🎙Interview: Vanessa Maria Quirk
Vanessa Maria Quirk (she/her) was born in Spain to a Northern Irish father and a Peruvian mother, Vanessa begrudgingly grew up on Long Island, studied English literature in D.C. and Oxford, left the northern hemisphere to teach English and write about architecture in Chile, and then moved to New York City in 2014 to pursue an M.S. in Arts & Culture Journalism from Columbia University.
You may have heard her as the co-host on a few podcasts: Urban Roots, where she and historic preservationist Deqah Hussein-Wetzel preserve place through story; Uncertain Things, where she and her journalist roommate Adaam James Levin-Areddy talk to the thinkers who are navigating us through this current, chaotic moment; and City of the Future, where she and fellow cities journalist Eric Jaffe explored the ideas and innovations that will transform cities. When she’s not making podcasts, she’s probably making music, failing to learn the ukulele, or squealing over adorable animals on Instagram.
Sounds Like Impact is a reader-supported publication. To receive new interviews and curations and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
To start, what is historic preservation?
When I started working on the Urban Roots podcast, I thought about historic preservation the way most laymen do: the field that takes old, historically significant buildings and does the physical work to save them for posterity.
What I’ve learned over time, is that historic preservation can take so many forms: I, as a storyteller, am a preservationist. Ms. Frances Tate, who has used old photographs to paint all the lost, Black-owned buildings of her neighborhood’s main street in Decatur, Alabama, is a preservationist. Ms. Claudia Polley, who encourages (and occasionally scolds) developers in Indianapolis so that they build new buildings in a way that is aesthetically sensitive to the historic fabric of her community, is a preservationist. The field is so much bigger than those with historic preservation credentials would have you believe.
It’s also important to note that, historically, physical historic preservation has been weaponized against marginalized communities. Places that were considered “significant” — likely because they had architectural merit — have been frozen in time. It can be illegal, or prohibitively expensive, to change these buildings in any way, and protected, historic districts — while wonderful things — can cause economic hardship to inhabitants; plus, “historic character” can attract gentrification and drive up rental prices. When we at Urbanist Media (the non-profit that support Urban Roots) think about historic preservation, we think about ways we can adapt historic buildings so they can continue to adapt to community members needs — and even bring wealth back to residents so they can stay long-term. This is what we refer to as “community preservation.”
Also let’s consider what has traditionally been considered “significant” in historic preservation and what has been considered “insignificant.” Any building with “architectural merit” was the result of people with resources putting money and time into the design and construction of a building. It’s rarer for people without money and resources to have those types of buildings in their communities, or, if they have them, to have the money and resources to maintain them over time. So, even when a place is beloved or critical to a community, it is vulnerable to being knocked down — and its histories erased — when city planners, developers, or other actors are looking to “revitalize” an area. With the Urban Roots podcast, we try to raise awareness around buildings, often endangered buildings, that are significant to marginalized groups; however, it’s also incredibly important to us to tell the stories of the buildings — and the people and communities that once inhabited/surrounded them — that no longer exist.
You are the producer and journalist of Urban Roots podcast, while your co-host Deqah Hussein is the historic preservationist and urban planner. What sparked your interest in the show’s topic and collaborating with Deqah?
I’ve been interested in urbanism and topics of spatial justice since I got my first journalism job out of college, at a popular architecture website called ArchDaily. I started my first podcast, City of the Future, in 2017, which was all about the ideas and innovations that could transform cities. Our third season was our most tech-centric yet, and I was already feeling unsatisfied with the potential of tech to really make a difference in people’s lives, particularly those in low-income communities.
And then 2020 happened, and with the onset of the pandemic and then George Floyd’s murder, I began to reflect: I needed my work to matter more. Deqah was a college friend of my partner’s; I knew she was a historic preservationist and was trying to start a podcast of her own. I reached out to her to offer my pro bono services as a story editor (I wanted more experience in this any way), and she countered with an offer: What if we started a podcast of our own? And so Urban Roots was born.
While I was working on Urban Roots, I also started developing season four of my City of the Future podcast, with one question in mind: what ideas could make cities more equitable and inclusive? I traveled across the country talking to developers, investors, and community groups who were doing real estate differently — for example, allowing community members to invest in shares of a development project that would give them dividends, or creating a tech incubator where a certain percentage of applicants came from the local, low-income housing complex; or raising funds to transform a historically Black neighborhood suffering from erasure and pollution into a safe, healthy waterfront community where Black residents could thrive.
This topic of real estate development — and how to make it more equitable and inclusive — was endlessly fascinating to me. At first, I thought it was separate from the topic of historic preservation. But, over time working on Urban Roots, I’ve realized that historic preservation and development are intertwined: to create more equitable places, places that acknowledge and redress the historic inequities of our built environment, we must preserve and develop differently.
The first series from your show, which was released in 2021, was called Communities of Color: Lost Voices of Cincinnati. Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be the focus of the first season?
Our first season came about because my co-host Deqah was doing historic preservation work in African American neighborhoods in Cincinnati. As she was surveying these neighborhoods, she realized that not only were many of the important buildings gone, but there was hardly any information about these places in historical archives. To learn about them, she had to talk to primary sources: long-time residents or descendants of long-time residents who could speak to the people and places of significance to their community. After recording these conversations, she realized they would form the basis of a powerful podcast, which in and of itself would serve as a form of preservation. She brought me on to the team, applied for an artist’s grant from ArtsWave, and the first season was born.
In a previous interview with Cincinnati’s The Enquirer, it was mentioned that finding people to interview for this show was difficult in the beginning. Can you elaborate on that and what solutions you came up with?
When we started Urban Roots, we knew we wanted to center community voices, but it was hard to know where to start. We began reaching out to local organizations — namely neighborhood councils, economic development nonprofits, and other community groups — and asking them who they thought we should talk to, who were the keepers of their community’s history? They often pointed us both to elders and people active in preserving/protecting their community. This has now become part of our approach for any Urban Roots project; we reach out to local organizations to connect us with community members who then connect us to more community members, and so on.
Do you have any stories about the impact of the series on the communities highlighted in the season? Or any anecdotes about how these stories were received by other communities?
After our Cincinnati series aired, my co-host Deqah went to a Community Taskforce meeting in Avondale (one of the three neighborhoods we spotlighted in the season). The members had been given the homework assignment of listening to the episode. When Deqah walked in, she was overwhelmed with positive feedback. For them, it was not only so great to hear the voices of people they knew telling the history of their home, they also appreciated how we had crafted the episode to be a truthful representation of the good and bad of their community — how it went far beyond the limited, stereotypical narratives about crime/safety in their neighborhood that they’re so used to hearing. That kind of feedback means the world to us!
Since that season there have been a few multipart stories about communities in LA, Indianapolis and Brooklyn. But in addition to this type of storytelling, you all introduced a BONUS series where there were interviews with different professionals in the preservation and planning fields. What are two or three interesting facts you learned about preservation work?
Before I answer this question, since I’m talking to other audio makers, I do want to take a moment to reflect on why we started the BONUS interviews — and why we’re still producing them.
It should be stated clearly that the kind of work we do — community-oriented, narrative, nonfiction, documentary-style, sound-rich podcasts — takes A LOT of time, effort, and money. We started the nonprofit, in part, to help us find a way to fund these types of episodes, which we believe are powerful, meaningful ways to elevate underrepresented voices and preserve their histories.
Because the funding and production of these seasons is so expensive and time consuming, we realized our feed was “dying” for months at a time. We wanted a low-lift way to keep the feed alive in a more consistent manner — hence, interview episodes. However, as soon as we started them, we realized that we were actually providing a valuable resource to our listeners.
The work of equitable preservation and development is hard — no one has the answers and a lot of people are experimenting in innovative ways. Nor is it a developed industry or field, so the people doing the good work on the ground are often operating in isolation. We’ve found that these interviews actually give people a sense that (1) they’re not alone; (2) there are people facing the same challenges as I am; and (3) there are successful models out there that I can replicate/adapt in my community. That’s huge — and means we’re supporting those who similarly have our mission to preserve places significant to underrepresented groups.
What have I learned from these interviews? So much! From Vishaan Chakrabarti, I developed a further understanding of the meaning of “community preservation” — i.e. helping community members to stay-in-place and thrive for the long-term. From Zahra Ebrahim, I learned that “moving at the speed of trust” is paramount to community engagement and development work — and, despite popular opinion, the fastest way to operate. And from Rukaiyah Adams, I learned the importance of saying no, of keeping your integrity, of building a big “boat” of people rowing in the same direction, and of proudly putting on your middle-aged bossy pants.
This interview is publishing during Black History Month in the United States. Before we go, would you like to speak to why the type of documentary work Urbanist Media does is particularly important for the aims of this cultural month and beyond?
Only two percent of places in the National Register of Historic Places represent Black spaces; fewer than one percent represent LGBTQ+ sites; under 10 percent of nominations highlight women and people of color broadly. When development happens, the places significant to these groups are almost always destroyed. But even when physical places are erased, their stories persist — and need to be preserved.
Through our Urban Roots podcast, educational resources, and more, Urbanist Media uses storytelling to preserve the places significant to underrepresented groups. These overlooked stories are critical to surface — and not only during Heritage Months — because they are an important, endangered part of our American history. We hope that, by sharing them, we cannot only raise awareness but also inspire those working in the built environment toward more inclusive forms of planning, development, and preservation. We hope or work could lead to a more equitable world.
Is there any new or upcoming work that you would like to share with us?
Yes! I’m so excited about our upcoming series on the “Lost City of Vanport.”
Located between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon, Vanport was a city built during World War II to house working-class people who came from across the country to work at the shipyards. At its peak it was the second largest city in Oregon and, unusually for the time (especially in Oregon), it was fairly integrated. However, it was also built quickly on a floodplain; in 1948 a flood wiped out the city in less than an hour, leaving survivors devastated, possessionless, and displaced.
For almost a decade, Laura Lo Forti of Vanport Mosaic has been working with folks in Portland to gather oral histories, in particular from African, Indigenous and Japanese American survivors and descendants, about Vanport. I’ve been combing through this incredible tape and, truly, there are so many beautiful stories and details I am learning — they could never fit into one episode.
We’re currently looking for sponsors for the Vanport series, so if you know of a person or entity that would like to sponsor the Vanport series, email us at email@example.com.
If this show’s topic interests you, you might also want to check out the Sounds Like Impact interview with Blake Pfeil of abandoned: The All American Ruins podcast.