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Interviewee: Laurie Sommers

Role: Folklorist and Historic Preservation Consultant

Date of Interview: January 16, 2015

Collection: Preserving the Working Waterfront

Click on the link below to view the interview.

Laurie Sommers Interview

Abstract: Laurie Sommers, folklorist and historic preservation consultant, was interviewed about the experience of establishing the Fishtown Preservation Society in Fishtown, Michigan. The Fishtown Preservation Society has combined historic preservation efforts along with folklore to promote stewardship of the historic Fishtown waterfront. Ms. Sommers also discusses historic preservation challenges such as identifying the next steps after property acquisition.

Transcript: Fishtown is in an incredibly beautiful natural setting, one that's also very vulnerable to the environment. It's on a short stretch of the Leland River which was dammed many years ago in the 19th century. So you have the dam, you have the river, confluence with Lake Michigan and you have on either side of this river, which is really not very wide at this point, lined along the edge these historic fishing shanties which were built from the early 1900s to the late 1950s and then some other buildings that have been built since then. It's a working waterfront of incredible beauty that has long been exposed to the elements of Lake Michigan where you can have, you know, ice shoves, terrific gales and storms, incredibly calm days with just gorgeous colors of the lake, so I think to me it's the combination of the working fishery and the incredible beauty and that location right on Lake Michigan that make the location what it is.

You know, we've spoken over the time I've been involved in Fishtown about Fishtown being the survivor and all the sort of miracles that have occurred. I think in all honesty you know a buyer could have stepped up who might have just wanted to you know take down those structures like has happened other places and put up condos and have it all be a nice pretty yachter's paradise like South Haven is. Fishtown Preservation Society is an organization with the backing of a board and an executive director and I think the unique thing about it in terms of its role of it, a custodian of Fishtown in terms of its interpretation, its the historical preservation, its preservation into the future; what I think is most unique about Fishtown Preservation Society in terms of this particular discussion and policy is the particular types of expertise that they've brought together to facilitate the stewardship of Fishtown.

Doesn't any historic preservation effort have to start with people?–people who care enough you know to make sure that a place is preserved and that it's preserved?–you know and then you have to make the decisions about how a place is preserved. I think the question is when and then how does it become a preservation effort? –perhaps, and then you've got the place, you've purchased it; you know it's like you know we're not done. That's just the beginning and then that's when you know saving is only the first step of preservation, you know and then you have this you know the long and important job of, you know, what's next? How do you keep these buildings in working order? What's your philosophy of physically rehabilitating and keeping the properties you know from falling into the river, as some of them almost did in the 1950s?

And then how do you tell its story? I mean it's not just about the buildings; it's about the place, and the place has a site. There's a landscape. There's a geographic, physical site that the properties sit on. It's not just the buildings; it's the whole complex. It's the site. It's the geography. It's the folklore. It's the traditions. It's the stories. It's the storyscape. All of that has to be taken into consideration and so Fishtown Preservation had to come up with their philosophy for how they were going to preserve the place. So that you didn't pickle Fishtown into a particular you know–you allowed it to breathe and that's what a working waterfront is. A historic working waterfront has to be allowed to breathe and to move forward.

In a nutshell, how I would say Fishtown Preservation Society has preserved this working waterfront; okay I think they have started out with an exceptional leadership to the organization that has combined expertise and historic preservation and folklore: two very compatible and important partners but ones that have not been put together in a whole lot of other projects. And again I think that's one of the policy lessons of this success of Fishtown Preservation Society.

This collection is part of an effort to document oral histories that focus on the application of specific tools for sustaining working waterfronts across the country. To learn more about the Preserving the Working Waterfront Oral History project, click here.