Rosa Woolsey, the 2023 Equity in Historic Preservation Undergraduate Intern, reflects on her introduction to historic preservation and her internship project, researching culturally significant places for Seattle’s Beacon Hill Council and the Beyond Integrity initiative.
The goal of this project was to identify and explore places on Beacon Hill that are culturally significant to its neighbors and in the context of a historic preservation survey. Through employing ethnographic methods in the context of preservation, we were better able to center the voices and experiences of community members who have been excluded from the work of historic preservation.
The primary challenge, and ultimately, advantage, I had with this internship was that I do not have a background in historic preservation. Rather, I have been trained as a student of anthropology. When I started this position, I was excited to apply my skills to a new realm of cultural work and gain experience in community-based research which is exactly what I was able to do this summer.
In hindsight, my internship unfolded in three parts: background gathering, conducting interviews, and writing. For the first month, I had a lot to learn about preservation: the various acronymed organizations, landmarks preservation standards, how practice differs from local levels all the way up to national standards, as well as how preservation is structured in surprisingly inequitable ways. In line with my anthropological sensibilities, I was surprised and frustrated to learn that cultural significance is a negligible part of historic preservation work. In a way, this made my job a bit easier—it was clear to me that what preservation is in need of is the people-centered mission and ethnographic methods of anthropology.
Although I had a personal connection to Beacon Hill through the Cambodian Buddhist temple, Watt Dhammacakkaram, I also had a lot to learn about the neighborhood’s history and the many communities that make up Beacon Hill. This included getting my feet on the ground and taking an initial tour of the neighborhood with my project advisors so I could get a feel for the geography and energy of the place I would spend all summer learning about. After lots of reading and context gathering, I was introduced to a wealth of community leaders and began to schedule interviews with neighbors who were generous enough to share their time and stories with me.
I am lucky to have been working with a meaningful and relatively straightforward research question: What places in your community do you care about? From there, my job was to listen and to document. This is where my background in anthropology and journalism came through. I learned more about the specifics of conducting oral history interviews and was enthusiastic to expand my skills in interviewing and story-gathering. After about a month of carrying out interviews, transcribing, and reflecting on what themes emerged in my conversations, it was time for me to begin the writing process.
For the last month, I have brought all of this information together into a cohesive narrative, putting the voices of neighbors at the forefront of this storytelling. What I came up with was a document that is both a catalog of eleven culturally significant sites on Beacon Hill as well as a critical response to the inequities of traditional preservation practice in the form of a blended methodology study. Those focus sites are: El Centro de la Raza, the Ponce Torres Family House, the Rasmussen Family House, Day Moon Press, Jefferson Park, Watt Dhammacakkaram, Saint George Catholic Church, MacPherson’s Fruit & Produce, Fou Lee Market & Deli, Comet Lodge Cemetery, and the African American Academy. These places were drawn from a longer list I compiled of 74 sites that are recommended for future research and documentation, which is also included in the report. After finishing my final report, I delivered two presentations, one to the Beacon Hill Council, and another to 4Culture staff/board/advisory committee, Beyond Integrity members, and preservation advocates. I was encouraged by the warm reception and feedback on how this work is significant in the greater scope of where preservation is moving.
Through this process, I learned a lot about Beacon Hill as well as the current state of historic preservation, why it is the way it is, what directions practitioners are trying to move it towards, and how anthropology fits into that work. It was especially good timing for me that the undergraduate intern position was established the same year that I graduated. I am grateful to have come into this opportunity as a recent graduate; the chance to immediately apply the skills in interviewing and writing that I developed in college to a new context has been immensely helpful in coordinating what my next steps are. Through this work, and seeing the need for social scientists in preservation, I have felt affirmed in my background and interest in anthropology and the value of culturally-minded work. As such, I feel a greater sense of direction in looking towards options for graduate school and intend on continuing my studies in anthropology.
Rosa Woolsey graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, Minor in Religion, and Concentration in Global Studies in 2023 from Whitman College, where she served as News Editor and News Reporter for the Whitman Wire campus newspaper. For her senior thesis, she completed an ethnographic research project on Buddhism and cultural identity among the Cambodian American diaspora in the Seattle area. Her academic interests and ambitions are fostered by her Cambodian and mixed-race background. Rosa’s primary focus area within Anthropology includes Asian American cultural hybridity, especially in the contexts of migration, religion, and language. In summer 2023, Rosa was introduced to the world of preservation as an Equity in Historic Preservation Intern for Seattle’s 4Culture, where she carried out a community-centered oral history project documenting culturally significant places on Beacon Hill, one of the city’s most diverse and understudied neighborhoods. In this work, she recognized a mutual goal of cultural sustainability in the work of preservation and in her prior research.