Yes, we preservationists have come a long way. No, we have not by any means arrived. Starting as an intrepid band of determined women at Mount Vernon, the preservation movement has achieved significant progress in saving buildings, monuments, towns, neighborhoods, main streets, and landscapes. We have woven the idea of preservation into the thinking of planners and government leaders, and into the law itself. The grassroots community everywhere supports the idea of preservation, and philanthropic and governmental money has flowed our way. The movement has strong leadership, in fact so strong that the president of the National Trust, Richard Moe, could mobilize the forces to defeat Disney`s huge project that was to have been implanted in the Virginia countryside.
A movement originally founded on the leadership of individual leaders in various cities now has a cadre of professionals, B.A.s and M.A.s, staffs and budgets, boards and volunteers, all across the United States. We may not always be listened to, but we are heard.
Three quarters of a century of evidence is in, and our ideas have generally been proven right. Our opposition to urban renewal, to the demolition of major buildings symbolized by the loss of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York, our belief in reviving neighborhoods through the commitment of residents to their historic buildings, economic development preservation projects like ours in Pittsburgh at Station Square have proven themselves to be sound, to work. Those projects antithetical to our principles have generally proven themselves not to work, whether it was urban renewal, festival markets, malled downtowns, or main street pedestrianizations. Almost all have proven to be the deleterious ideas that we originally opposed.
But we are not there yet, we are still a limited grassroots effort with less support than the environmental movement and with far less money. Public and private budgets are still, for
historic preservation, diminutive. Recently mayors have warmed up the bulldozers
again and are demolishing hundreds of acres of fine
historic buildings, just like the 1950s and 1960s, in the name of "progress." In fact, many of the ideas advanced today to revitalize cities are exactly the same as those advanced in the mid-20th century: stadiums, convention centers, subsidized retail in the urban core, expressways to the countryside.
One of the most harmful sources of money that does incredible damage to our cities, our towns, and our countrysides is federal, state, and local highway funding. An astronomical amount of money is still available for the roadway systems that have proven again and again that they do not work, that they breed congestion, cause the maiming and killing of people at an enormous clip each year, and cost us a gargantuan loss of historic buildings, main streets, farm buildings, and quality of life each year.
While as preservationists we have devoted some of our resources to educating the young, we have not done nearly enough. We need to arm our population with the information of the usefulness and the success of historic preservation. We need to make clear the hurt of all kinds caused by those who believe in clearance and rebuilding, together with that caused by those who believe in the endless replacement of the countryside with a built environment.
If I were to select two ingredients as the primary ones needed to achieve more than a nominal victory, I would point to education first. We still have an enormous task of educating governmental and philanthropic leaders, corporate executives, indeed all those who figure in the decision-making process. The grassroots people are with us; they are in fact us. But we need to tower over the landscape like redwoods, not little blades. We must keep educating young people so that as generations change, the new leaders will share our point-of-view.
Second, of course, we need money. However, it can come in many forms. To have our hands on cash is the best of all possible worlds, but to spend it well and to leverage it, to use it to influence as well as to acquire, and to demonstrate how old buildings can be used is a complex task.
In addition, we need to understand all the different ways that we can affect the flow of money. Historically our most signal triumph in that regard was the 25 percent historic preservation tax credit which turned thousands of developers into preservationists. We need the Homeowners Tax Credit now.
But we also need to understand banking, financing, corporate financial structures, governmental programs, foundation needs, and alternative ways to aid and abet the economics of those who could invest in preservation.
We have succeeded in building preservation into "the system," we have not succeeded in making it the system. We have often achieved success by sallying forth and doing a project and showing that it works. We need to find a way to exhibit those models so that they will inspire thousands of others who are investing in their communities but without a preservation ethnic.
We must tackle the new century based on the assurance that the evidence of the old one shows we have useful answers to contemporary dilemmas.
Publication Date: Fall 1999
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