This is the title of a presentation I did for the Office of Historic Preservation, Centro San Antonio and over a hundred luncheon attendees in San Antonio last week. I went through four thematic reasons WHY we save things: Identity – Community – Economy – Education.
San Antonio is a beautiful town
I then detailed the HOW, which includes National Register designation and local landmark status and so forth. I focused on my mantra, which readers of this blog are familiar with: Preservation Is Not A Set of Rules But A Process.
The more I work internationally, the more this is true. The Burra Charter is to me the Magna Carta of heritage conservation. It outlines how to engage the local community and local culture into the PROCESS of IDENTIFYING what is significant in the past that the community wants to bring into the future; EVALUATING the nature, materiality and essence of that significance that needs to be preserved and/or transmitted; DESIGNATING it through a workable local mechanism; and TREATING the resources tangible and intangible in a way that conserves the significance.
Lotsa yellow stone reminds me of dolomite
There is great variety in the United States about how local historic preservation commissions and laws work – many places have only advisory and not binding review, but the legal force of the local ordinance never seems to affect the negative reactions one often gets to preservation. Some of that is caused by preservationists who take an extreme position of wanting to put something into a time capsule, but mostly it is caused by a lack of understanding of HOW we review treatment of historic resources to insure they maintain their significance.
So, WHY we preserve is actually a great focus, because it is something the planners and builders and businesspeople and politicians can understand. The history of preservation in San Antonio actually points to this. Back in 1921 there were killer floods in San Antonio which led to a proposal to bury the river and give the downtown a nice new regular grid that would be more welcoming to business and development.
The San Antonio Conservation Society formed to oppose this and indeed by 1929 the town had not only preserved the squiggly river, irregular streets and other supposed job-killers, they had created what is now the heart and soul of San Antonio: The Riverwalk.
Even those who were concerned about that crafty canard “too much preservation” could not imagine San Antonio without its Riverwalk. Indeed, since I was last in the city four years ago, they have extended it several miles further. You can now walk or boat or ride from the downtown to the redeveloped Pearl Brewery site, itself a model of the vitality of doing redevelopment based on historic buildings.
Then in the 1930s the Conservation Society then turned its focus to the missions (five including the Alamo) that extend ten miles south of town and represent the earliest European settlement of the region. This sort of put them into familiar preservationist territory – saving monuments of founders and isolating landmarks from the economic everyday – but it is instructive that they began with a planning and revitalization effort, one that continues to this day.
Someone – maybe it was my longtime friend and colleague Shanon Miller, who invited me to speak – asked an excellent rhetorical question: How many city centers do you know that were revitalized WITHOUT historic buildings? You know, those places where they managed to build enough six-story parking garages and convention centers that everyone came downtown again even though there were no old buildings?
I was preceded in my lunch talk by Stephanie, Erik and Darby from Heavy Heavy, a local design firm that has created a campaign called “Keep San Antonio Real” and you should use the hashtag #keepsareal. I loved this because they were young and they were defining the authenticity they loved and wanted to keep in their community. Every generation needs to do this, as I explained in an important blog a few years back.
It made my discussion of WHY we preserve easier, because here was the next generation collecting Instagrams about what people loved about their city and fighting to maintain that sense of community, belonging and rootedness that we call “authenticity.” I see it in buildings old and new, in streetscapes and colors of stone, in the trees that loomed over the riverwalk, and in the tiny two-door bungalows that could only exist in Texas.
The good people concerned with the business development of downtown San Antonio were very interested in what I had to say. I tend to be the guy that says preservation needs to pay for itself, which reassures businesspeople, but they need to understand that usually it can and does.
The failure to preserve a building is rarely the failure of a law or a review. It is usually the failure of imagination on the part of a developer or city planner to figure out how to save what is significant and make it pay for itself.
Imagination is freed not by understanding the HOW of preservation in all of its technicality, no more than a real estate development succeeds by understanding the HOW of zoning in all of its technicality. It is the WHY that does it. Preservation is the form of economic development that reinforces local culture, sense of place, community identity, and the economic excitement of a rebirth nurtured in local soil with local roots and the tender care of a local community.
A quarter century ago, driving my yellow Chevy in Humboldt Park, Chicago, I pulled over and wrote down: “Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing for their protection, interpretation, and enhancement. We preserve landmarks because our history is part of us. Our historical built environment tells us where we came from and why we do what we do. When we lose landmarks, we lose a part of ourselves.”
But like the Spanglish of the Riverwalk quote above, my focus today is less on the lost and more on the rebuilding, a rebuilding that is ever sustainable if it is done in the form, fabric and fullness of the local community and culture.
Why we preserve is much, much more important than how – if we focus on the why, we will find the imagination and creativity to create the how.