Since the establishment of the National Preservation Act of 1966, Historic Preservation movements have been defined by the national guidelines created as part of this program. And yes, I am an avid supporter of the historic preservation activities endorsed and created through this program, and cannot imagine what many communities would have lost without federal and legislation protecting historic resources. Federal and State historic preservation programs have done an incredible job promoting and preserving the built part of our heritage.
However, I think it is important for us to remember that this program was not intended to be the definitive authority of what is historic and what is not historic. It only provides a guideline. I admit, that it is an important guideline if you are seeking federal or state recognition, or grants from the various agencies and non-profits that support preservation activities. If this is your only goal, that is fine. The programs are flexible enough to keep most people busy applying for grants, tax abatements, and seeking assistance on how best to protect resources eligible for listing.
The community programs that have the most value in my opinion, occur naturally, regardless of the available funding or recognition that is available. Let's consider an example of this for a moment. The preservation act was established in 1966. However, the first "historic district" was formed by zoning in 1931, 35 years prior to the National Preservation Act. This district was formed by the City of Charleston, South Carolina. The establishment and protection of this district is approaching it's 80th year, and has won the city many distinctions over the years. The Charleston Historic District was listed as a national landmark in 1960, six years prior to the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act.
Communities will always have the right to define what is important to carry forward for future generations, and should develop programs independent of the federal and state definitions of what is "historic." Respect for the achievement for those who are part of the history of your community and helped to shape it is an important activity for any community to undertake. The development of local history through Historic Preservation puts the community on a firmer path for success in the future. Regardless of the economic status of the community, embarking on the paths to develop your local history rewards everyone who is involved.