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Chatterbox: Preserving what is


Recently, writing several stories about what my hometown was like when I was a kid, I realized how many wonders of my childhood have fallen by the wayside.

This is very characteristic of America; we don’t seem to save things that aren’t historic yet, giving them no chance to become historic. In my hometown, the very first one-room schoolhouse was razed to build two small buildings housing four apartments each, on a tiny piece of property in the center of a triangle of, now, highly trafficked roads. Not an improvement.

While other nations around the world maintain old buildings fairly reflexively, we do it less often. Often out of necessity, they preserve what exists regardless of historic relevance or artistry so, ultimately, its age alone makes it classic.

America seems to purposely allow things to dissolve as they begin to need our attention, and then we blame that condition for its demise. More often, we spend more money blowing classics up and carting them away in pieces than it would take to simply maintain them in their glory to use and enjoy forever.

Then, we build new ones that aren’t half as well built and won’t survive to become historic.

Yes, we have some American classics that are well noted and blessed with constant upkeep. We have landmarks, buildings designed by famous architects, and places preserved for historical significance or, simply, because of age. More recently, however, it’s harder to get things maintained especially when the land they’re on is desired for other construction.

In other countries, the profiteer doesn’t run the country, raw materials aren’t so easy to procure and move, not everything is being replaced by plastic or some composite thereof, and generations of artisans and craftsmen have their traditional work regarded as greatly relevant and a treasure to be passed on, and are subsidized. These locations are now such that, even if you get lost for an entire day, you’ll still see the great sights, because they’re all good, just by having endured.

There’s a beautiful piazza in Lucca, Italy where people work in shops all around the perimeter. Above the shops in ancient buildings are modest apartments with minimal modern conveniences. It looks like a movie set for Disney, but it’s real and it breathes. It’s completely viable, with full-time residents who hang their wash on rope lines over tile roofs the color of autumn oak leaves. These buildings didn’t endure because Michelangelo lived there or painted their walls, but simply because the people understand that “what is” has greater value than “what is next.”

Of course, occasionally, the inspection of even very important structures anywhere can get overlooked to the point of danger. Still, Americans regularly lean far more radically toward disposal, while older nations focus far more on maintenance; repairs go on daily, convenient or not. Workers tie up the locals in traffic while granite blocks are replaced in the streets; they close a popular square to repair local apartments, and deny views from balconies to devastated tourists to pamper a cathedral.

Yes, we preserved Monticello, and Gettysburg was declared a National Park, but cultivating future landmarks is often disregarded. They will never become classics, simply because they aren’t classic yet, like the one-room schoolhouse we spoke about. We are a nation of what’s next and new. We demolish places that should be saved and remodel places we should restore. We need to remember that, on the way to becoming iconic, things and places go through a stage whereat they are simply old. We need to maintain them through those stages for them to become classic, later, even if they’re just simple old homes.

These stories of my childhood that I’ve been asked for, inducing hours of pouring over old photos, showed me that most of my hometown’s architecture that survived long enough to become classic, survived simply because it just didn’t get in anyone’s way. It wasn’t, and possibly never will be, formally preserved.

Sadly, many of the wonderful places that existed and were very enjoyable, are now gone completely. Their loss is obvious, and they’ve been replaced by things that aren’t as worthwhile, lack creativity, don’t exhibit great craftsmanship, and don’t serve the purpose or people in the way the original structure did.

Their loss reminds me that much of what we tumble and replace should be preserved, and that we need to reflect and carefully assess before we back up the bulldozer, because “what is” definitely has greater value than “what is next.”