Friday, September 16, 2011

The Economy of Preservation

We spent a nice day in Lewisburg, West Virginia last weekend.  One reason for choosing Lewisburg for a day trip was that it is close to our home in Southwest Virginia, but beyond that, even though we didn't consciously make the decision based on historic preservation, all of the reasons are inextricably tied to it:
  • Lewisburg has a sense of place.  The minute you enter town, you know you are somewhere special and not in Anytown, USA.  History is evident from the old buildings and the tree-lined streets.  The business district has character and draws you in.  This is a place you want to stop.
  • Lewisburg is pedestrian friendly.  Though several main roads connect in town, all of the roads are 2 lanes with parallel parking.  The parked cars and street trees help to provide a barrier between pedestrians and traffic while also slowing the cars driving through.  Why are the roads narrow?  Because the buildings are historic and were built at a time when pedestrians and horses were the norm or few people owned those new-fangled automobile things.
  • Lewisburg is compact, yet expansive.  What do I mean by that?  The area that comprises downtown Lewisburg is just a few blocks, creating a compact area to walk around.  No sprawl here.  But it is expansive enough that you can spend an entire afternoon here eating lunch (and maybe dinner too) at a local restaurant; browsing the galleries of locally-made and high-quality arts and crafts, antique stores, and specialty shops; and taking the historic walking tour.  You can expand your trip to the evening too by taking in a show at Carnegie Hall and spend the night at a local B&B.
  • Money spent in Lewisburg stays local.  The majority of businesses are locally owned and not owned by a faceless conglomerate in another state who doesn't really even know where Lewisburg is.  That means that money you spend in Lewisburg most likely returns to business owners and employees who live locally.  If they, in turn, spend the money they earned from you locally, then the returns to the local economy snowball.
I don't know the logistics of how Lewisburg became the community it is today, but I do know that many small towns have used federal and state historic preservation funding and tax credits to help them revitalize and reinvent themselves after experiencing extended economic downturns due to lost industries and changes in the way people shop.  What does federal and state preservation funding accomplish for these towns?  It creates jobs.  It creates jobs for the people who restore and rehabilitate the historic buildings to be used by restaurants, galleries, specialty shops, grocery and hardware stores, office space, apartments, and a myriad of other uses.  It creates jobs for the business owners and their staff that occupy the historic buildings.  It creates jobs for tourism-related businesses such as restaurants, lodging, and gas that are needed so visitors can spend the day, spend the night, spend the week.  These may not be the large-scale industrial park-type industries our politicians are thinking of when they chant the "more jobs" mantra, but these small local businesses are important for rural economies, small town residents, and the American way of life.  And funding to help with these preservation projects is vital to our economy.  That might not be so obvious if you live in Anytown, USA.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Forces of Nature

We were very fortunate last week.  We live in Virginia, but weren't effected by either the earthquake or the hurricane.  We felt a little shaking, we had a little breeze, but nary a drop of rain.  Many owners of historic houses in Virginia were not so lucky with reports of collapsed chimneys and facades, cracks in brick and stone, uprooted historic trees, long power outages.  Things could certainly have been worse, but they are certainly not easy for those who received damage and must now make the tough decisions about repairing, demolishing, and rebuilding.  Preservation Virginia, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation can all help historic property owners in Virginia with resources to make those tough decisions.  An article in the Alexandria Times talks about the importance of earthquake or hurricane bolts in the historic brick buildings of Alexandria in keeping damage to a minimum and mentions Virginia's last major earthquake which was centered in our county.

Our thoughts also go out to those New England and New York where flooding from Irene has caused unfathomable damage to historic buildings and structures.  It's just heartbreaking to see covered bridges washed into swollen rivers and water flowing through buildings.  I grew up in a New Hampshire town with a covered bridge connecting it to the next town.  Fortunately, the water levels weren't so high there as to put the bridge in danger, but I can certainly empathize with the pain people are feeling for lost bridges.

In our current economic situation, it's hard to believe that any of the bridges will be rebuilt, at least not as iconic covered bridges.  I don't think that it is nostalgia that necessarily drives our emotions when we lose historic bridges and buildings.  The loss of a sense of character is powerful.  The covered bridges and quintessential New England villages draw people because they are different.  They have a very strong sense of place.  You can tell one bridge or one town from another.  You know you are somewhere special the minute you enter town.  Much of our construction today evokes "Anywhere, USA".  From bridge to buildings, you can't tell where you are.  You could be in Connecticut or you could be in Texas, the styles of newer structures and chains tend to be similar.  We're losing our regional architecture and, with it, our sense of place.  That's why it is so painful to see catastrophic damage to the historic structures that define the uniqueness of our communities.  That's why we should make an effort to repair or reconstruct rather than demolish and replace.