Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's A Political Movement

Houston Astrodome
Houston, Texas
Hello Everyone:

Today in the final in our discussion on historic preservation in the twenty-first century, we're going to take up the subject of preservation as a political movement.  When most people think of a political movement, what typically comes to mind are political parties, campaigns, men and women promising the moon and the stars in exchange for your vote.  In his final post for the Preservation Leadership Forum, David J. Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, writes that preservation-related issues often become springboards for political movements.  A good example of this is the referendum to save and rehabilitate the Houston Astrodome.

Aerial view Houston Astrodome
Houston, Texas
In November 2013, voters in Houston, Texas narrowly defeated a ballot measure to save and rehabilitate the venerable Astrodome.  One local newspaper felt quite confident in declaring that the voters rejected nostalgia.  Nostalgia? Hardly. The sports stadium is a modernist icon and symbolic of the spirit of the Lone Star state-big vision, brashness, can-do attitude-the Texas with a bright shiny future.  Hardly a definition of nostalgia.  Yet, all too often, preservationists have allowed themselves to be boxed into a position by those wanting to return to the "good old days" because they cannot deal with reality of the present.  This is not what preservation is about.  Nostalgia is useful for conjuring up memories of a place, which is good for preservation.  The problem begins with the language used to describe preservation.  At its core, preservation is a political movement.  We're like those who stand for election, minus the moon and the stars promises.  We have to convince people to join together, if we want to be successful.  Yet, few people understand the actual nature of the field because the lingo looks back and is often focused on architecture.

Third Church of Christian Scientist
Washington D.C. Araldo Cossutta
photograph by Matthew Bisanz
David Alpert's planning blog Greater, Greater Washington, drives home the point about the difficulty in the terminology, particularly in his post on the difficulties surrounding the Brutalist-style Third Church of Christian Science.  Mr. Alpert writes,

If there's ever an example of winning the battle and lose the war, (Alpert wrote) this church fight is it...I admire the strict preservationists' fortitude in standing up for what they believe but preservationists need to realize an important fact: preservation is a political movement.

For all the talk about how preservation retains even buildings that are unpopular (since tastes change), preservation got started saving buildings that were popular.  Masses rose up unsuccessfully to save the old Penn Station, still New York City's most deeply-felt loss.  Our historic preservation laws come from the political forces of many citizens dismayed at the changes happening around them.

Since then, the political climate has changed.  If I were a leader in the historic preservation, I'd be very worried that the movement is heading...toward irrelevance in pursuit of ideological purity.

I often find it interesting to talk to lay people "interested in preservation."  The conversation is usually based on fond remembrances of things past.  However, you can't keep buildings and places metaphorically encased in amber.  That's not how this works.  Buildings and places change, materials deteriorate, the function changes, and so forth.  There has to be some strategy in place to manage the change.  In listening to homeowners complain about the draconian edicts issued by their neighborhood Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, what becomes apparent is how absolutist these HPOZs can be.  They seem to want to freeze a particular community in time, refusing to allow for any changes or compromise.  This, I believe, is due in part to how much the language and ideology of preservation is based in the past.

Save Penn Station protests
The success of political movement is founded on issues where undecided people can agree with their position.  They succeed when they work diligently to educate the general public about why, a train station for example, is important from an architectural, sustainability, small "c" conservative perspective.  We should show more respect for all places and not just assume that everything will be rebuilt every thirty or so years.  While the bulk of preservation work is couched in the future, the language others use to describe the work, and the terminology preservationists use, helps make the case for the critics.  At present, preservation is frequently defined on its most traditional and regulatory characteristics.  We're the "NO Police," as in NO development, no building, no everything. That sounds awful doesn't it?  Nevertheless, like any parent or teacher, we sometimes have to say "no you can't" but "no"should not be the first thing that comes flying out of a preservationist's mouth.

The ruins of Tintern Abbey
Monmouthshire, Wales
Preservationists are not in the business to stop change or keep things as is, our job is to manage change, imagine a future instead of accepting what we have if we left things alone.  The truth is preservation is at the very foundation of American community renewal initiatives over the last thirty years.  We aren't exactly your stereotypical tea sipping, blue haired ladies with big hats, at least yours truly doesn't fit this description.  Be that as it may, preservation as nostalgia often gets relegated to something that's "nice-to-do" but not "critical-to-do."  Then there's preservation as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard).  This takes the position of preservation as obstructionism, something to be avoided.  Thankfully, the profession has a new generation of people who take a more holistic approach to the field.

These more holistic minded professionals are making the case for preservation using more forward-thinking proactive language.  One such person is Tom Mayes whose series of blog posts on "Why Old Places Matter" centered on the language we to describe why we should care about a place.  Old places provide a sense of continuity and identity that helps people find a sense of balance, stability, and health.  This is an important task.  Thus preservation as a political movement should compel others to believe that saving older and historic buildings should be a priority.  Preservationists must demonstrate that a livable city i.e. the thriving and alive city, is diverse.  Wholesale demolition and construction destroys that connection which makes a place unique and desirable.

Older, Smaller, Better:
Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influence urban vitality

 In May of this year, a new National Trust study, Older, Smaller, Better:
Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influence urban vitality began to make the case preservation's crucial role in economic vitality and dynamic human activity.  The Preservation Green Lab concluded that neighborhoods composed of a range of older and newer buildings support the local economies with a high percentage of new businesses as well as women- an minority-owned businesses.  

The study also demonstrated that young people (i.e. millennials) love older buildings.  Neighborhoods with a broad range of building age had a more vibrant night life.  For example, at 10:00p.m. on Fridays, cellphone activity spiked in neighborhoods where there are a mixed-age of buildings than in neighborhoods with just new buildings.  What this tells us is that preservationists need to move away from exclusively focusing on buildings without the context of the stories of the people that reside within.  In the twenty-first century people desire experiences, community, and opportunity.  They will move into, invest in, and take care of a place that provides these needs.

Historic buildings and communities are in a unique position to provide a sense of identity and creative outlets.  Nevertheless, the profession of historic preservation needs a new vocabulary that reflect this impact because, quite honestly "historic" and "preservation" sound like something that should be mummified instead of something more forward-minded.  This is especially true if preservation is to be an essential element in the future of our towns and cities.  Everyone in the preservation has to be involved in creating the case for maintaining older and historic buildings as places for new opportunities and experiences that are the foundation of sustainability and the success of our communities.

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