Lately I’ve been thinking about historic preservation.
Though it may be overblown, Saint Paul and Minneapolis seem to be full of fights between “urbanists” and “preservationists” over the future of our cities. Examples include the ongoing spats over an historic but run-down house in Uptown, old single-story buildings in Dinkytown, or the width of sidewalks in Lowertown. In each of these cases, urbanists and preservationists have ended up calling each other names, rolling their eyes, and holding all-night vigils and/or emergency strategy meetings. With so much emotion on display, something must be going on.
The problem irks me because the urban design and historic preservation communities have so much in common. Both groups of people share a deep-seeded sense of history. Both share an anger about the destructive renewal policies of the 50s and 60s that leveled our cities in the name of progress. Both groups love looking back at old pictures of our cities, going on history tours, and thinking about architecture. But somewhere on the way to the present, the two groups diverge. Preservationists and urbanists seem to lack a common language for thinking about the value of cities. Why is that?
The Conservation Frame
Here’s one problem. Many historic preservation narratives adopt a “conservation frame” that reminds me of stories about endangered species. The call to “preserve our historic resources” rhymes with stories of environmentalists chaining themselves to old-growth firs. Meanwhile, in this story developers and their urbanist henchmen assume the role of the diabolical loggers, menacing the forest with a chainsaw and a bulldozer.
By calling old buildings “historic resources”, preservationists transform cities into a zero-sum game. You must choose between conservation and waste. You either have stasis or destruction. History becomes precious, like oil or pandas, and cities are always in danger. Once we lose them, they’re gone forever.
(Thus, the all-night vigils, name calling, and histrionics.)
My problem with the “conservation narrative” is that cities are far more than buildings. Cities are the name for how our built environment shapes our lives. Cities are the shared spaces through where we make meaning. Cities are the common ground on which we understand each other. Cities are the everyday interactions that make up a street. In short, cities are people. You cannot reduce cities to piles of bricks, glass, and concrete without thinking about the dynamic social relationships that surround and fill them. Much more is at stake.
The Resource Fallacy
Maybe that’s one difference between preservationists and urbanists. When I look back at old photographs of Minneapolis or Saint Paul, I don’t focus on the amazing architecture. I’m too entranced by the people.
Sure it’s riveting to see the old Metropolitan building or the Great Northern depot. I am amazed by the detailed signage, the intricate cornices, and the complex layers of shops, factories, and homes.
But in these old photographs, I can’t take my eyes off the crowds of people on the sidewalk. Imagine the pace of traffic in an old street! I dream about the variety of people who might fill an old downtown: young children, women in fancy dresses, men in hats, bums in the alley, workers everywhere carrying all kinds of things, vendors pushing carts, shop keepers minding the foyer, and a dozen different languages floating through the air. (Also, horrible pollution.) Historically, our cities were rich not just in high-quality architecture, but in high-quality density.
And to me, you cannot separate the our buildings from the social life of our cities. Minneapolis and Saint Paul will never have detailed buildings with copious doorways, windows on the street, and elaborate brickwork without sidewalks full of people to notice and use them. Our historic buildings come from an era when our cities were far denser than they are today. It is not enough to preserve buildings simply because they’re beautiful or historic or architecturally significant. We must revive them and bring them back to life. Otherwise, our cities will be little more than building museums.
Historic Density Demands Compromise
And that’s one crux of the problem. To my mind, density is an historic resource. To bring our cities back to their historic densities, we need to make difficult decisions. Is the historic value of an old house, or a sidewalk, or a 1920s commercial storefront worth more than the historic value of street life and density? How do we make that decision?
There are no easy answers. The future of our cities is not black-and-white. Change is neither always good nor always bad. Buildings aren’t panda bears or redwood trees. They are places where people live, and each situation demands careful debate. We must weigh the value of our existing spaces against our visions for the future. I know historic buildings are very valuable, and shouldn’t be tossed aside lightly. But so too is the kind of density that fostered those buildings in the first place. Re-creating density deserves to be part of the discussion.