Lately, I have been thinking about historic preservation and how it is viewed by non-preservationists. Non-preservationists can be those who may be interested in but do not define themselves as preservationists, those who are generally uninterested in the field or those who are unaware of what preservation is. To the latter two categories, the term “historic preservation” may sound unfriendly, scarred by stereotypes and preconceived notions or affiliated too much with gentrification.
Those of us familiar with the field of historic preservation know that it is anything but elitist. The days of focusing solely on house museums and famous figures only have long passed. Now historic preservation includes all ethnicities, all races, all classes, all architectural styles, all communities and reaches beyond history to intertwine itself with economic revitalization, sustainability and quality of life. It is quite the challenge to be effectively succinct about preservation.
You do not have to be a historic preservationist in order to appreciate historic preservation.
Has anyone ever told you that? Does that sound strange? Or obvious? In other words, as I write and talk about historic preservation, I am not hoping to transform you into preservationists. My motivation is not to make every other field sound less important. Rather, the goal is to gain your respect for preservation while providing education about the field.
For reference, I consider my family members who are not trained in preservation nor would they define themselves as preservationists. Yet, there are traces of preservation throughout our childhoods. We all grew up loving The Big Duck on Long Island (and we had ducks for pets; Mom still does). We were and remain incredibly attached to the town of and our memories in Point Lookout. My mom could explain the history of most places we’d pass on our drives to eastern Long Island. My sister Sarah loved road-tripping with my mom and me where we saw more roadside architecture, an abandoned schoolhouse, state and national parks and memorials and small towns in the middle of nowhere.
My youngest sister Erin (a frequent commenter on PiP) understands how quality of life and sense of place are improved through supporting small businesses and getting behind the development of bicycle trails. Both girls loved the first time I brought them to a drive-in movie theater. My sister Annie holds our family traditions dear, yearns to take a cross-country road trip together, and explains to me that I’d love Austria because of the narrow, winding streets and little stores and the architecture. My dad tells me the history of Forest Hills and his parents, his visits to the 1964 World’s Fair and his love for train travel.
I have taken many road trips (Route 66, South Carolina, South Dakota, Great Lakes) on which I have stayed in little motels, seen roadside America galore, driven through small towns and big cities and of course, seen flamingos along the way and/or had a flamingo in tow. And I always drink a lot of coffee.
You see, it is easy to identify many elements of and connections to preservation running through my family members and our conversations, even if they don’t completely (or didn’t always) realize it. Aside from my mom, I would be surprised if any of my family members included “historic preservationist” in their “about me” descriptions.
Yet, they understand why it is important and appreciate the benefits of historic preservation. And that is what matters most. While they may not want to do what I do for a living, they are glad that I want to do it. (Don’t be fooled; families are not perfect. We avoid discussions about big box stores.)
The same can be said for every field, probably. Sarah works in the wildlife conservation & environmentalism fields, which is another incredibly vital role in the health of our world. Wildlife conservation is not something I can see myself doing as a career/lifestyle, but I understand its importance. The same can be said environmentalism. Not everyone is going to keep up with the latest scientific findings and reports, but many will do his/her part to improve efficient use of resources in order to help save the planet, habitats and environment.
This is a non-succinct story to explain that just because you understand (or sort of understand) all of the historic preservation chatter and theories, does not mean that you have to define yourself as a preservationist. (This is not to discourage you from defining yourself as one if you’d like.) In fact, you don’t have to understand it all. The needed part, by all, is to respect historic preservation and those of us who believe strongly in the power (for good) of the wide-reaching field. You do not have to do the preservation work, but if you can come to terms with even one aspect of preservation (e.g. local shopping, rehabilitation of historic buildings, land use planning, heritage tourism), then you are enabling us preservationists to keep at what we love – and more importantly, to work at ways in improving quality of life and sense of place for person and every community.
So, what do you think? Does knowing that, as a preservationist, I am not attempting to “convert” you or others to a new field make you less apprehensive to historic preservation? And if you are a preservationist, how do you feel about this?
p.s. Did you miss Friday’s Pop Quiz? Take it today and the answer will be up tomorrow.
Saturday night I had to pack my suitcase and collect my possessions that I randomly scattered throughout my parents’ house over the course of a short four days. I reached under the kitchen sink to grab a plastic bag for dirty clothes and what do I pull out, but a white bag with blue block lettering: WAL-MART. My reaction is always the same when this happens at home: really people, do you have to do this to me?
As much as I don’t like admitting it, my family sometimes shops at Wal-Mart. I haven’t shopped there in over three years for anything, but there are just some battles that you can’t win with family members. One of my sisters repeatedly tells me that it’s her only option and Target is the same thing anyway. I agree. Target is basically the same. I have family members who work for Target and will attest to the similarities. After all, it is corporate America in the form of megastores. It’s easier for families to shop at such chain retailers because of low prices and everything is in one place from toiletries to basics like paper towels to cat food and litter.
Coming from a less than wealthy family with a high cost of living, I have always understood the cost of a good deal and the importance of a budget. So in these cases, I fail to argue a proper point. Of course I can elaborate on the poor business practices and the overall effects on the economy and small business and the preservation consequences, but when it comes to telling my sister where to find cheaper things, I can’t come up with a satisfactory answer, yet.
This has become an argument that I always encounter when I’m home, even if my sister just enjoys goading me. I’m at the point where I try to avoid such a discussion and stick to my own principles. My family is proving harder to convince to abandon Wal-Mart altogether than my classmates. However, they did watch Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, with me, which kept them away for a while. But as every other stores becomes more and more like Wal-Mart, it’s harder to justify boycotting one over the over. As for me? I do my best to avoid all of them. The extra dimes it costs me are more than worth my dignity. And it says to me that I need to find better arguments for families sticking to “Main Street” shopping that are more tangible in the short term (because we know the long term benefits.) But it’s still painful to accidentally grab a Wal-Mart bag.
I grew up in a beach town. My mother pulled me in the wagon to the beach and we played on any sunny day in any season. My father held me under a crashing wave before I knew how to swim. My uncle taught me how to ride the waves (body surf) and I have a beautiful scar on my shoulder from that incident, getting trashed by the waves. My cousin taught me what little I know about actual surfing. My sisters and I lived for the beach. I have salt water in my veins and salty air in my lungs.
As children we spent hours on the beach digging holes, just digging. Hands, shovels, buckets, shells: anything could become a useful digging tool. Our efforts often attracted jealous attention of nearby children who marveled at a hole so wide and deep that four sisters could sit comfortably. We guarded our hole with pride and asked our parents to not let anyone cave it in while we ran to the water to rinse off our sandy bodies. Waves kept us in the chilly water for hours at a time. We ran along the breaking waves and turned cartwheels. We rode wave after wave after wave, perfecting our body surfing techniques. Sometimes the waves tossed and turned us under water, pulled us from the surface, and dropped us from our place on top with no warning. The waves never scared us; we thrived on the excitement. Our father and his brother stayed with us after the lifeguards had gone home at six. We’d occasionally use a boogie board, but that never seemed as true as body surfing. The afternoon and evening brought warm water and an easy sunny sky.
Now, years later, I do not live near the beach. Here, it is hours to any beach and people take vacations to the beach. I never fathomed such a thing. I miss the beach and try to take my vacations in the summer to go home and return to the beach with my sisters.
Playtime on the beach is different. We dig fewer holes and tolerate the cold water just slightly less than our younger selves. We love the beauty of the sand and the ocean, but some things changes. Recently, I have felt guilty and suddenly too old. How could I not want to play like that 10 year old girl I used to be? This is when I realized that our favorite places can evolve with ourselves. My memories never leave; I love everything about the beach and the games my sisters and I would play.
As we’ve grown, I’ve adapted myself to the beach. Instead of running from the beach blanket to the waves and back, I run miles on the beach. On these miles, barefoot and in the water, I show my love for the beach. There is no place I’d rather run and no place that I’m happier to run. When I run on the beach, it feels like I’m playing. They are always my favorite runs with stops in the middle to jump in the waves. I’ve never appreciated cold water more than during a sunny run.
Now I have a melding of my childhood and myself. We still ride the waves and turn cartwheels and jump off lifeguard stands. Digging holes may have to wait another generation. But, I have added an older version of myself and my activities to the beach. Without this, the beach (or any favorite place) risks fading memories. Every time I run I remember. Every time I run on the beach I’m adding to those memories.
Memory and use are funny things: combining them makes the place stronger and more meaningful. People and communities should consider what they love (buildings, landscapes, open space, etc) and when it’s out of date, find new ways to keep the past and the present connected, assuring life for the future. It’s the basic foundation for human existence; our memories, our lives, are connected by the past, present, and future. We wouldn’t want to let any of that go, so why should we forget our surroundings?