Parking lots or History? The case for Preservation in America

Significant places from our past are often valued as being reminders of the good ol’ days, nostalgia, sentimental and heart warming. They are places where we once lived, where we once learned, or even where we had our first kiss. Whatever the occasion, what may seem to be an ordinary place for one person, could actually be a treasury of memories for another.

As a student at Texas A&M University, the schools long standing traditions, and historic buildings connect one to the past. Giving tours of Campus, I have former students come up to me all the time asking if a dorm hall is still around, or if their college building is still standing. Recently, several dorms on campus have been demolished in the name of progress. Unfortunately, if any former student were to ask about these dorms, I would have to tell them the bad news. More than likely, they may give out a sigh of disappointment and move on with their lives, but what about sites that affect an entire nation. Some place that is not only personal for one, but a place that had a significant affect on the lives of millions to follow.

Former Site of Walt Disney Studios (http://dearoldhollywood.blogspot.com/)

Right now in America, our national heritage and history is under threat. We are losing the places that connect us to our past, and that have ultimately shaped our future. The National Trust for Historic places has recently listed the top 11 most endangered historic places.  Places that include Fort Gaines which played a pivotal role in the Civil War battle of Mobile Bay, or China Alley in California where Chinese immigrants settled in the late 1800’s.

Places we have already lost are numerous. The former home of John Hancock, the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, is only marked now with a plaque, the place where Walt Disney changed movie-making history is merely a parking lot, and Ebbet’s Field, where Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier for baseball is now an intersection.

Walt Disney Studios 2719 Hyperion Ave (http://dearoldhollywood.blogspot.com/)

As our future is being shaped with innovative designs, progress, growth and so on, will the past continue to be buried beneath the asphalt and concrete of modern day? Is it important to save places that “tell the story of America?” or will we as a society just sigh and move on.

Some may argue that America is young, that our country is hardly “historic” when compared to places like Europe or Asia. But unlike early Europe or Asia, which today is being sought after by archaeologist and researchers, we have the know how and we should have the wisdom to save places we feel will be great reminders of the past for future generations to come. Will our latest convenient store that was built over an historic cemetery be important 50 years from now? Will it be important a 100 year’s from now? Let us keep the things that are significant, that are historic, that will last. After all, when these historic places are gone, so too is our past and heritage.

http://www.preservationnation.org/

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3 comments

  1. Preservation is an interesting subject, because one would think that all it takes is to leave something alone. There are so many factors involved, the main one being money. People are willing to destroy anything to either make money or to save money. Working for the NPS, I’ve had the chance to see the surface of how this works.

    Last summer I went to Apostle Islands in Wisconsin to update current conditions of historic structures. There was a cute cottage built in the late 1800s that contributed to the park’s historic significance. We recommended minor fixes for the condition to remain at the ‘good’ level (screens on the door and removing vegetation growing on the roof). The superintendent looked at us and said “Oh, we’re going to let that fall to ruins.” Apparently he felt they shouldn’t be penalized if it was the park’s goal to let certain historic buildings fall to ruins. They didn’t want to spend money on the upkeep of these buildings so that they could improve other features, like other buildings and trail maintenance, so it was part of their management plan. I thought it’s the NPS’s goal to preserve as much of culturally significant landscapes and buildings as possible.

    There is an extensive process for places/buildings to get National Register of Historic Places nominations, which includes lists of criteria and exclusions (like achieving significance at least 50 years ago). There’s a lot of paperwork involved, and even after something makes the list, it doesn’t guarantee it’s safe from destruction. Most preservation efforts prioritize documentation, because you never know when the places/structure will be lost.

    There are also many private efforts for preservation, but without government support (a.k.a. funding) these projects can become too expensive and unachievable. With the ‘financial crisis’ there’s less and less support. One of the interns here told me the Michigan (I think) governor recently got rid of the tax credits for preserving historical buildings.

    I’m still doing some ‘on the job’ learning, but so far I can gather, there are a lot of things involved, and when there is a conflict of interest we lose historic and culturally significant places and buildings.

  2. I agree with Jen, the notion of saving ‘History’ depends on whether we want to spend the time and resources on it. I mean, when our schools are falling apart, pot-holes are eroding deeper, and rust is spreading on our bridges we must see what gain priority: the present state or preserving the past.

    Per example, there are several churches which have been built in the 1800s all around St. Louis. One must consider the neighborhood it is located, how often it is used( how it can gain revenue). Compare the Cathedral Bassilca, located in a high end neighborhood, in fact Pope JP II visited it and was renown to say that this was the ‘most majestic church in America’. while on the north side of town churches built even earlier ,1889, have been in decline for several years, simply because people to not want to INVEST in these places where crime is high even though their faith is right up there too.

    So, I think it comes down to popularity of the site-in order to gain advocates to help raise key funds to pay for up-keep, the location of the site in correlation to the surrounding land value and land use.

    1. Being old and being significant are very different. Everything will become old, eventually, but significance gives us a reason for preservation.

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