If Nostalgia Is Wrong I Don’t Want to Be Right

By Anthony Veerkamp posted 12-13-2013 15:26


 | Credit:  via Creative Commons on Flickr.
Nostalgia--still a good thing?| Credit: via Creative Commons on Flickr.
Everyone knows the Yogi Berra quote, “it’s like déjà vu all over again,” but I prefer French actress Simone Signoret’s take on memory: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Certainly here in the U.S., nostalgia, especially as a motivating force for historic preservation, has been thoroughly discredited.

Take for example Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s opinion piece in The New York Times from 2011 provocatively, if not absurdly, titled “Death by Nostalgia.” According to Goldhagen’s narrative, historic preservation laws came about in the 1970s because we as a nation were “bored by modernism and excited by nostalgia…Soon, savvy developers were co-opting the movement for their own interests by capitalizing on the public’s nostalgia for yesteryear.”

One more example. Last year an architect and former preservation commission member in West Hollywood named Marc Yerber wrote an opinion piece titled “Historic Preservation: Designating Nostalgia?

In it, he asks:

What is it about our community’s past that clouds the judgment of the vocal few when our future footprint is being considered? I am frequently baffled by the over-zealous fervor for all things old. Buildings deemed “old” are embraced with an irrational nostalgia, regardless of whether they represent a notable community pattern, have architectural distinction or constitute cultural relevance…Viewing preservation through the lens of nostalgia ultimately results in structures and sites that lack historic significance or meaningful connection to our community.  Is this what we really want for West Hollywood?

He concludes, “Nostalgia may have a place in saving a childhood toy or hanging a family picture, but it should not be central when discussing the future role and shape of cities today.”

Really? The implication here is that a deep, emotional connection to the past is one step away from mental illness, acceptable perhaps in the privacy of your own home, but certainly not something to parade in full view of the neighbors. Better to leave the future of your community in the hands of the pros whose judgment is unclouded by personal bias.  

But here’s the thing. Often it is professional preservationists who are the most uneasy about nostalgia as a motivation to preserve (even Mr. Yerber calls himself “a professional with training in preservation and a former Historic Preservation Commissioner.”) We are acutely sensitive to accusations of sentimentalizing, romanticizing, and sugarcoating the past, but in seeking to maintain disciplined objectivity, I’m concerned that we are at risk of overcorrecting. The past may indeed be a foreign country, but that doesn’t mean we can’t visit now and again—we just need to be mindful to pack a toothbrush and buy a round-trip ticket.

Framing my argument around a term as loaded as “nostalgia” is fun, of course, but perhaps needlessly provocative (that said, if you’re still reading these words, I’ve managed to hold your attention well beyond that of the average online reader, so thank you!). The truth is, we preservationists can only wear the cloak of logical, analytical, and objectivity for so long before we give in to our primal sentimental urges.

Consider this passage from National Register Bulletin 34:

"Feeling" is the quality that a historic property has in evoking the aesthetic or historic sense of a past period of time. Although it is itself intangible, feeling is dependent upon the aid's significant physical characteristics that convey its historic qualities. Integrity of feeling is enhanced by the continued use of an historic optic or sound signal at a light station. The characteristic flashing signal of a light adds to its integrity. While sounds themselves, such as the "Bee-oooohhhh" of a diaphone, cannot be nominated to the National Register, they enhance the integrity of feeling. The mournful call of fog horns on San Francisco Bay is an integral part of experiencing life there.

 foghorn_archangel 12_flickr
Foghorns--the sound of nostalgia?| Credit: archangel 12 via Creative Commons on Flickr
While dutifully noting that you can’t list a sound in the National Register, that “Bee-oooohhhh” is the sound of the NPS getting nostalgic. So call it what you will, but our deep, emotional response to old places has long been at the core of our urge to preserve. Let’s own it.

Soul of the Community

I’d like to let the foghorn have the final word, but in deference to this metrics-obsessed age, I will offer some supporting data points. From 2008 to 2010 the Knight Foundation and Gallup undertook a study called the “Soul of the Community.” Gallup asked 43,000 residents of 26 cities questions examining their level of attachment to their community, including their overall satisfaction with the community, their likelihood to recommend it to others, their outlook for the community five years from now, their pride about living in the community, and whether they feel the community is a perfect place for them.

To find out what drives attachment, Gallup then asked residents a series of questions about various aspects of the community, including basic services, the local economy, safety, leadership, education, aesthetics, civic involvement, openness, and social capital. Gallup then analyzed the relationship between the overall level of community attachment and residents' perceptions of aspects of the community itself to reveal the strongest links.

Now this is a very diverse country, and one might expect residents in say, Boulder, to value different aspects of their community than, say, residents of Philadelphia. Instead, the study found remarkable consistency in what matters most to residents.

Are those historic houses? | Credit: Knight Foundation/Gallup Poll, Soul of the Community.  
Are those historic houses? | Credit: Knight Foundation/Gallup Poll, Soul of the Community.
The “social offerings” of their community are the top driver of community not only across all 26 communities studied, but also in every community individually. This includes the availability of arts and cultural opportunities, availability of social community events, the community's nightlife, whether the community is a good place to meet people, and whether people in the community care about each other.

A community's “openness” is the second most important factor to residents. “Openness” measures whether residents view their communities as good places for different groups, including older people, families with children, young adults without children, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and young, talented college graduates looking for work.

A community's aesthetics, both in terms of its overall physical beauty and the availability of parks, playgrounds, and trails, is the third most powerful driver of community attachment.

But here’s the kicker: The study also shows that the communities with the highest levels of attachment also had the highest rates of economic growth. The study notes with some understatement that “these are factors that are often not considered by elected officials when thinking about economic development.”

The report kindly connects the dots for our busy leaders:

Leaders who actively increase social offerings, promote diversity, and improve public spaces can improve how residents feel about their community as well as their likelihood to actively partake in its success and recommend it to others. Further, while it may be difficult and take a lot of time to fix the local economy, broaden healthcare access, or to improve roads and highways, investment in social offerings, openness, and aesthetics may be easier to achieve and have a greater effect overall.

OK, I’ll grant you, the study does not find a direct correlation between time spent in a nostalgic reverie and economic prosperity, but I would argue that the authors were very intentional in naming the report the “Soul of the Community.” This is a report that is fundamentally concerned not merely with the physical space of our communities, but the meaning that these spaces have to the people who live in them and shape them. Contrary to Mr. Yerber’s take, the “Soul of the Community” report should have us asking if perhaps our communities would be stronger and healthier if we stopped trying to monetize them and started treating them more like cherished and valued childhood toys and family pictures.

Anthony Veerkamp is a field director in the San Francisco Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#ReUrbanism #nostalgia #whypreserve

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