By Vince Michael and Anthea Hartig
We regrettably missed Charles Buki’s Next American City speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, but studied it and it is a provocative scorcher, as the self-described “community developer” no doubt intended (see for yourself at www.czb.org and http://www.czb.org/blog/2010/10/comments-at-the-national-trust-for-historic-preservation/). Buki congenially opens with his denouncing of the label preservationist, but goes on to share his valuable critique of our built environment – and of preservation’s seeming lack of care about community and over-privileging of architecture and its rehabilitation. We here writing don’t have the luxury of eschewing the preservationist label, although we are both active in the discursive movement afoot to change that label (see Forum Journal, Spring 2010, focused on “What’s Next for Historic Preservation,” in particular Donovan Rypkema’s headlining article, Michael’s and Muniz/Hartig’s pieces therein and the follow-up Forum On-Line discussion with Rypkema and Vince Michael.
Buki’s overall critique of our social built environment finds it Koyaanisqatsi-esque—an out of balance set of places in which interdependencies and interconnections have been lost. He also argued convincingly that distinctions between city and suburb are artificial and not helpful, especially in the wake of our efforts to rebuild such places through preservation, new urbanism, or even “old” urbanism, about which we couldn’t agree more, but for reasons different than his. Here goes.
Buki’s stated theme was diversity, and how we fail to achieve it and incubate it in designing cities and suburbs. He argues, again convincingly, that diversity and complexity provide the underpinnings of true sustainability. We dug this aspect of Buki’s critique because it resonated with Jane Jacobs’ description of the city as a problem of organized complexity. Jacobs said the city is a biological problem, not a statistical (disorganized complexity) or chemical (two variable) problem. Emphasizing the point, Buki quoted Wendell Berry to reinforce the biological analogy; we’re with you so far, to paraphrase The Eagles.
Buki talked a lot about “monochromatic” developments and places, be they city or suburban, red or blue states. We tend to live with people who act like us, and more importantly – consume like us, understandable but regrettable patterns of human behavior that reduce diversity and thus true sustainability. He talked about the fields of Subarus and Volvos that characterized the Berkeley, CA cityscape and the Ford F-150s and four-story high crosses of the Amarillo, TX architectural ecosystem and it seemed his point was the we who resemble Berkeleyite’s self-righteousness, hail the concept of diversity while failing to live it, or live in it. We’re not sure about his point regarding Amarillo.
He argued, again persuasively, that city and suburb are artificial distinctions, which rings increasingly true. One of us lives in a suburb that has two subway lines and a full range of consumer activities within walking distance, and can show you Chicago neighborhoods that lie further from the center along commuter rail lines or highways with complete separation of residence from commerce.
Buki’s strongest arguments had less to do with preservation and more to do with New Urbanism, and we suppose, Old Urbanism as well. He decried the urban designers “trying disentangle a suburban dystopia” who in “their aggressive self –confidence” have “misreduced the entirety of the challenge of the built environment to a problem no more complex than its new urbanist solution is one-dimensional.” It took a while to work it out, but we finally think what he said was that the solutions to community will not be found in the realm of design, nor in the realm of rehabilitation for the sake of such.
This comes back to Jane Jacobs charge that “the city is not a work of art” and that any attempt to treat it that way is “taxidermy. She was the first to see the flaw in environmental determinism whether it was Beaux-Arts or High Modern, in fact she was the first to see the functional equivalence between those apparently divergent forms. Both failed at complexity and diversity. She looked beyond design, as Buki is trying to do. And she was a preservationist, as we are.
But many have a narrow view of preservation, of heritage conservation. It is not about “skeletal remains” as Buki says, and even if it was, they are generally better skeletons in historic buildings than can be built today for all money in Dubai. There is an inherent diversity in an inherited environment that is almost impossible to plan for, nevermind design at-once for. A key layer to this inherited above-ground archaeology is our familiar past of the last half of the twentieth century.
In a witty but weak and unfair accusation, Buki fretted about the Recent Past, lobbing that “tomorrow’s challenges facing preservationists’ is “what label to put on what was built between 1946 and 1964, a period not generally known for much of anything not straight out of some Soviet architect’s pattern book.” Well, it is today’s challenge and the global heritage conservation community continues to respond well and intelligently for the most part. In fact, debates, tensions, and outcomes swirling around understanding and conserving the recent past and weaving it into a sustainable future might be illustrative helpful for Buki and his team. For as we collectively understand the critical importance of both the remarkable design contribution of a remarkable range of architects, from the Neutras to Lautner, from Wright to Rudolph, from Yamasaki to Ossipoff. And the movements, choices, changes that took place in those two decades following WWII remain completely significant.
Gentrification and the Problem of History
Buki illustrated the failure of diversity in preservation through an anecdote about rehabbing a house in Alexandria in the early 90s and going to get glass at a local smoke-filled hardware store, not Home Depot, and hearing how the old men there did not feel welcome at the new coffee shop. It was a freeze frame in the gentrification that is so often associated with preservation, an historical moment when the old-fashioned charm of Jane Jacob’s Hudson Street locksmith and deli owner coexist with the beatniks and professionals. That moment passes in time and it seems that soon the old business guys are pushed out along with the hipster artists who started the whole process, and the gentrified community becomes more and more monochromatic.
Gentrification happens in more places and more often WITHOUT preservation, but Buki’s point is worth considering. How can a heritage conservation movement embrace diversity when we are, in his words, aligned with Panera Bread and Barnes and Noble and addicted to Whole Foods? Buki asks for “a restored building not with a Starbucks or Peets, but instead a local vendor but whose product line and pricing structure renders the business completely inaccessible to the people who live in the new building’s shadow.” To assume that those/we preservationists don’t think or care about the end use and users of place is to rob them/us of the tap root of our thinking—the histories and stories of people in places.
Can this be achieved?
Well, there is a history problem here. You can’t craft a community freeze frame, not via some inorganic affordable housing policy or equally inorganic New Urbanist form that is dependent on environmental determinism finally working. Even preservation, which is a form of community development more than anything else, can’t stop time, and more importantly, doesn’t want to.
You can slam New Urbanists for creating high-style and/or old-timey versions of the gated community and preservationists for leaning too heavily on coffee chains to save their precious architecture. But how do you achieve diversity without stopping time? Can you keep the quaint, inexpensive “real” community at the moment you discover it, or is the process of conserving buildings really simply the same as improving buildings? And was that community truly diverse at the moment you discovered it and began the inexorable shift toward improvement? Is diversity simply a characteristic of a community in flux? Can you plan it? Can you design for it? Pay a consultant to analyze your lack of it?
We would like to push Buki’s point further – we want diversity in our communities, but design – not Old or New Urbanism, not HABS drawings or boulevard electroliers – is not going to get us there. The solution won’t happen solely in the realm of design. But it will happen in the built environment, and most built environments that have a history have some diversity—we’d argue that most have histories more diverse than commonly known and that part of our collective charge is uncovering those diversities and their owners.
Buki’s search for the interdependencies that make up a truly sustainable and diverse community leads him to critique both affordable housing and preservation for confusing the ends with the means. He asks “what is the role of preservation in getting us there when preservation is not the end goal, but one tool among many aimed at creating a system the chief characteristic of which is diversity?”
This is an exciting time to be in conservation writ large, especially now with the new National Trust President, Stephanie Meeks, crafting a more inclusive – diverse – vision of preservation tethered both to environmentalism and history. It isn’t just about the buildings, it is about the community, and that is why we joined Don Rypkema in calling for a rebrand: heritage conservation. For almost fifty years, we toiled in these preservation fields, and it has never been just about the buildings. More importantly, it was never just about the laws or design review or certificates of appropriateness. Community preservationists worth their salt have always treated preservation in exactly the way Buki calls for: one tool among many. Diversity is not their goal, but conserving community is.
And why does every speech to preservationists contain a plea that we have to let some buildings go? Here is how he put it:
“If you are inclined to see our post Industrial system as broken – as I do – and in need of repair and love – as I do, then you must be willing to abandon the preservation of even the most beloved stones, if the price of their rescue is the perpetuation of what’s fundamentally broken and somehow, intended or not, the kind of community amnesia paralyzing our country today”
The responses to Buki’s online posting of his speech included a few that charged preservationists with being self-righteous and of course, the hoariest chestnut of all, that preservationists want to save everything. We hear this all-too often and it’s nonsense along with being a false choice. We challenge the self-righteous preservationists without challenging the precept that most – not all – buildings are better where they are than in the landfill. It is about striking balances, complex, multi-dimensional balances to be sure, about which Buki would concur.
And it is about community and about communities’ effects on the very essence of human identity, or as Buki writes, “we are nurtured by the communities that surround us and cradled by the neighborhoods where we live” (http://www.czb.org/taxonomy_of_neighborhoods.html ) Indeed. While one of us grew up and lives in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb to end all suburbs, the other was taken home from the hospital to a new track home in Alta Loma, California, where the year before had been acres of citrus trees. Surely both places, both communities shaped us, and probably both the longevity of Oak Park and the rapidity of change along with the pain of erasure in Alta Loma had something to do with our chosen paths and philosophies. As did our choices as adults—to work dirty jobs, to get Ph.D.s, or to buy one’s first house, a modest but sturdy 1921 bungalow in a once white- but at the time mostly Latino- working-class neighborhood living with Minwax-dyed fingertips for weeks after all the cherry-colored stain had been applied to all the clear-grained redwood and Douglas fir trim and two-dozen wooden windows, and being welcomed for coffee tinged with cinnamon at the local panaderia. Or a 1906 graystone in Chicago’s Logan Square before gentrification, fixing windows, retiling bathrooms and stripping woodwork between visits to the corner Borinquen tienda. We know these actions did build community, as the acts of reclaiming, renewing, and recycling often do. Conserving historic buildings is not the activity of one culture or another, but is a polychromatic instersection of complex and diverse cultures that can help construct a broader and more inclusive future.
When we assert that “This Place Matters” or “ Este Lugar Es Importante,” we hope that it represents a combination of connection to place, activism, scholarship, and respectful community building based on real people and their building of places. Sometimes these important community places were built brick by brick and are taking a reinvigorated and meaningful form of community-based advocacy to save, as in the case of the Maravilla Handball Court in East Los Angeles (check it out). Saving and restoring the oldest handball court in East LA matters and as the Maravilla Historical Society, the new non-profit that has emerged to work on this effort along with the Los Angeles Conservancy, claims as its mission: “Preserving history, Protecting our stories, Reclaiming our legacy, and Projecting into the future.”
Anthea M. Hartig, PhD is Director of the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Vincent L. Michael, PhD is John Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.