“Everyone claims to want a city, but no one here wants city living. City living by its definition is crowded. It is tolerant of other people. It is dependent on a sophisticated population that makes a hundred compromises daily so that they can benefit from the collective energy that a city generates.” –Robert N. Davis, Jr., May 4, 2004
We know you were secretly thinking these thoughts. Come on, don’t deny it. Here are the answers you’ve been longing for.
Question: Why are preservationists always in reactive mode rather than proactive? We hear from you only when a demolition is threatened. Where were you before things reached this stage? Why aren’t preservationists buying up these buildings if you care about them so much?
Answer: The simple answer is that we weren’t fighting for building X because we were occupied with buildings A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I and J, and didn’t find out until everyone else did that building X was suddenly on the executioner’s block. This is the “too many fires, not enough hydrants” syndrome. Every day someone brings to our attention another threatened property, without bringing us the people and resources to protect it. Buffalo has thousands of worthy and at-risk buildings and acres of intact turn-of-the-century neighborhoods that less authentic, more “modern” cities would kill for.
We are mostly volunteers with no dedicated funding who do activism on top of our day jobs. We do not have access to every building in town in order to inspect and spot problems before they threaten structural integrity. That is the job of building inspectors, and it is the job of citizens to report violations. We do not have eyes on every street or into the plans of every property owner.
The more complicated answer is that what we hope to accomplish in addition to saving buildings A, B, C, etc., is a change in the cultural consensus. Right now, the consensus, or default position, is to build new in farmfields and as a consequence destroy old in cities. A nationally interconnected system of lenders, builders, zoning codes, tax codes, economic incentives, land owners, and public officials collectively operate an efficient machine whose product is sprawl. What we’re fighting in Buffalo is not just the effects of economic collapse and depopulation, as damaging as these have been. We are also fighting the Siamese twins of suburban sprawl and urban abandonment, to the extent that we can take bites out of such a colossal beast with our small teeth.
Every time we block a pointless demolition and a supposedly “too far gone” structure is returned to glorious life, the cultural consensus shifts a little. Everytime we help establish a new historic district in Buffalo and property values rise, the cultural consensus shifts a little. Every time our tours and lectures focus attention on our architectural riches and why they matter, the cultural consensus shifts a little. Every time we form a restoration corporation, as was done with Central Terminal, the cultural consensus shifts a little. Every time we champion urban, pedestrian integrity over suburban automobile incursions, the cultural consensus shifts a little. And every time the cultural consensus shifts a little, someone is inspired to restore a vulnerable building or buy an old house so that it doesn’t end up in a demolition battle.
Nevertheless, in the absence of this new and better cultural consensus, namely that demolition is as traumatic as amputation and should likewise be as rare, criticizing preservationists for being reactive instead of proactive is like criticizing ambulance crews for always responding to accidents instead of preventing them. Accidents can and should be prevented, and we go about preventing them with the involvement of all kinds of professionals, from engineers to day care providers. We don’t blame EMTs. We have a nationally interconnected system–a cultural consensus–whose product is safety. Preservationists dream of a new cultural consensus, one in which it is taken for granted that old buildings and neighborhoods are assets, not liabilities, just as we take it for granted that safety is good and not bad.
So, if preservationists love these old buildings so much, why don’t we buy them? Actually, we do to the extent that as individuals we personally purchase and rehab. But times are tough and funds are few. We’d like a healthy bank balance as much as the next 501(C)(3), but in these tough times, we console ourselves that there’s nothing as effective as a big donor for corrupting a small organization. We do not have endowments because our work tends to piss off those who profit from the present consensus. Our work tends to piss off those who relentlessly “develop” our irrepleaceable heritage into shovel ready sites. Our work tends to piss off those we sue. Our work tends to piss off those who believe that old is worthless and new means improved.
But we continue to agitate for a change in the cultural consensus. We are no different that those who work for any other social good. When you advocate for jobs or health care, no one snaps at you to pay everyone’s wages or doctor bills if you’re so hung up on these things.
We have seen again and again that preservation is the most successful economic development Buffalo has seen in the last 30 or so years. It is a social good in the same way that jobs and health care are. Everyone benefits when old buildings are reused rather than sent to the landfill, even Buffalo’s most wrong-headed, repeat-offender “developers.” When we have a new cultural consensus about the value of preserving Buffalo’s built environment, from bankers to government officials to homeowners, we won’t need so many reactive preservationists.