When it Matters: Preservation, Conflict, and Organized Preservation

In his essay on the preservation movement in Boston, Michael Holleran pointed to its grassroots beginnings. In all of the early examples he writes on (The Old South Meeting House, The Old State House, The Bulfinch State House, and The Park Street Church) no pre-existing preservation group was responsible for raising awareness about the potential loss of these buildings, nor raising whatever funds led to their saving. But what is it that instigated this sudden drive to preserve? The potential for loss. It may seem obvious, but it seems that people only consider organizing to preserve when things that matter to them are in danger of disappearing. However, this phenomena may be worth considering further, especially in terms of what leads a building or neighborhood to the point of conflict spurring organization.

Preservation may not always be a conscious effort. Consider regular religious services, visits to the graves of relatives, trips to an old family property, or even the maintenance of a family home. All of these traditions involve built fabric, but they are not about the built fabric; they are about what the fabric represents, be it faith, origins, or even the living of our current lives. These sorts of rituals are acts of preservation in and of themselves; donating a few dollars to a building fund, clearing grass and dirt off of graves, and regular maintenance on a cottage or home. Sometimes the traditions live long, healthy lives, but often they die away, or become less frequent; members of a religious community die off or move away, the deceased become mere names on a headstone, visits to the cottage in the woods or on the lake become humdrum compared to more exotic destinations, or simple maintenance grows difficult with age. And then suddenly, property values skyrocket, the character of a neighborhood changes, natural resources are found, or any number of transformations occurs, bringing new values and needs into a place. These radical changes can spark flashbacks to the way things used to be; a potent nostalgia that may illicit the call to organization and preservation.

But the flashback does not always occur. And often even the cries of existing preservation organizations are not enough to illicit a response. Events like those described by Holleran in cities like Boston have many times led to the creation of government agencies and community watchdog group which seek to premeditate preservation policy and activism to give a fighting chance to preservation in the face of better equipped developers and government initiatives. Sometimes these entities can act regardless of public opinion or interest (something that may pose its own issues), and sometimes the entities we’ve set up to do the job for us, are not enough, and the communal flashback is simply blinked away if it occurs at all.

How are we to reconcile these different scenarios? Sometimes organized bodies fight a fight which no one cares for, and sometimes the community is up in arms against a deaf regime. There are of course the success stories where government, community, and private enterprise (or at least two of them) fall on common ground, working together for preservation; however, this is not always the case. And how are we to understand this common ground or the lack of its formation? Perhaps too often the voices crying out are too far removed from access to power, and fall upon deaf ears. It is true that the field has been becoming more and more inclusive of the various stake holders that exist in the world, and many racial and cultural barriers have been lowered to the great advantage of the field. But we must remain vigilant; it would be arrogant to assume that we’ve reach a culmination in the field and to think we have our definitive model. Odds are, whatever it is, it matters to someone; we just need to listen.

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