Preserving culture as we do history

Sam Smith

A series of incidents in my hometown got me thinking about a little noted anomaly: if you want to save something in urban America, make sure it’s old. And an old building at that. Old people don’t count. Neither do present day culture and community.

There’s nothing wrong with saving old buildings. This journal has supported many battles for historic preservation, including turning back an effort to wreck Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House and the preservation of Washington’s first park and shop. The late John Wiebenson, who did a long-running and unique urban planning comic strip for us, was a major voice for sensible preservation.

But a trio of recent conflicts have raised some new issues. For example, what’s more important: the preservation of an old building or an old guy. As Marc Fisher wrote in the Washington Post:

“For more than a year, Richard Lucas has been trying to win permission to cut through his elderly, infirm parents’ front porch so they can get from their living quarters onto the street without climbing stairs. And for more than a year, the D.C. historic preservation authorities have found reasons to say no to a ramp.

“After all, as the city’s architectural historian put it, ‘repeating porches of similar height and depth create a notable pattern and rhythm’ along the Lucas family’s Mount Pleasant street, and the District wouldn’t want to let that rhythm be broken just to accommodate a couple of old folks who have lived in their house for 47 years.

“Again and again, Lucas tried to satisfy the city’s preservation police, paying his architect to rework plans for a ramp to minimize its impact on the supposedly pristine look of the 1930s row houses on Walbridge Place NW. But each time Lucas tried, the city came up with more objections. And so, at ages 90 and 87, Cornelius and Merry Lucas remain stuck in their basement rooms, able to come and go only through a back door that opens onto an alleyway.”

Then there are the two cases of buildings which, though only 30-40 years old, have attracted the preservationists and an impressive legal weaponry that developed during this same period. Here’s how the DC Preservation League describes a building it designated as one of the endangered places of the year:

“The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library was awarded Landmark status by the Historic Preservation Review Board in June of 2007. . . The only example in Washington, DC of the mature style of pre-eminent Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library has stood as the only monument to Dr. King in the nation’s capital for the past 30 years. It holds special significance to the millions of Washingtonians who have come to the library over the past decades to participate in a wide variety of programs and activities, and is a center of community life in the District.”

Well, sort of. You can find a whole lot of people who have used or worked in the library who considered it extremely dumpy, ill designed for its purpose, with non-working elevators and unattractive spaces. The auditorium space seem almost an afterthought stuck in the basement.

Admittedly, it has some of the charm of a semi-abandoned fortress. You never quite know what’s around the next corner or through the next door or whether the elevator will make it to your floor. The outside is kind of neat, though, and it has been argued that the interior was never properly constructed the way the architects intended. Further, you could say that it is a monument to that soon to be seen as curious era of modern architecture (soon to be ended by the pragmatic requirements of ecological considerations) in which style ran roughshod over such minor issues as whether the roof leaked or whether the elevator worked.

But whatever one’s views, undeniably the forces for preserving the mature style of pre-eminent Modernists is substantial in law, politics and in public action even if it is only a few decades old.

Then we have the case of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington, nicely described by the American Spectator:

“How many dollars does it take to change a light bulb? Well, if the defunct bulb you’re replacing has been illuminating the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington, you could be looking at a bill of up to $8,000. That’s because unscrewing a blown bulb in that concrete monument to impracticality is tantamount to a construction project. According to one church official, you’ve got to build scaffolding just to reach some of the bulbs. . .

“It’s a largely windowless octagonal tower made of raw, weathered concrete, and it’s surrounded by a sterile ‘plaza’ that seems to have been emptied to keep the line of fire clear. The site inspires few people with a sense of spirituality.

“That includes its own congregation, which has always disliked the building and dearly wants to be rid of its ugliness and its crushing costs, but which has been prevented from replacing the structure by Washington’s local preservation authorities.

“Not that the church is either old or historic. It was designed in 1971 in an effort by the Christian Science church to establish a signature architectural presence in the heart of the capital. . . The church tapped I.M. Pei’s firm for the design. . .

“The sanctuary seats 400, though the active congregation has shrunk to some 50 worshippers. The building’s concrete exterior is already deteriorating, and the maintenance costs are overwhelming. Money that would be better spent on the church’s mission, members say, is eaten up by the building itself.

“So why has the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously declared the Third Church of Christ, Scientist to be an official D.C. landmark, preventing not only its demolition, but even its unauthorized alteration? Because, it turns out, it is a sterling example of the mid-century school of design known as Brutalism.”

Again, the point here is not to argue the specific case or to disparage preservation, but to illustrate just how powerful the historic preservation movement has become in the few decades since such buildings were constructed.

Now let’s move to another part of town: Ward 5, about as classic a Washington community as you’re going to find. It has a disproportionate share of DC natives, is heavily black but with many long time white residents, is in the middle by education level among the eight wards and below average in income. It has, however, the third highest homeownership rate and its crime rate has been falling since 2001. Its black community has included the likes of Sterling Brown, Edward Brooke, Robert Weaver and Ralph Bunche, but it is also home to what is purported to be the largest collection of Catholic institutions outside of the Vatican.

This community is now the main target of a plan by the city’s mayor and school chancellor to close 23 schools, almost a third of them in Ward 5. The two officials – for whom certainty appears to be regarded as an adequate substitute for competence – have given no evidence that they consider either culture or community a matter worth examining, let alone respecting.

Two of their main grounds for closing a school: declining attendance in recent years and square footage. The decline in attendance, of course, doesn’t reveal whether the drop has ended or will continue or whether it reflects the raid on the city’s school system by a charter school program heavily pushed by congressional conservatives. Further, it cleverly protects the schools in nearly all white Ward 3 as these, though small in size, are no longer declining.

Neither of the criteria impress me much for a quite personal reason. I went through fourth grade in a DC public school the city had been trying to close that would have met neither of the current criteria. We had 160 kids with four teachers, two of them maiden sisters known by everyone as the thin Miss Waddy and the fat Miss Waddy. It lacked special programs and we undoubtedly took up too many square feet to be truly educationally efficient. Nonetheless, out of this failure came a dean of Catholic University, a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper, an urban planning professor and an irrepressible independent journalist, just to name a few from my period – proving once again that in education, objective standards often don’t cut it. What’s happening in that square footage of whatever size, and who’s doing it, is what really matters.

To make matters worse in Ward 5, the chancellor announced that public hearings on the 23 school closings would all be held on the same evening, making it impossible for anyone of real authority to hear what was being said. The citizens rightly responded by boycotting the hearings in favor of one at the city hall arranged by some friendly council members.

One of the schools, John Burroughs, even put up a web site to help in its fight against closure. On it you can learn that this school the city wants to shut down is:

– One of five Middle States accredited elementary schools in DC

– Meets federal requirements in reading and math

– Placed first in the city’s black history contest

– Has a scout program, cheerleaders and a ski club

– Ranks 15th citywide in reading and 12th in math

This is the sort of thing communities run into repeatedly as they confront a Brutalist bureaucracy or the mature style of pre-eminent Modernist politicians – but without the sort of weapons that historic preservationists have developed.

Even existing law – which would seem to require that the city give “great weight” to the opinion of the local neighborhood commissions – is being ignored. And there certainly is no Community Preservation Board with staff to send out and enforce the protection of the city’s neighborhoods against budget-mad officials.

This is just one example. DC is also proposing to destroy some neighborhood icons like libraries and firehouses by submerging them in new commercial high rises, politely called “mixed use” but actually the secular version of putting a church on the 8th floor of a skyscraper.

There is simply no consciousness that when you hide such community symbols it has a deleterious effect on the community itself and replaces the values of citizens living and working together with those of big box capitalism in which the citizen is reduced to either a consumer or a subservient employee.

A similar thing happens when you close a school. Where will the John Burroughs scouts and ski club go? Where will the community meet? What will be the talking ties between adults and children in the community? Where will the lessons of community service and volunteerism be taught? What will be left that the John Burroughs community has in common, especially its youngest members?

Not one ounce of official consideration is being given to such things. When you are worried about achievement tests, square footage and budgets who has time?

(One final irony: John Burroughs school was built in 1921, decades before either the recently preserved MLK Library and Christian Science Church.)

In the late 1960s, I argued that DC should have governing neighborhood commissions. When we were granted “advisory neighborhood commissions” in the 1970s, I argued that our first goal should be to kick the A out of ANC, replacing their token status with real governmental powers. I still believe such bodies are a greatly needed national urban reform. Among the jobs of such bodies would be to preserve the community and culture which they serve.

Another tool is already in the law, but widely ignored. Section 102 of the National Envrionmental Policy Act passed nearly four decades ago called for all federal agencies to “include in every recommendation or report on legislative proposals and other major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment”

Thomas Sanders of the Kennedy School has written of environmental impact statements and their lessons for “social capital impact statements” or what might be better called culture and community impact statements. Writes Sanders, among the things such statements might flag would be “an urban renewal ‘slum’ clearance case that focuses solely on the physical condition of a community and ignores its social condition. . . The massive defunding of school extra-curricular activities would be another category of policies with clear negative social capital impact. A clear case on the positive side would likely be a city policy to convert an abandoned lot used for trash dumping into a community park or public space”. . .

Nonethless, as Tom Angotti wrote in the Gotham Gazette:

“Contrary to common belief, the environmental impact statement doesn’t stop anyone from doing something that damages the environment. It only forces them to publicly declare it. From the start the environmental review process was skillfully designed to get around potential legal challenges by environmentalists who charged that the impact on the environment wasn’t considered, and from developers who would undermine environmental laws saying they interfere with their property rights.”. . .

“The environmental impact statement can’t answer the most important questions because its methodology is flawed. . . It doesn’t consider the impact of pollution on public health . . . It doesn’t consider the extent to which the environmental impacts fall disproportionately on one or another group – for example, people with low incomes. . . It doesn’t look at the effect on the level and quality of public services, which are very much a part of the quality of the urban environment. . .

“Yet another problem is that many large-scale projects evade the environmental impact statement entirely because they are ‘as-of-right’ – that is, they require no zoning change or other official land use action. An as-of-right 500-unit apartment building in Manhattan can result in more traffic and noise in a neighborhood that’s already overburdened, and there will be no environmental review.”

Of course, before cultural and community impact statements could develop, there would be a need for the same sort of passionate desire to preserve culture and community that we have seen with the environment and historic buildings.

There are some such movements scattered throughout the country. For example, Defense of Place takes on issues like Jean Klock Park:

“In Benton Harbor, Michigan, Defense of Place has been working with local residents to assure that Michigan’s poorest city doesn’t lose its most precious asset–the public’s Jean Klock Park, to a private luxury golf course. Jean Klock Park encompasses rare lakefront beaches and dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. Because of its natural beauty and rare lakefront, it became desirable for developers who want to use it as the centerpiece of a luxury housing development that will be completely out of reach for Benton Harbor’s residents. The park was given to the city with the promise that it be kept for the public in perpetuity. Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars have funded significant park improvements with the restriction that the entire park be protected.”

But on the whole, we don’t give our communities and our cultures the same respect we have learned to give history and the natural environment.

For example, global environmental groups long shortchanged threatened human cultures, tacitly assuming them to be in a class less worthy, say, than tigers and giraffes.

History also distorts our perspective on what’s important. Sorting out discussions by time rather than by culture – along with components such as myth, folklore and tradition – limits us greatly. We have become far more interested in time sequences as we have gained the ability to determine them, though in some cultures the way we approach history might seem odd, as with the American Indian story-teller who began his tale, “I’m not sure all the facts are right but this story is true.”

One of the things I noticed as an anthropology major was how different the approach was to what was going on elsewhere in the university, particularly in the history department. Past and present were not so neatly divided. And place was extremely important.

Here is how the anthropologist AL Kroeber described it long ago:

“[The] placing of phenomena in space is an indispensable need in all the historical sciences – astronomy, geology, paleontology, evolutionary biology, geography, as well as in history and anthropology. . . History absolutely brings in the space or place factor unceasingly. Napoleon was born in Corsica, became emperor of France, marched as far as Moscow, was defeated at Waterloo, died in St. Helena, his bones rest in Paris, Can we imagine his career without reference to place and area? It would be a meaningless thing in a vacuum. As a matter of fact, that Waterloo lies in Belgium and not in France or Germany is as significant as that the battle was fought in 1815 and not in 1810 or 1820.

“It is often said that the specific quality of history is its dealing with time sequence. Why the time factor should be singled out for this distinction is hard to understand, except that the equally important space factor is so much taken for granted as to be overlooked. . . Nevertheless, place obviously counts in history as much as time.”

As our local historical society was struggling recently to revive itself, it struck me that part of the answer might be to change the name and its purpose: from the Historical Society of Washington to something like the Center for Washington History, Culture & Community. It might then offer programs and exhibits on the contemporary cab industry (the largest per capita in the country) or DC’s important Ethiopian community. The purpose would not be to diminish history but to blend time and place. Further, in an era when traditional history is often considered archaic after six months, this might help people move into the past by entering through the door of the present.

On a much larger scale it is what we also need: a movement to preserve and celebrate our communities and cultures as well as we have come to honor our history and natural environment. We need preservational equality between the natural and the human, history and contemporary, time and space – among other things, to make a school that adults and children love as important as an old building no one is quite sure what to do with.

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