Monday, July 22, 2013

Why historic preservation

Historic preservationists, with whom I have spent some quality time, feel like their animating passion is unappreciated by a lot of developers. They quote developers telling them things like, "Sure, people miss such-and-such a building for a while, but eventually they forget."

Did anyone actually say this? If they did, they said something that is accurate, but only at the surface level. I will personally admit to an amazing inability to remember whatever was there before what's there now. [Wasn't that always there? Weren't we always at war with Eurasia?] Today there probably are people who drive down 3rd Avenue and think, "People's Church used to be there. What a cool old building that was. That thing that took its place sure is butt-ugly." But even in such egregious cases, such comments will--as the developers know--diminish with time.

 And soon we'll forget where the A & W was, where they put your tray in your car window well into the 1990s, or Hubbard Ice Company, where they used to erect a huge red-white-and-blue block of ice on Fourth of July. Conscious memories are fleeting things, as are feelings of sadness at the loss of city landmarks.

At the subconscious level, though, it's a different story. It is here that historic preservation matters, for three reasons:
  1. Familiar places help to orient you, giving you a sense of where you are, in a place that is comfortable because it is familiar. No, I don't get lost driving down 3rd Avenue because People's Church and the First Christian Church are gone. But it doesn't feel right... feels alien. Take out First Presbyterian and Daniel Arthur's and I might as well be on Mars.
  2. To thrive, a downtown--or any part of a city--needs to feel interesting and safe to people. That occurs when there is a mix of old and new building. Sure, new building doesn't have to be ugly. [Do you like the Great America Building? So do I! But a downtown full of such buildings would be ghastly.] Anyhow character takes time to acquire even in a well-designed building. Would Little Bohemia be what it is in a new structure?
  3. Historic buildings connect residents of a place to that place's history. If you're in Boston, or Williamsburg, or Amana, of course you've got tourists who are interested, too. But even towns that aren't famously historic have history. And if you're going to spend time there, your experience deepens if you feel connected to former residents who have long since passed.
For each of these reasons, historic preservation matters to people who may not consciously consider it a priority, and the loss of historic structures has impact long after people realize it.

Besides comfort, appearance, and connection, there are other reasons why I feel historic preservation is a public good. As Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Random House, 1961], ch. 10) argued years ago, older buildings tend to have lower rents. This makes room for a wider set of entrepreneurs. The big boys, like Alliant Energy or Wellmark or Physicians Clinic of Iowa, can afford to occupy offices that are brand spanking new. A start-up store or tavern, not so much. Yet it's these little stores, restaurants and taverns that give life to a neighborhood, especially after business hours. This is where third places are most likely to spring up.

And sometimes we find we need buildings we thought were useless. About 50 years ago Cedar Rapids got rid of its historic downtown train station and replaced it with a parking garage.
(Union Station, swiped from

Who needs an ol' train station when everyone has cars and cheap oil will flow forever? Now that what James Howard Kunstler calls the "era of happy motoring" is endangered, maybe we'd like intercity commuter rail service, in which case we might could use that old train station after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...