Paradoxes of the Preservation Paradigm

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How often do you find yourself wondering why taking care of what we have is a never-ending uphill battle? Every day? Less? More? For me the answer is "more often than I like thinking about." My grandfather taught me the value of taking good care of the things you own, and I would find it hard to believe that a lot of other grandfathers didn't do the same, and yet we find ourselves in a world where one of the most important jobs we have is often one we find ourselves unprepared to do. Why?

I've talked around this question a lot in previous blogs, and have even taken the time to point out some specific reasons for why I feel this problem exists, but I'm afraid I have to say that more and more I think the problem is with the preservation paradigm itself. I know I harp on the harm using the word preservation in place of conservation has done, but simply pointing out using the wrong word is making light of a much deeper and insidious current in the flow of time. If that was "the" problem, we would have figured out how to fix it by now.

Rather, I feel it’s a problem of class. I'm not saying it has class; I'm saying it is class. Anyone who pays attention to the news, or studies social economics, is aware of the vanishing middle class in America, and for that matter all over the world. We live in a time where wealth has become a weapon and it is being wielded by those who have it to serve their own purposes, rather than the greater good. It’s a problem that is having an enormous detrimental affect on our society, but I'm here to say it is having just as serious of an affect on our built environment.

A simplistic view of what I am talking about is realizing that preservation costs money. Granted, as Donovan Rypkema keeps telling us, there could and should be good business in preservation. When it can be accomplished, putting money into our historic neighborhoods increases property values and provides people with good local jobs that are next to impossible to outsource, but it takes money to get the ball rolling. Money that more and more people who find themselves slipping into poverty just don't have.

Preservation is, or should be, local. Taking care of your home, and by definition your neighborhood in an urban environment, is the first step in preserving where you live as well as how you live. It isn't just about taking care of the buildings but taking care of the people who make a group of buildings into a neighborhood. But with individual home ownership on a steady decline the process becomes broken at the very heart. Its human nature (if grandpa taught you well) to take care of the things you own, but what happens when everything is owned by someone else and you just get to use it if you have the money to pay the rent?

We have talked about the vanishing tradesperson in the past, and even discussed whether or not someone could tell a tradesperson if they saw one, but I think there's more to that subject than meets the eye. If the middle class is vanishing, which class are the tradespeople becoming members of? I'm here to tell you that given the choice, I would rather not see myself as aspiring to the upper class. Luckily, I don't think I need to hide in a closet when the wagon master drives by extolling "Bring out your rich. Bring out your rich."

So the plot thickens. We now find ourselves becoming members of a society in which the very place that the tradesperson and master mechanics of the world reside is itself in need of preservation and whose job is it to ensure that happens? Me thinks the Koch Bros. have no dogs in that fight. Rather than seeing a world evolving where the value and status of the tradesperson is understood, we find the tradesperson struggling more than ever just to survive. A lot of the tradespeople I know, myself included, are having trouble remembering the days when we honestly had to tell people, "I should be able to help you out in a few months." Instead, we have to decide if the land line is even worth keeping just for the memory of when that phone used to ring.

A lot of effort has gone into consciousness raising to make preservation a recognizable mandate within our culture. The "Main Street" program has been working tirelessly to revitalize our historic downtowns and the National Trust's "This Place Matters" initiative strived to bring awareness of the value of our built environment to individuals and communities, but as usual these programs fall short of making much of a difference in raising the standard of living of the people who make up these communities and neighborhoods. That isn't their mandate.

I feel that preservation was an important mandate of our culture, and cultures all over the world, through the 18th and well into the 19th century. We understood the value in taking care of what we had and knew how much better it was to keep something useful and working well, rather than having to pay to replace it. The preservation paradigm was a way of life. Building things that were meant to last, or had a known and intended life cycle because of the environment they were built in, or the nature of our pattern of living, just made sense and keeping the knowledge of how was everybody's business. Today preservation has morphed into a business based on economics instead of common sense.

In recent times we spend much more time replacing things than repairing things. Is it any wonder that people become motivated to earn enough money to buy something new rather than putting money into something old? I will always remember the answer I got when I was visiting Germany and had had an opportunity to visit some historic barns and barn-houses. My obvious question was "How old is your barn?" and more often than not the answer would come back "Oh, it’s not really that old, maybe a 100 years or so." I knew many of those structures were much older than that, but the pride wasn't in having taken care of something old, but in having something new.

I would like to think that we could either resurrect the preservation paradigm we once understood so well, or create a new one that belongs to everyone, but I have trouble believing that will happen. We see the strength and power of the poor being focused as always on surviving, and more people becoming members of the lower class every day. Preservation, more than ever, appears to most people to be something that is part of a different world than they inhabit. They live on one side of a wall that gets longer and taller everyday and preservation is something the people on the other side do as a way of justifying their place.

I have had a love of old buildings ever since I was a kid. When I had an opportunity to include taking care of old buildings as a part of how I made a living, I felt like one of the luckiest people I knew. I take great joy in fixing things and can honestly say I have saved many old structures from being lost for now. But when people ask me what I do for a living, I know pretty much that I will get a blank stare when I say "I'm in Historic Preservation." I might as well say "I'm a marble farmer on Mars." In my world, I have become known as "The Barn Guy." The funny thing is, I'm the only one that realizes that that's just one of the many paradoxes of the preservation paradigm.