Cynthia DeMiranda '91

The Accidental Historian
Writer: 
October 1, 2002

 

Cynthia DeMiranda '91

When Cynthia DeMiranda moved just up the road from Raleigh to Duke for her freshman year, she didn't know she would return to live in her hometown a decade later. And she would never have guessed she'd be part of the dramatic resurgence of the city's downtown historic districts.

DeMiranda is a preservation technician in the Raleigh City Planning Department. She's one of two support people the city provides to consult with the twelve-member Raleigh Historic Districts Commission, which aims to identify, preserve, protect, and educate the public about its historic resources. DeMiranda's role is to oversee and conduct design reviews for all projects in the city's five historic districts: Boylan Heights, Oakwood, the Blount Street area, Capital Square, and Moore Square. The city makes only local decisions, with the approval of residents of the districts. (The well-known National Register of Historic Places is a separate matter.)

DeMiranda was reared in one of Raleigh's northern suburbs. "There aren't too many historic properties there," she says, wryly. She says she'd always liked architecture, but envisioned a career involving writing. After earning her bachelor's with a major in public policy studies, she went to Washington, D.C., where she worked on the federal government's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, helping oversee federal regulatory procedures.

After two years in D.C., she moved to Minneapolis, where she answered a want ad for an architectural historian, thinking the firm needed a writer/editor. The firm, Hess Roise & Co., asked her to take the historian position and promised they'd train her. For the next five and a half years, DeMiranda studied mostly historical industrial properties--the retail and commercial properties that are often left out of architectural histories. One of the firm's projects was the Historical American Building Survey, performed for the National Park Service, which required mitigation studies before historical structures could be torn down. "It was hard," she says, "because you would get attached to a structure, knowing it would be torn down. It was like writing their obituaries."

But her work at Hess Roise taught her a kind of writing that underpins the work she does today--and what she hopes to do in the future. "I'd always liked architecture, but I'd never had the language for it," she says. "At Hess Roise, I learned how to articulate it."

One skill she developed is what she calls "learning to read the landscape."

"You can look at buildings and study how they evolved, changed, adapted. You can look also at the larger landscape. Where are the solids, the voids? How did it get that way?"

Any given area, she says, tells its own story through what's there, and not there. This way of looking at her surroundings feeds right into DeMiranda's longtime interest in nonfiction writing. She's got a couple of solid book ideas in development, rooted in architectural themes.

Now that she is back home again and reading the landscape of today's downtown Raleigh, she sees nothing but opportunity. "It's been fun to come back and rediscover the city through its built environment," she says. "I see a lot of empty buildings downtown, structures on the verge of getting redeveloped. Those buildings are great for restaurants, apartments, retail, all kinds of applications."

There are a lot of people seeking the downtown lifestyle, she says: people who want to work near their homes, then walk to a corner restaurant in the neighborhood and be known as a regular there.

Besides residents' improvements in newly gentrified downtown neighborhoods like Boylan Heights and Oakwood, there are large-scale, multimillion-dollar projects in the works, underwritten by developers and businesses like Progress Energy.

The changes, DeMiranda says, are fun to watch. "I'm looking forward to this downtown being a better downtown. Having lived just off the mall in D.C. and in downtown Minneapolis--places I could live and work and do all my shopping--I have high hopes that people can do that soon in downtown Raleigh."

Thanks to her work, that day should come soon. And when it does, chances are she'll be writing about it.

Davis '91 is a frequent contributor to the magazine.