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New Oral History Collection Documents Efforts to Preserve the Working Waterfront

New Oral History Collection Documents Efforts to Preserve the Working Waterfront

Preserving working waterfront oral history

Laura Wilson

By Stephanie Showalter Otts, National Sea Grant Law Center

Working waterfronts are more than the physical infrastructure – the docks, piers, and equipment. Working waterfronts are also social and cultural features of their host communities; they are integral to how community members define and distinguish themselves. When working waterfronts are threatened, communities often initiate efforts to preserve access rights. Working waterfronts across the country have been preserved through purchase, designation as historic districts, and zoning techniques.

The community effort in Gig Harbor, Washington to save one of the historic net sheds. Image: National Sea Grant Law Center.

In 2014, the National Sea Grant Law Center, Maine Sea Grant, and NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management received funding through the NOAA Preserve America Initiative to capture and preserve oral histories showcasing working waterfront preservation efforts. This project was an outgrowth of the National Working Waterfront Network’s Sustainable Working Waterfronts Toolkit, which was funded by the Economic Development Administration and released in May 2013. The Sustainable Working Waterfronts Toolkit is an online information portal that contains a wealth of information about the historical and current use of waterfront space, the economic value of working waterfronts, and legal, policy, and financing tools that can be used to preserve, enhance, and protect these valuable areas. 

Ten working waterfront champions were invited to share the story of their community’s working waterfront initiative. These are the people behind the scenes – the land use planners, port directors, community organizers, legislators, property owners – making the programs work. The interviews strived to gather information on the “how” – how did the community preserve their working waterfront or water access? What tools and strategies did they use? What was their secret to success? 

Fishtown, an active working waterfront in Leeland, MI. Image: Mark Breederland, Michigan Sea Grant.

The resulting “Preserving the Working Waterfront” oral history collection includes audio recordings of the full interviews, transcripts of the interviews and audio slideshows highlighting key elements of the oral history. The audio slideshows are available on the National Working Waterfront Network website and the audio files and transcripts are archived in the NOAA Voices of the Fisheries database.

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