Guest Post: Telling Difficult Stories

Beyond Integrity is a group of preservation professionals and community advocates concerned with inequity in historic preservation practices in Seattle and King County. 4Culture has hosted and supported Beyond Integrity since 2014. Claudia Kiyama, a new member of our Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and a preservation architect who has been a part of the group since its inception, recently presented at the Revitalize WA conference, as part of a panel about “Telling Difficult Stories.” This post is a condensed version of her presentation.

What are difficult stories? They may be stories that remind us of a shameful past, or that bring back a painful collective memory. These stories are obviously not easy to tell, but most people can agree on their relevance. But what happens to the stories that not everyone knows, that not everyone is interested in remembering? What happens to the stories not of the majority, but of only a few? Time and time again, these stories are either not told, or deemed as not relevant to our historical narrative.

In the Fall of 2014, 4Culture convened what we now call Beyond Integrity. The group was formed with three initial goals. Our first priority was to gather data on currently designated landmarks in Seattle and King County—particularly related to their association with underrepresented communities. Second, we aimed to engage local decision makers, such as historic preservation boards and commissions, on issues of equity. And ultimately, we want to foster a stronger voice for the public in the historic preservation process, especially for those from underrepresented or marginalized communities.

The members of Beyond Integrity maintain that places are important for much more than their mere physicality. Buildings are more than a conjunction of construction materials, parks are more than a collection of vegetation and structures. We know that places have served as witnesses to the lives of people, multiple generations at times; places hold stories, and stories hold places in people’s memories.

However, within the field of historic preservation, the intangible qualities of places are often overlooked or minimized. Too often architectural significance is emphasized over cultural significance, and architectural integrity is deemed more important than people’s stories, memories, and associations with a place. This is particularly common with places connected to underrepresented communities—modest houses, rural farms, neighborhood spots, community banks.

Our group is called Beyond Integrity because in our initial discussions we came back to the observation that in many cases, preservation boards and commissions denied landmark designations based on the lack of architectural integrity of buildings. We talked about how heartbreaking it was to watch places that were so important in their communities not achieving landmark protection, because they lacked qualities that in our estimation, did not seem as relevant to the significance of those places.

We discussed endlessly the realization that in many cases, preservation standards were written to describe only a certain type of place, to protect a specific narrative. As a group, we aim to get the preservation process to look beyond the architectural integrity of buildings; we wish to motivate decision makers to realize that people’s stories, their memories, and their connections to a place are as relevant, if not more so than the physicality of structures. A place doesn’t necessarily lose its meaning when a wall is lost or a room added.


The Katsuno House is part of the historic White River Garden Cooperative near Auburn. While it is a culturally significant location, it does not yet have official landmark status.

We, the members of Beyond Integrity felt strongly about all this. But, were we right about local preservation practices? In order to discover this, with the support of 4Culture, an internship was set up with the goal of gathering data to test our ideas. For research purposes, groups defined as underrepresented communities included: people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, veterans, the homeless, the working class, and those of low-income.

We felt that due to the historically marginalized position of these groups, there have been barriers to their participation in the landmark designation process. We also felt their lack of representation was reflective of the reality that the narrative and experiences of these groups historically had not been considered to be significant.

During the summer of 2016, Beyond Integrity intern Jialing Liu began an assessment of whether the diverse communities in King County are reflected in the historic landmarks that have been designated. Jialing compiled data for 128 King County properties and 348 Seattle properties that were designated as local landmarks. This information was used to produce maps showing the distribution of landmarks and whether they have a documented association to an underrepresented community.

Some general observations emerged from reviewing this data. First, LGBTQ, Native American, and Latin American immigrant communities are largely absent from the histories in nomination and designation reports. During this first review, it was unclear if this meant that these associations were not being presented as part of a property’s significance, or if properties associated with these communities simply were not being nominated. Similarly, women’s stories are rarely found in nominations and where women are mentioned as part of the significance of a place, it is only briefly.

The next phase of the project was carried out by our second intern, Kirsten Freeman during the summer of 2017. The goal of her research was to add to the data collected in the previous internship, and also identify properties for more detailed examination. Kirsten wrote five case studies, including the history of the properties, their associations with underrepresented communities, and an analysis of how they fared in the nomination and designation process. Four case studies address some of the reasons properties associated with underrepresented communities are not nominated or designated as landmarks. One case study is of a designated landmark with a strong association with an underrepresented community that was not acknowledged as part of its significance.

The findings of our two summer interns backed up the concerns and fears of the members of Beyond Integrity. Their research suggests that in Seattle and King County, we have not done a good job telling the stories of all. We are not doing that good of a job protecting places that are meaningful to certain communities. We are not doing that good of a job acknowledging the multiple stories many of our designated landmarks hold.

Beyond Integrity is now sharing our research findings more broadly, both with local preservation decision-makers and with the general public. We are committed to continuing in our mission to make preservation more equitable and inclusive, so that we can better recognize, protect, and learn from places that are significant to diverse communities.