Lessons from Jane

Burlington, VT is a beautiful place to live. No matter where I walk or run there are historic houses, bustling streets, vibrant parks, lake views and mountain views.  Some blocks are lined with elegant historic homes, all unique in shingles, dormers, porches, turrets, and landscaping. On other blocks, much smaller homes stand in a line. These homes are very similar in style, but additions and handiwork have given them character over the years. People live above business, in apartments, in duplexes, on the lake, and everywhere else.

House fronts, yards, and elevation seem to reveal a lot about the social class of neighborhood inhabitants. As a general rule it is easy to identify where the undergraduate students lives, where the upper class families live, and where those in between might live (young professionals, middle class families, etc.) The houses sit in various states of repair, some meticulously maintained and other crying for a paint job at the very least.

As a young professional/graduate student, I love that undergraduates and young working adults can live in these historic homes and are not banished to the suburbs or some apartment complex sitting next to the interstate. It keeps the community alive and diversity alive downtown and on the streets. People live on different schedules, so there is always something interesting happening.

However, I often catch myself wishing that these poor houses could all be given some good TLC and patched up. A paint job at least, random trash off the porch, how hard could that be? But, as we all know, when the place shapes up, rent goes up, and then property managers will not rent to undergraduates because of the stigma associated with them as tenants.  And although someone cleaning up a house’s appearance doesn’t necessarily equal gentrification, it still holds true that the nicer neighborhoods have higher property values and rents (at least here in Burlington – judging from all of the apartment searching I have done recently).

Thankfully, we all have Jane Jacobs to give us a few lessons in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Jacobs discusses how diversity in buildings is necessary to keep a block or a neighborhood strong.  Not every “old” building needs to be kept in tip-top shape, because it allows for a variety of businesses to move in and convert the building to fit its requirements. Older buildings are cheaper than modern construction, but when combined they attract diverse tenants (think of retail businesses that typically inhabit old buildings vs. ones that occupy new buildings). In the same fashion, people will live in houses and apartments of varying age. Owner investments into a house will be a long term investment whereas renters will make the place livable and pleasant for their time there. Community pride will take care of the neighborhood.

While the extremes of the above discussion are gentrification and the decay of a neighborhood, maintaining the mixture creates a safe, good environment for its residents. And I try to think of this as I explore my new surroundings. After all, I have seen the most activity on streets in the supposed “bad” neighborhood here, but then again downtown is always full of people, and in the “upper class” neighborhood people stroll and talk to their neighbors on the porches. And together they make combine to make a great city and a very entertaining running route. So, every building does not have to be restored to its historic grandeur, just maintained. Thanks for the lessons, Jane.


Apartment Renters

In high rent, high turnover, high demand areas, you pretty much take what you can get in terms of an apartment. Maybe you’ll get the basic things on your wish list (pets, location) but not that fireplace or extremely detailed doors and transoms you always dreamed about.  For Vinny and me, location, price, and pets were what we could not compromise on, i.e. we had to be able to walk to school, we would not go over a certain dollar amount (read: poor grad students), and we had to have the cats.

We were able to find an apartment with those qualities just when we were at the end our rope. Realtors didn’t return calls, craigslist ads weren’t much help, and we had already seen a not-so-great apartment and one building that we wouldn’t even set foot in. (Elyse Gerstenecker wrote an article about her troubles while apartment hunting in the December 2008 issue of Preservation in Pink.)

When we saw this apartment, we knew it was our best shot. We didn’t have other options. So we signed a lease for this tiny apartment (as in small for one person) and we started thinking about how to improve it because the guy who lived here before us had never cleaned a day in his life.

Cleaning the apartment top to bottom was a must, cabinets, floors, windows, refrigerator, oven, bathtub, everything. We picked out paint colors and decided the cream color needed to be white for the window frames and door frames, crown molding, baseboards, and cabinets. Cleaning and painting is exhausting and it gets expensive.

So why would we bother doing this to an apartment that is only temporarily ours? We’re not getting reimbursed for painting, though our landlord did rip up an old rug for us and give us floor cleaner. We are trying to make this apartment feel like home, make it someplace we want to stay in for more than one year. And in the process of making this apartment a pleasant place to live, we’re keeping things in mind for how to do things when we restore our own house someday.

The apartment is in a historic house, one that was divided into apartments long ago. The more I sit in the house, the easier it is to see clues to the house’s history. Clues like crown molding in the closet, a former exterior window (now an alcove above my head) is in the living room, the molding around an old door frame that has since been closed in, hardwood floors under the kitchen linoleum, and other  things have revealed themselves as we’ve been painting and cleaning. I think our living room is a former porch.

I’ve never lived in an old house, so this project is one I’m more than happy to have. We’re taking care of the apartment, something it has needed desperately. And with all of this work, we already feel attached. Granted, it’s just a facelift and minor maintenance, not restoration by any means, but we feel that the house deserves it.  Once our work is done, I’ll do some historical research for the details.

The Good Part about this Bad Economy

The economy isn’t pretty. One glance at a newspaper or a few seconds worth of watching the news will tell you that. It’s not a fun subject, politics aside.  Prices are rising, jobs are being cut, and people are faced with making difficult economic decisions. What this economy leads to or how long the slump lasts is unknown to everyone. What we can control is our own actions and our ways, as a community and as a nation, in which we navigate through the economy.

If you browse through the New York Times collection “Picturing the Recession”, comprised of reader submitted photographs, you’ll see abandoned storefronts, people job searching, and other signs of these tougher times.  Evidence that the once thriving businesses are closing, perhaps earlier than they should have, likely prompts those with successful local businesses and downtown districts to do all that they can to increase and maintain local customers.  But, things are looking up. People are deciding to take a stand and keep their towns and counties from feeling too much of an economic backlash.

Lately I have been pleasantly surprised to hear a lot of talk about shopping locally and what people can do in their backyards and towns in order to save money and help others save money, too.  The local radio station features an ad about shopping in the county, the local magazine features catchy, well designed ads from all local businesses, and editorials in the paper encourage residents to frequent the businesses.  This morning, a listener called in to the radio station to encourage people to do their best to stay local that way dollars will remain in the community.  She said that with the big conglomerates, it’s easy for details to be lost and for business to go bad.

More and more associations are visible in web searches on shopping local, including Stay Local! New Orleans.  This is an extensive organization that lists the businesses, provides media kits, explains what shopping locally means and the benefits of doing so, reports news stories, and much more.  CIBA, or the Corvallis Independent Business Alliance, located in Washington, is a smaller organization than the one in New Orleans, but also provides compelling reasons to shop locally and includes a member directory of businesses. Search for one in your hometown or county. Local businesses don’t have to be in a downtown district; they can be anywhere and can range from restaurants to hardware stores to bookstores to auto repair and more.

Maybe it’s a partial result of First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden and her discussions on eating healthy and at home and the importance of community. Granted, that is food and not everyday shopping, but it is all connected and one good effort can lead to another. But something is sparking everyone’s interest and it brings hope to me.

I doubt that people are considering this a historic preservation related effort, but we preservationists know what the local economy can do for quality of life. And just maybe this economic loop will bring everyone back to focusing on community efforts and life. It will take some time, but every step in this general direction is a good one.  Not everything can be accomplished locally, but hopefully everyone will try for just a few more for themselves. It will save the community, in terms of energy, vitality, and the economy.  

Start with something easy, like a cup of coffee, and go from there.

Future Historic Districts

Recently I was at a lecture with a couple different design professionals and one of them (bless his little heart) stated something that I believe should be tattooed on more than one designer/developer’s head: “We are designing America’s future historic districts.” How powerful is that? Too often those who are in charge of designing and building our new spaces and places can’t see past the potential profit they stand to make. A quick look at materials and construction methods will clearly show that they clearly are not concerned with the longevity of the project. But let’s just say these cookie-cutter-cracker-jack-boxes survive into the next 100, 200, or even 300 years, what will they say about life in America in the 2000s? What cultural and social clues will future generations learn from these buildings? I can’t even begin to fathom or comprehend the fact that one day school children may visit Ye Olde Wallyworld where re-enactors in blue vests greet them at the door and show them all the crazy things their ancestors used to buy (“and these q-tips came all the way from China kids on boats and planes but the cotton came from India. Of course this is what they used before ionic ear cleaners…”)

Now, of course, to have an accurate view of history you need to preserve both the good and the bad, brutally and honestly; otherwise, you get a false sense of what the past really was. Sure those historic buildings and gardens at Monticello are much more elaborate than what people have today, because hell, I’d have the nicest house on the block if I had a couple hundred people who willing took care and maintained it for free. And sure Germany, Poland, and other European countries have pretty fields full of flowers and soft soft grass at places like Auschwitz…almost as if there is a lot of rich organic matter beneath the ground fertilizing them. I think you can see my point. So it is important to save the good along with the bad (in this case the poorly designed and executed). But when the bulk majority of what our society is creating just makes you want to shake you head and sigh disappointedly, its hard not to write a letter to the future apologizing and explaining that we were not all commercially shallow people who lived in identical houses on identical streets in identical sprawling towns. If nothing else, perhaps we can start designating well-thought out and sensitive developments as historic at their ribbon cuttings, thus ensuring we have some good representation in the future.

-Missy Celii

Five Stages of Small-Town Preservation Induced Grief

Sleepy, little towns with a small main street, railroad tracks, a school, and church always appear just so picturesquely American. The pace of life is slower and people don’t have to lock their doors, kids run around barefoot in the summertime, and people just have a good time. That is the general romanticized notion, isn’t it? Is that the reality? Not having lived in a sleepy, small town, I cannot say for sure; however, I would guess that no, romanticized notions are never the reality. They are what they are: romanticized with a mixture of nostalgia and Norman Rockwell.

As a preservationist, sleepy little towns bring mixed feelings, about five stages of emotion every time I drive through a small town.

1. Heartache. My heart aches for this town that has clearly past its heyday. Main street stores are closed and sprawl encroaches or it’s just smack in the middle of nowhere. Either way, its future does not look bright.

2. Imagining. I imagine what revitalization could do for this particular town and everyone near it. Imagine a bustling morning with all of those utopian elements that we love: hardware store, bakery, coffee shop, a few professional businesses, restaurants, everything! I always figure that there must be a way.

3. Wonder. Once the aching and imagining passes, I have to wonder: who lives here? Where do people shop? Where do they work? Truthfully, the answers to these questions will affect any chance of revitalization. The people who live in a town have to want to change things; but, just because preservationists may want to change things, maybe not everyone else does. Preservation is not about creating utopia, but allowing people to love where they live while appreciating the past and respecting the future.

4. Scheming. This is where advocacy comes into play. From here, I scheme about collecting all of my fellow preservationists to develop a plan that would show citizens of a community just how great preservation can be and how much it would help their quality of life.

5. Realization. My thought process has likely extended far beyond the length of time it took to pass through this sleepy town, but the thoughts keep coming. I have to admit that I love sleepy little towns. In an odd paradox, what would we do without them? What sort of a town could get me to ponder new plans with fellow preservationists and reinvigorate my soul? These towns allow my imagination to create stories of their heydays, filling in the present gap. Never short of images in front of our faces in the modern world, don’t you think that it is important to create our own images once in a while?

Part of the draw of Americana and nostalgia, is the fact that they are decaying and of some bygone era. Abandoned buildings and lackluster towns serve to remind us what could happen to everything if we’re not careful. In the same fashion, new developments on top of old farms and demolished-now-shiny-sparking-new city block stand as stark reminders of what we are trying to avoid.

Maybe very few of us could live in one of those sleepy towns, but that’s the point. We need to protect them, but, of course, revitalize some as well. Not every town needs to become a tourist destination, but it should be efficient for the residents. When that is the case, people passing by on a road trip just might stop in one of the restaurants or stores.  And then only some of these towns will cause the fives stages of small town emotional preservation induced grief.

(*Disclaimer/Clarification: ideas in this post refer not to the thriving small towns, but rather those experience severe economic decline.)

America the Beautiful

American road trips rank among my favorite pastimes; there is so much to see in this country that I don’t think even a lifetime of road trips could capture everything.  Traveling across the country, in any direction, makes it difficult for anyone not to appreciate the diverse landscape and culture.  Granted, one may find the endless hours of the generally flat Kansas tiring, but I love looking at a map and paying attention for the next small town, which may appear to be just a few houses from the highway. 


A cross country traveler is able to see the changing landscape and the affects of development, old and new.  Strip malls and big box stores hover around the outskirts of a small town, leaving its downtown desolate.  Railroad towns have long since faded, now bearing a mysterious look.  State and National Parks capture beauty and solitude of this country, providing a haven for wildlife, plants, and human meditation and exploration. 


If gas prices continue to rise, will road trips ever become a thing of past?  That idea seems hard to believe, considering how much of American identity traces itself to a migration, whether by covered wagon or little tin can cars or the 1950s glory of cars and races.  But, will people take fewer road trips?  Will they fly instead? 


And just as connected to the American identity, what will happen to the small, out of the way historic sites?  How long will the visitors continue to trek to these hidden displays of history?  Or maybe more locals will explore their regional history and become more reliant on nearby services.  Driving still remains cheaper than flying, assuming you have at least two people and a one day drive.  But, for those needing to go from New York to California, flying would be less expensive, regardless of the price of fuel. 


Is the country really changing as rapidly as the media portrays?  It is always hard to see through the sensationalism in the news as well as the popular topics and fads.  Regardless of fact, it should always be a good time to prioritize and reassess aspects of our lifestyles.  As preservationists, we need to impress the importance of heritage and supporting the smaller sites that may have the most trouble with funding.  And as we are encouraging friends to visit these local sites or to visit a local site as tourists elsewhere, we must also actively practice what we preach.  Maybe we can all make a promise to visit a small historic site or museum on our trips this summer.  We cannot solve every problem, but every person makes a difference. 


We are going to continue to drive because we have to, that is how the majority of America is constructed.  Gas prices will continue to rise, as will everything else, yet we can consider how we are spending our money.  So as we’re driving through the land that we love, we should remember and be grateful for our ancestors who have given us what we have. On a drive, consider a detour through a small town or stopping to read a historic marker on the road and gaze at the landscape.  We just have to take small steps. Along with the environmental issues of the last post to the heritage issues touched upon here, it all ties together.


Long story short: if you’re taking a road trip, bring some friends and visit some historic sites on your journey (and share your adventures!)