It’s Easy to Criticize

“And how could we endure to live…if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back—if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?”
~ C. S. Lewis, from Out of the Silent Planet

When it comes to historic preservation, or history as a study in general, I find myself caught in the betwixt—mired in that place where the future is visible, but the past seems perpetually grabbing my ankle and drawing me back. The quote from C. S. Lewis was one I read not too long ago that I really connected with in trying to understand myself and my study. I suppose I consider myself somewhat of a neophyte, I love new, I love innovation—yet at the same time, I love the past with its passion for itself. This is my short preface that will hopefully give greater context to what may appear to be the words of someone who does not understand history, or preservation. For the sake of argument, as I develop my own perspectives and opinions, I like to assume the mentality of the antagonist, sometimes to the point that I appear to be that person that does not care. The fact is, I care a whole lot, but it is in an attempt to reconcile my own hypocrisy that I step apart from those opinions to understand others.

In reading the first few chapters of Historic Preservation within the first few pages the most notable element to me was a lack of philosophy. Historic preservation is a practice, not a consideration, per se. It has some philosophy behind it, but even the author of the book noted that historic preservation is defined more by doing that philosophy. This raised a very important question in my mind about whether it is good to do historic preservation. I would make an allusion to religion at this juncture, suggesting that most people understand religion as a practice of rites and rituals rather than a system of beliefs. In fact, most of those that would refer to the belief system of religion, would in practice pare the same into a rite, rather than a philosophy. It seems to me that it is just easier to judge a practice than it is a belief. One is expressive, the other impressive. Those who observe me, while they may infer my beliefs, can only do so on the basis of my activity. The same is true of history, particularly public history and preservation, it seems as though preservationists are lacking a strong, cohesive philosophy. This is likely greater the result of a strong, overt practice that seems to overshadow the philosophy. Yet, let us consider for a moment the implications of a lack of philosophy in preservation.

There must be a starting point for any study or practice, and often that starting point is equivalent to purpose. Let us assume, then that the starting point for historic preservation is, as noted in the book Historic Preservation, the protection and preservation of heritage. I want to deconstruct this idea and consider its constituent parts. In the book the author noted that historic preservation really began to make its way into the vocabulary and practices of American cities in the early twentieth century. At that time, much of what we know today as the contiguous United States had been gelled. Industrial growth began to make major headway and hard science started to become a mainstay in education. Wealth was far more abundant than it had been historically in most places elsewhere in the world, the frontiers had largely been defined as finite and men had begun to build dynasties that they hoped would live in perpetuum. In Historic Preservation the most important of these factors was noted as the closing of the frontier, however I think that the most important is the wealth. It seems that times of wealth frequently precede times of reflection, and a drive to reclaim some extraordinary past. It seems to me that with wealth comes the frustrating task of self-interpretation. A person with wealth does not have the luxury of simply surviving, as perhaps had his grandfather, his life becomes a defense of his accumulated wealth through self-identification through things and objects, attempting to connect with that past he feels he has lost. The practice of historic preservation then is born of wealth, not the closing of frontier or lack of prospects. And its purpose arises from the social need to defend and identify itself.

The question that I ask at this point is: is wealth and selfish identification with some idealized past good? As a society we are not moving backward, nor do we have the desire to do so, to a time that lacked wealth and forced us to work so hard, so long and so much that we had no time to reflect, and yet we want to preserve identifiers of that time and claim that we have some connection with it. In a really twisted way historic preservationists, in all their forms, are merely sports fans, for they never did the work, but they desire to wear the colors. They may do work, and they may work hard at painting themselves into those historical contexts, but the fact remains that they are not the ones who built that building, or did the work to build it, or spent years taking rocks out of a field to plant wheat. The fact remains—and it is perhaps this internal, subliminal knowledge, in a sort of apologetic way—that preservationists are of no consequence, in that they don’t do by themselves, they are merely passing off their work of saving as an act of creation and identification.

While this is admittedly a harsh criticism of preservationists, and perhaps they might tell me that there is so much more to it, and I am confident that there is, I wonder at what cost are we preserving? Who should be allowed to determine who is represented? Why them? What era do we preserve? And, in all our efforts to preserve our heritage, what will our great-great-grandchildren look back and see of us? Will they see a bunch of people who were so devoted to trying to identify themselves that they failed to leave a significant element that defined them? Will they see selfishness? Will they see hard work? Will they see beauty? Will they see foolishness?

While I feel that historic preservation is important, I feel also that it is a practice that lacks critical self-analysis and philosophy. At some level there must be Zen to life, an acknowledgement that one must simply live, and that life itself is the identification of one’s self, not careful practice.

One thought on “It’s Easy to Criticize”

  1. Again, I must follow up my own previous thoughts. After reading the input from fellow students, I wanted to create some clarity regarding my position.

    First off, I do not believe that building should just be demolished, willy-nilly, to serve the wants and desires of whomever happens to own the building. I believe that there is most definitely a place for historic preservation and it pains me to see certain landmarks demolished to make way for new (often poorly constructed or ugly) banks, or offices, or whatever. I think that there are other considerations that seem to get lost in the historic preservation milieu. Amidst the preservation process often is lost the economic interest, or monetary realities of old buildings. Lucas commented that a question he had was whether agencies had a responsibility to the welfare of the people. I think that is a legitimate point as old buildings to deteriorate to a point where they may be a blight on the area in which they sit. To restore these buildings is a massive financial burden that often is not worth the price. Take older office buildings in Boise for instance, say, the Courthouse, it was constructed in a time when small cubicle offices were standard and, even when rebuilt it does not accommodate the larger spaces needed for technology, and the modern office space. Similarly, few people in the modern world find sitting in a solid stone room, with no windows, bearable, but many of the older institutional structures were built, of necessity, with lots of windows, because of the demands of the structure. If I am a building owner looking to lease space on my property, I will find it much easier to lease space that is open and airy with all the technological necessities of the modern world. The cost of renovating an old building to get it close to inhabitable to where I could guarantee 90% or greater occupancy is quite frequently far greater than the cost to demolish and rebuild, or over build.
    Sometimes developers have the money to do a renovation and decide to demolish, sometimes they don’t have the money and the wrecking ball must swing. What happens when preservationists come in (and I can attest to having watched this process from the development side of things) is that they can hold up construction or demolition to the point that the developer loses funding on the project and has to pull out, which can develop, sometimes, into years of a blighted building sitting stagnant, uninhabited, and grotesque.

    The second thing that I want to take issue with, as far as preservation, is unintended consequences. I actually will blame preservationists and city planning committees for urban sprawl. When preservation and planning committees hold up historic buildings as icons as expressed before, developers do two things, they see greater monetary value in opportunities outside of the protected area. This has been the case with downtown Boise numerous times. The fact of the matter is that people need places to live and work, and business and industry owners need a place to put their businesses and facilities. By holding hostage the historic grounds and buildings in city centers and residential areas, planners and preservationists actually repel potential revitalization and cause the fringes of a city to sprawl. In the case of Boise and its metropolitan area, this has led to an encroachment of living facilities on land that used to be agricultural. Farmers and ranchers–let’s not forget that Idaho is still an agriculturally based economy–must fight to keep their land, or move farther away, which drives up food cost because of transportation. So in a very real way, those who are trying to preserve are actually causing the slow death of another historic and even modern essential element, farmsteads and ranches.

    Having said my piece about the economy, I have only a few minutes to comment on the economy of historic preservation. No, that wasn’t a typo and you didn’t read it wrongly. Economy deals with value systems. Up to now I have been trying to analyze the monetary economy of historic preservation. Most preservationists, however, would approach preservation’s economy from a cultural or ethnic or historic value system. While such systems are more difficult to quantify, when taking in Boise’s dwindling, but still historic, Idaho Street–with the Union Block, and the Idaho Bank Building and the Fidelity Building and the Mode, in the light of an early morning sunrise in the late spring with a light mist lifting from the street as it heats up, looking east as the sun one more day breathes life into the ancient stone brick–it would be difficult for anyone to deny such value in the craftsmanship, beauty, stature, stateliness or age of those buildings. Should they be removed for modern development, HELL NO! They are beautiful, and surprisingly functional as they exist. Yet something still had to see the end of its term for them to exist, and one day, something else will likely need to replace them.

    There is value in preservation and history, but there must be balance and compromise. We cannot build forever, or forever remain cemented in the past, otherwise today has lost its own value and we have missed the beauty that it has to offer.

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