“Placemaking in city/neighborhood spaces enacts identity and activities that allow personal memories, cultural histories, imagination, and feelings to enliven the sense of “belonging” through human and spatial relationships. But a political understanding of who is in and who is out is also central to civic vitality.” - Roberto Bedoya
A brief conversation with the Freshwater Project about their recent decision to relocate their headquarters led to a visit to West Palm Beach where I facilitated a multi-sensory discussion about African-American historic preservation as creative placemaking/keeping.
The Freshwater Project’s offices are currently in the 1926 home known as the Cracker Johnson House. James Jerome “Cracker” Johnson (1877-1946) was a mixed-race, wealthy numbers-runner, bootlegger and club and real estate owner who was a Robin Hood figure crowned “King of Black West Palm Beach.” The home is a contributing structure to the Northwest neighborhood’s status as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and is now up for sale.
While the brick and mortar structure will belong to someone else, the future of the Freshwater Project is inextricable linked to the Cracker Johnson house. I began to wonder, “How do we preserve the histories of this place?” “How are the larger stories about a place/community/neighborhood connected to our individual stories?”
Those questions set the tone for a discussion between the Freshwater Project and five DC-based artists in town for Art Basel Miami (specifically, black artists exhibiting around themes of identify). Together, we examined and imagined the power of black historic preservation beyond property ownership.
We began with a tour and the story of West Palm Beach’s historic “Freshwater” community followed by Story Circles, a technique derived from exercises of the Roadside Theatre and Junebug Theatre. Through personal narratives from the visiting artists and past residents of the Cracker Johnson House we explored what a community’s collective memory could look like past geographic location.
The ideas and energy generated here will help inform the future of the Freshwater Project.
Historic Preservation Prompts for your community:
- Who is the “Cracker" Johnson in your community, place of origin or family?
- Tell a story about a time your work was considered an act of preservation of resistance.