2009 Reflections & 2010 Resolutions, Preservation Style

Happy New Year! May you and yours find health, happiness, and success in this new year. How was your 2009? Upon the conclusion of 2008 I looked back at my own preservation efforts throughout the year and looked ahead to 2009 with new goals and resolutions. Mostly I hoped to develop a better definition/explanation of historic preservation that I could easily share with people, something more cohesive and fluent than I previously used, which was always longer and more winding than necessary. I hoped to read important, landmark preservation books that sat on my bookshelves.

How did that go? Well, I have an explanation of historic preservation that suits me and my views on the field. Depending on our particular preservation professions, passions, and preferences, we may all have variations, but I will share mine:

Historic preservation can mean different things to different people. Collectively historic preservation is looking towards the future with respect for the past. It’s understanding communities, ways of life, the built environment, and heritage values in the sense that we need to remember the past in order to create a brighter future. And methods for doing that are the facets of historic preservation: architectural history, historical research, community and preservation planning, oral history & folklore, museum studies, economic revitalization, archaeology… the list goes on. Historic preservation provides the ability to shape and direct a world in which people are proud of where they live and who they are, even though that definition may be different for everyone. And when people have pride in their home, they are happier, and every action matters more and that is how we create a better world. That is how historic preservation can save the world. Granted, that’s simplified, but I will always believe in it.

I think in its basic understanding, this explanation will always be the core of what I love about historic preservation and what keeps me going, why I study the subject and think about it constantly and why it is never a chore; it’s my life. I truly believe in it and its great practices and continued unharnessed potential. I am happy to have finally developed this definition for myself (after being asked many, many times). What do you think?

As for books I have read, there are always more to read, but this year I particularly enjoyed How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand and A Richer Heritage edited by Robert E. Stipe. I look forward to a lifetime education fulfilled by the ever-increasing number of books available to read.

So, how was 2009? Unfortunately, the year ended on a sad note for many people with the demolition of the Lake Champlain Bridge in New York and Vermont. For all of the preservation success stories, this most recent preservation tragedy remains fresh in my mind. The upside is thinking that the story of the Lake Champlain Bridge can serve as a lesson and a reminder to all of us about just how fragile our built environment is and how we need to be proactive in identifying historic resources and educating in a cross-disciplinary manner.

In 2010 and this new decade, we are sure to see historic preservation grow and touch the lives and environment of many. That may sound obvious, but I mention it because historic preservation is certainly not a dying field; we are forever gaining momentum, knowledge, cooperation, and useful technology. Historic preservation continues to succeed because of its applicability from sociology to economics to science. All preservationists should be proud of the field.

More specifically, regarding a resolution for 2010, I could of course talk about education goals, but that’s a given considering that I am currently in graduate school. So, moving beyond academia: there are so many subjects that interest me (likewise many people find this) yet I know only snippets about, thus limiting my understanding and conversation on the topic. For example, I love the National Parks, and I am familiar with some, but really I cannot claim to know very much about them. Tonight I watched part of  the PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea with my family and found it fascinating. (I am likely behind the times in watching these; blame grad school.) The amount of information is immense and as one narrator said, the stories of the parks are more than just parks and conservation, they are about the people who became enamored with these places so much that they did everything they could to preserve them. It made me think of preservationists, since we often find ourselves in love with places and stories, which then fuels our missions. And I thought of how the National Parks are such an important part of the historic preservation field (history, stories, buildings, landscape, interpretation, culture, etc.) and how I wished more people had a yearning to travel to the National Parks. These are places that are best understood and respected when seen by individual eyes. Otherwise, they may seem irrelevant.

I talk about the National Parks to say that I want to know more about them and to learn more about the overall story of the parks and the connections to the field of historic preservation. As Theodore Roosevelt said of the National Parks, “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”  What a beautiful thought and what a thought-provoking statement.

So, whether you love the National Parks or your local history or that historic era, if you find yourself fascinated by something and you are known to say, “Oh I love [insert subject here]” but you only know tidbits, challenge yourself to go a step further and educate yourself. In turn you will likely be deepening your passion, your education, and the education of others. Historic preservation succeeds when everyday people like us understand the history and significance of a place or an event and teach others what we know. Without a community of education, informal or formal, and care, we will lose momentum. Luckily, preservationists and preservation friends will always persevere.

Cheers to a productive, proud 2010!