Preserving the past and building for the future

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Americans, perhaps more than any other culture, are a future-focused people. We celebrate youth, innovation and novelty, while devaluing age and tradition. One way this tendency is expressed is in how we treat the architectural heritage of our communities. In our rush toward the new we too often reject—or simply forget—that which has gone before and that symbolizes the heritage on which our present and future is built.

Architectural heritage is among the most tangible ways to tell the history of a community. A look at the older parts of my community, the City of Fresno, is a case in point. The historic train depots downtown connect us directly to the force that brought Fresno into existence, for without the railroad, Fresno as it is today would not exist. Crossing one set of those railroad tracks takes us into Chinatown, a reminder of how non-white ethnic groups have been banished to the margins of “respectable” society. Much of Fresno’s downtown skyline documents the economic boom of the 1910s and 1920s, when the city first became the major economic hub of Central California. The grassy medians extending north from downtown along Van Ness Boulevard and east along Huntington Boulevard are the only remaining physical evidence of a trolley system that served Fresno before American society cast its lot with the automobile. These stories are told more vividly by the buildings themselves than by any photograph or written historical account. If we lose those places, we lose a direct connection to the events they symbolize.

Some such stories have almost been lost. Visible evidence of the economic boom of the 1880s, which helped create ornate Victorian commercial and residential districts in Fresno, is almost entirely gone. Only a few isolated symbols, such as the Meux Home Museum, remain to hint at Fresno’s transition from rough frontier town to prosperous city. The construction of freeways in the 1950s and 1960s tore huge gashes through communities once populated largely by Armenians, Germans from Russia and other ethnic groups, and that today could help us remember the role that those groups have played in our history.

But is all this merely a sentimental yearning for the past, which overlooks the more “realistic” necessities of economic growth and progress? Some would argue that the old must give way to the new if our community is to prosper and succeed. I believe, however, that this is a false dichotomy. The preservation of architectural resources, rather than hindering economic and community growth, can actually serve as an important stimulus for such growth.

Preservation of historic architectural resources helps create an urban core to which people are drawn. Think about other cities you have visited. Are your most vivid memories those of the strip malls or cookie-cutter office complexes? Probably not. You likely remember the structures that gave the place a sense of permanence and tradition, that made you feel a part of something bigger and much older than yourself. The best way to create such an environment here is to restore what we already have.

Historic preservation is also a more responsible use of resources. Every old building not torn down diverts potential waste material from our landfills. At a time when local governments face strict limits on their waste streams, this is an important consideration.

Contrary to common assumptions, historic preservation is not prohibitively expensive. While labor costs for rehabilitation are higher than for new construction, costs for materials generally are lower. Furthermore, money paid for labor tends to stay in the community longer than money paid to out-of-town suppliers, meaning that rehabilitation of older buildings generally has a greater economic benefit to the local community.

Not every old building should be saved, and urban areas need quality new architecture along with the old. Historic preservation is not about stopping time in its tracks or creating museum pieces. It is about balancing the need for progress with the value of our heritage, of creating a city in which we remember who we were and how we got here. Great cities don’t run away from their pasts. They celebrate them, and in the process create a stronger future for themselves. Let’s commit to creating communities like that for ourselves.

Kevin Enns-Rempel is archivist and instructor in history at Fresno Pacific University, and also serves as chair of the City of Fresno’s Historic Preservation Commission.

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