap placed in the archives of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (that is my handwriting when I had handwriting, asking a co-worker to place it in “backg” for backgrounders.)

It had been passed to me by a wonderful DCVB board member and City Council member at the time, Betsy Robb who is buried in Maplewood Cemetery here.  Looking down the names of DSC board members listed on the cover sheet reminds me that I worked over the years with many of these individuals.

From day one, the organization has made a practice of archiving content that would be used to deepen and enrich what is now know as “content marketing,” an array of 16 tactics that has since surpassed advertising in both use and effectiveness.

The DSC Geer Cemetery project is an excellent example of fusing community clean up with curriculum development while teaching at-risk young adults about life and career skills such as analysis, project and time management, strategy-making as well as how to interview and synthesize information.

In this project, the participants literally had to resurrect the names and backgrounds of the former slaves buried in Greer Cemetery, which isn’t on Geer Street but on Colonial Street between McGill Place and Camden Avenue.

It also exposed them to careers in landscaping, research, archiving and curation, urban forestry and data management as well as instilling a respect for heritage, community, nature and sense of place.

A deficit of the latter may be why officials before and since have failed to adequately fund upkeep of the community.  The report is very through and many today would benefit from the three lesson outlined.

The project’s success is based on several principles including that pre and post discussions surround skill building as much activities.  Once grounded, deep learning is stimulated by related activity and then writing about it as well as evaluation.

While Durham allowed being on the forefront of this movement to slip away, organizations such as DSC have continued to thrive elsewhere and their effectiveness is regularly documented.

For fifty years after the Geer Cemetery’s closure, it suffered neglect by officials.  It is painful to read just how deep that neglect had become in the DSC project recap.

Of course this was just one of many intriguing DSC projects during its brief existence including clearing urban streams, painting public facilities, building compost bins, restoring structures at state historic sites, blazing nature trails and mentoring troubled youth.

Cemetery neglect is just the most irreverent example of how neglectful Durham has been overall concerning its green infrastructure going back at least eight decades, with the exception of one stretch.

From the mid 1980s until shortly after the Geer Cemetery project when DSC was allowed to fade away and neglect once more took hold, Durham rose up against blight, banning billboards, curbing other sign blight and executing a remarkable, “best practice” scenic overlay over a major new highway.

Taken together though, urban forests, waterways, parks and open spaces, grounds around public buildings, roadsides and medians have suffered as much or more than cemeteries both before and since so much so that for many it has become a norm.

Most disturbing is that no other area of local government responsibility touches more areas of community including poverty, public safety, racism, public health, economic development, community engagement, property values and neighborhood vitality.

The most significant testament to Durham’s sense of place is that is has endured in the face of this neglect.

But for how long!

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