Death To Nostalgia

Back in the late 1980s I was in a hearing at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on the landmark designation of some surviving 1870s buildings in the Loop. The great real estate expert Jared Shlaes was testifying against the designation of several buildings because they had no functional or economical use. Somehow we had become a “party” to the hearing and I was able to cross-examine him. I thought I was clever and brought up the Chicago Water Tower, which was also functionally and economically obsolete. He fired back with a withering glare noting that the Water Tower was a landmark with great nostalgic value.

That hurt, man. Not losing an argument to Shlaes (although in retrospect he was wrong – the buildings are still around). What hurt was THAT WORD. Nostalgia. He was calling me nostalgic and that stung.

Nostalgia, is, as the ending of the word implies, a disease. Pining for a past that is dead and gone. What, you say? Isn’t that historic preservation? NO. Check out this quote:

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation promotes community development in older and historic neighborhoods.”

This was news today, thanks to a $1.3 million grant from the Knight Foundation to the National Trust (link at right). The grant is part of a $5 million loan pool targeted at developing affordable housing for some 28 communities across the U.S.. As this news makes clear, historic preservation is in fact an attitude toward the future – an attitude that our environment is richer by preserving HISTORIES embodied in buildings; that our future is brighter by preserving the ENERGY embodied in existing buildings; and that our life is richer by preserving the ARCHITECTURE of earlier periods. And preservation is a mechanism for securing a range of development goals including affordable housing.

Nostalgia afflicts many of those who support preservation, but I recoil at the term. I LIKE it when things change because that is history. History is not about standing still, it is about dynamism and the mechanics and infinite variety of change. We lived in a lovely house for 12 years and sold it this spring and now everyone is telling us how the new owners painted it white. So what? They should paint it however they want. It’s theirs now. I loved and enjoyed that house for 12 years and so did Felicity and the girls and it was time to move on so we moved on. That house will always be a part of my life but I don’t need to get DISEASED about it. I need to move on.

“The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it”
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam by Edward Fitzgerald

I don’t want to perpetuate the 1970s or the 1980s or the 1990s and even if I did it wouldn’t work. Nostalgia the disease leads the pious and the clever to attempt erasure, to attempt to stop time, to hold on to institutions, practices, media, social orders and technologies that have died. That is as creepy as the stuffed Jeremy Bentham at the London School of Economics.

I hate it when people suggest that preservation is about stopping time. Ludicrous. Preservation is, in part, about limiting formal changes to the environment, but that is an attitude toward the future, not a misplaced reverence for the past. Museums can be about describing what life was like in the past, and there are architectural museums and house museums and museum villages and Civil War reenactments and the like. Those things could be described as nostalgic, although I would prefer to call them interpretive and educational. But museums – as much as they have proliferated in the last half century – are still relatively rare. You can have one for every 20,000 people or so. And even then, your goal is not to preserve something in aspic or amber or dry ice but to create an educational experience about the past that can plausibly (and usually positively) influence the future.

I like house museums. But I like historic districts and landmark buildings when they aren’t museums – and 95% of the time they aren’t. I like them because they served one purpose once and serve another now – because they have more and richer histories than most one-note new buildings. I like them because their history is visible and legible in patina and alterations over time, and I like them because they show me a style, a design and a sense of place that appeared once and will never appear again in exactly the same way.

I don’t ever want to go back AND I don’t ever want to forget.


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