Preservation as Change of Mind

margoBy Margo Warminski

I grew up in 48205. (Google it.) I lived in a place where the American dream went into reverse, and kept going backward. Eventually I moved to a calmer zip code but kept the Rust Belt DNA. Which is why I couldn’t wait to spend three days at the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in Cleveland.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Throw so many bright, engaged, outspoken urbanists in a (big) room and you can’t help but be inspired, and challenged by tough truths (Looking for happy talk? Keep looking.) like:

1. For years, much of preservation was oriented toward controlling growth: a manifest destiny of new restoration districts, better ordinances and more wood windows. But what happens when the wheels come off and, in some neighborhoods, you can’t even give houses away? Preservationists, not just in rusty cities, need a change of mind: learning to live within limits. As we heard over and over, the overriding goals should be to keep buildings standing, and keep people in them—even if we have to compromise on guidelines and expectations.

2. You can’t demolish away the problem of vacated neighborhoods. For years, cities have been whacking away at buildings in a kind of slow-motion urban renewal, yet vacancy continues to spread. As Alan Mallach ably stated, low demand, not vacancy, is the issue. [editor’s note: While it’s true that demolition alone will not solve the problem, Alan’s point was that we should work both to rebuild demand (which is a slow, gradual process) while also implementing a strategic plan for demolition. Vacancy is a result of low demand, and all legacy cities have a large, and increasing housing surplus. When asked to comment on Margo’s point, Mallach reminded us that “demolition may not be the answer, but the reality of oversupply means that many buildings will be lost, either through demolition or neglect.”]

3. You can’t separate race, class, poverty, crime, unemployment, and extreme isolation.
4. You can’t save everything. We know this better than anyone.
5. And: time, resources, political will — never enough.

Most exciting was the four-hour closing workshop where we hammered together an action agenda, more or less in harmony. Our wish list included: more funding (saved, expanded tax credit; new products for low-value properties); more balance (money for stabilization, not just demolition); and more, better data. And we left with work orders:

1. Pitch the plans. Take meaningful, incremental steps.
2. Go top-down, bottom-up. Cities need both DIY-urbanism and activist government.
3. Reach across the room. Realize that first priorities of people in hard-hit neighborhoods probably aren’t restoring Italianate cornices. You can’t impose on people with different priorities.
4.Find common threads in tangled history. Newer residents of old neighborhoods may not cherish them for the original residents, but they may share values and aspirations with the founders.

Now, back to 48205. As a kid, I wanted to live on a street in a nearby neighborhood called Robinwood East. Just a bungalow block, but the name sounded glamorous. (Google-map it to see what’s left of it today.) For Robinwood East and Delhi Avenue and Flint and Youngstown and struggling historic places in lonely corners of America, that’s why this matters. Let’s go.

Margo Warminski is the Preservation Director at the Cincinnati Preservation Association, where she leads research, advocacy, and community outreach about preservation through monthly programs and assisting with agency events and publicity. She has worked in the historic preservation field in the Cincinnati area for over twenty years. This article was first published by the Preservation Rightsizing Network and is re-posted with permission from the author and blog editors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *