Historic Preservation, Ethics, and Communities

Mendocino is a bit of a posterchild for historic preservation, as we know[1. Or maybe we don’t, I suppose that depends on numerous factors like where you live and how long you’ve been reading this website, actually.]; the town made a conscious decision to prioritise the maintenance of a particular character and presentation and it has gone to great lengths to protect it. It’s turned the town into a tourist attraction, long after the artist colony has become defunct, because people go there to feel like they are stepping into the past, all anachronisms (modern cars, neon signs, etc.) aside.

I’m generally a fan of history and I think that preserving historical records and elements of the past is important, and useful, and should be part of society. We have much to learn from our shared past along with the history of others. I have mixed feelings on historic preservation, though, and this may come as a surprise to some people. My mixed feelings are in part related to accessibility issues, like outdated attitudes about the need to keep spaces inaccessible in the name of ‘preserving history’ (some aspects of history do not need to be preserved), and also due to the motivations behind historic preservation movements. I don’t get the sense that most of these movements want to preserve the past for the people, I get the impression they want to create a frozen, fly in amber version of the past for very specific groups, usually wealthy people, and I dislike this just on general grounds.

There are definitely good elements to historic preservation. Few things make me angrier than a beautiful, usable, elegant building torn down in the name of progress and development. From a purely environmental perspective, destroying buildings makes me angry because of the sheer waste. From a historical one, the disregard for history saddens me, the attitude that by erasing the past we can pretend it didn’t happen or find a ‘better’ world in new things. And on simple aesthetic grounds, modern trends in architecture, particularly mass produced, cheap architecture, are not looking very pretty, and it dismays me to see, for example, a lovely Craftsman home shredded to make way for a boxy, inefficient, ugly pile of crap that is also cheaply made and will fall apart rapidly, unlike the 80 year old home it replaces.

Maintaining actual living examples of the past, whether we are talking architecture, horticulture, or anything else, can have tremendous value. There’s something to be said for tactile learning. Talk as much as we like about the symbolism of the Presidency of the United States and the White House, for example, actually walking into the White House and being inside the seat of power tells me more about it than endless articles and essays about the culture and history of the Presidency.

There are also bad elements, though. What are we to make of rigid attitudes to preservation designed to keep out the riff-raff? It does not escape notice that historic preservation districts are usually wealthy and they cater to people with money. To buy property in such areas requires a lot of money, as does developing, because people have to jump through miles of hoops to get permits and satisfy the right people. Running businesses in preservation districts is also a very costly endeavor, as rents are typically high, with people paying a premium for the increased tourist exposure. Effectively, such districts, as ‘democratic’ as preserving the past may sound, are really only provided for the benefit of people can afford them.

A nearby preservation district can drive up rents and property values, great for landlords and property owners, not so great for the rest of us. Many people who work in preservation districts cannot afford to live in them and may have long commutes, actually, because the places they can afford are so remote. It’s not surprising to see some less wealthy members of communities resenting attempts at historic preservation and crying foul on gentrification measures, many of which include some aspect of preservation with classist elements about what should be preserved and where the priorities should lie when it comes to deciding how, when, and where to develop. It’s not that they don’t like history, but that they are concerned about the very real implications preservation and gentrification will have for their communities.

There’s also the tendency to promote a tourist, service-based economy, which provides few opportunities to residents. Only a handful of people can become small businesses owners and once they do, they may find the going tough. Those who can afford employees usually cannot afford to pay very much, and people tend to be trapped in a cycle of poorly paying service jobs with no benefits. I was talking about financial planning recently? Try financial planning when you’re dependent on low paying work with seasonal hour fluctuations for your existence. Class divides are reinforced at every level in terms of who profits and benefits from preservation.

Does this mean I’m anti-preservation and think we should have a development free for all? No, it does not. But it does mean that I think far more consideration needs to go into the way we talk about historic districts, communities, and preservation. Especially when we are talking about living communities where people are already actively participating, existing, flourishing, doing business. Or communities where people are already struggling to survive in marginal conditions. Destroying communities in the name of historic preservation, creating and maintaining class divides, this is not a public service and while it may be true to history, it certainly isn’t ethical.