As general superintendent of the National Parks of Boston, Michael Creasey oversees the collaborative that includes Boston National Historical Park (all the sites along the Freedom Trail), Boston African American National Historic Site (north slope of Beacon Hill onwards), and the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. He led the creation of the Urban Agenda, a strategy to make the National Park Service relevant to all Americans, and sees himself not as a land manager but as an arbiter of ideas and ideals.
How can parks in Boston, with its constellation of properties, remain relevant to the lives of residents — that is, how are you staking claim to the city of Boston?
The National Park Service brand is strong as it relates to what people imagine to be national parks. They think of Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone — scenic wonders of the West. But more than 30 percent of national parks are in urban areas. Changing the perception of the nps is the opportunity for us in Boston — to recognize that it’s the way to talk about national heritage. It’s tied to the theme of revolution; what took place along the Freedom Trail was the momentum that led us to Philadelphia. And the African Meeting House story line is the story of social revolution. This was the foundation of the civil rights movement like no other place. Then, the harbor islands: one of the most polluted harbors in America became clean and worthy of being a national park because of an environmental revolution. I look at it under the banner of revolution and our ability to bring people to these places to talk about revolution from a historical perspective. We have platforms to present larger concepts within these landscapes, both historically and contemporarily.
How do we deal with historic properties in relation to issues we’re grappling with today, such as sea-level rise and climate change?
When the Historic Preservation Act was created in 1966, it was a movement that put the National Register together and an overarching recognition that these architectural spaces were important; no longer were we going to demolish neighborhoods without being thoughtful. We need to broaden our perspective on how we look at properties and how things like acid rain, sea-level rise, and alternative energy affect our structures. Many preservationists are already engaging in thoughtful debate about how we can balance historic preservation with climate change. It’s not an easy answer: There are places you wouldn’t want to see with solar panels or wind turbines.
In terms of equity, there are stories to be told about our past; how would you make those stories inform our future?
To the new immigrant coming from Syria or from Africa or Asia, what relevance do some of our historic neighborhoods and the Freedom Trail have to them? We have to make sure we are meaningful to all people and provide a way for them to see themselves in these stories. The Park Service’s challenge is that constituents are primarily white and have the income to support national parks. Part of the Urban Agenda is how we make these sites relevant to everyone and find a new way of doing business.
Rather than just serve as wardens of landmarks that fifth graders visit once and then forget about, how does the Parks Service integrate historic sites into the everyday conversation of citizens?
The future of these places depends on becoming relevant to coming generations. Look at the demographics of our country: 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas. How do we make the parks pertinent within the cities people live in and make sure that we have stewards who are prepared to take care of these urban constituents and willing to tell their new stories? One of the things that I feel has great promise is we have started the National Parks of Boston education collaborative to reach deep into the public school system to bring young people to the parks. We are working with the educators from all the historic sites to codesign curriculum that is place-based, a dynamic curriculum to engage students. To build a robust education program, we are working to bring voice to places that are significant and presenting these stories through the arts — from showcasing the Old State House for the story of the early makings of the revolution to bringing forth untold stories like how African Americans played a role in the Boston Massacre and were very much a part of the American Revolution. We need to make sure the audiences we are trying to reach are more diverse than what we gain through our standard marketing approach.
What do you love about Boston?
To be able to take the pulpit at the African Meeting House and speak at the same place where Frederick Douglass spoke is a moving feeling. To stand at Faneuil Hall — cradle of liberty — and speak at the Middle Passage ceremony, which is all about reconciliation for what this country received [from the enslaved people transported to the Americas and their descendants, who helped shape the city]. Being one of the few white people to speak was a tremendous opportunity. I live a splendid life because I work for an agency that is the holder of the American narrative.