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The troubles facing us require help from our entire citizenry. The buck may stop with you but it starts with our fellow citizens and me.

 

 

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Dear President Obama

By Judy L. Hayward

I bet you had no idea how much hope you inspired when you mentioned the loss of historic sites as a serious problem in your address to U.S. Governors in December 2008. The preservation community was grateful to learn that historic preservation was already on your radar screen. The news of your statement spread like wildfire over the internet. Thank you for standing up for one critically important part of the work we do. With that recognition in mind, this essay started as a “Dear Mr. President” letter, where I thought I might be so bold as to suggest a preservation agenda for YOU. Instead, it has evolved into some humble reflections on what WE can do TOGETHER toward building a stronger nation.

As you are well aware, unemployment, financial distress and an overall sense of uncertainty are running rampant here in the United States, and in fact, throughout the world. While I am saddened by all of these problems, I am troubled that all this mayhem is impeding the progress that has been made by proponents of historic preservation and its compatriots, New Urbanism and traditional architecture for the past 30 years. I hope that doesn’t sound selfish, but our industry has been busy trying to fix neighborhoods, strengthen local economies, reuse embodied energy, provide affordable and workforce housing and build anew based on sound building practices that have stood the test of time. We would like to continue to do so with your help and leadership. The world may be in a muddle, but we can combat global problems by working harder than ever to make our own local communities better.

While historic preservation is not a panacea for all the political or social problems of the world, it has been and can continue to be a key ingredient in combating many of them. New Urbanism and practitioners of traditional architecture and building look to the past for guidance to build the future. The people comprising this world of shared values, whether professionals or volunteers, represent a mighty team that can harness history for a better future regardless of race, color, creed, class, nationality or any other difference that we fight about or celebrate. Our work capitalizes on existing community strengths and restores or builds accordingly.

Merely giving YOU a laundry list of dos “just won’t do” (to quote your famous campaign phrase). The troubles facing us require help from our entire citizenry. The buck may stop with you but it starts with our fellow citizens and me. While I do believe that the problems outlined above are a fair summary of the breadth of the present crisis, I believe deeply that one problem underlies them all: apathy. The root problems undermining our stability happened right in front of our own eyes. We thought someone else was paying attention. Citizens must overcome the temptation of apathy if we are to emerge stronger and better despite the current world situation. WE can no longer talk about “they,” “them” and “somebody” doing or not doing something. We can help our own agenda by serving on governmental boards and commissions, testifying at city council, legislative, or congressional hearings and by giving good information to our elected officials. We must take an active role in protecting our democracy, our ability to work and earn a living, and our capacity to provide a future for our children and ourselves. To quote Gandhi, “you must be the change you want to see in the world.”

So, here’s a suggested list of projects, programs and priorities drawn from the work of preservation, New Urbanism and traditional building that cultivate employment, economic growth and energy conservation. Many of them dovetail nicely with the programs you have already announced as possible priorities for your administration in its quest to stimulate economic recovery (as of mid-December 2008).

Reinvest in neighborhood schools. Many neighborhood schools are or could be designated as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Continuing to use them for education brings stability and a sense of belonging to neighborhoods. Fixing these structures is a good source of employment. Bringing modern technology to their classrooms and making them energy efficient will ensure continued use of existing building materials in situ and protect embodied energy. Historic buildings comprise a substantial part of the learning environment for many fine private institutions of higher learning throughout the United States; they can serve public education equally well.

Reinvest in infrastructure, public transit and pedestrian amenities for communities. Our neighborhoods need good water delivery systems, repaired streets and sidewalks, more public parks or green spaces for gardens and trees and better lighting for pedestrians. You have already announced initiatives to fix roads and bridges; please keep in mind that many of the bridges are historically significant and worth preserving. Transportation enhancement projects funded for the past decade have demonstrated that it makes sense to combine preserving historic character with improvements in the transportation system. Americans will continue to love driving automobiles but it also makes sense to rehabilitate and expand public transit. Many historic neighborhoods were developed in an era of expanding streetcar lines and early subway or train systems. Upgrading or returning to some of the historic modes of transit to and from these neighborhoods balances sound energy policy with historic neighborhood revitalization. Infill construction in city lots and historic neighborhoods and suburbs will increase density and give access to public transit for businesses, homeowners or renters.

Support education for traditional building craftsmanship. Contemporary building practice differs from traditional building practice. We would serve our nation’s tradespeople well by offering education in the history of building craft practice and how to repair historic materials. It has been estimated that this kind of work is 50 percent more labor intensive than new construction. New traditionally inspired buildings have become highly desirable. Insuring that our workforce can build traditionally is good for employment and job satisfaction. Investing in local preservation projects and the people who work on them is a great multiplier for local economies.

Make the tax credits for historic preservation stronger and support states in their efforts to do so. Since 1976, almost 35,000 historic preservation federal tax credit projects have leveraged $45 billion in private investment in America’s aging and historic building stock. In 2007 alone, more than 1,000 projects were approved for a record-breaking $4.34 billion in expenditures. This program has leveraged a 5 to 1 ratio of private to public dollars invested consistently since its inception. Imagine what the authorization of a tax credit for historic home improvement could do for small and large communities and how it would jump start residential construction.

Reinvest in our national parks and government buildings. Much of our patrimony is found in national parks and historic government buildings. The backlog of maintenance work on government-owned properties could be a powerful stimulus for commercial construction firms. Reinvesting in public properties protects history and promotes civic pride and provides employment.

The programs suggested above are good for employment, historic buildings and energy conservation and can be accomplished by government, business and nonprofits working together. By the way, this industry is a big part of the construction market. Preservation, rehabilitation, renovation and traditionally inspired new construction accounted for an estimated $170 billion dollars in activity in 2006. Let’s find a way to do that again in 2009. We’re ready to work with you, Mr. President.  

 


Judy L. Hayward is the education director for Restore Media, LLC, publisher of Traditional Building magazine, Period Homes magazine and Tradweb Directory, and producers of the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference. She is the executive director of Historic Windsor, Inc., and the Preservation Education Institute, a nonprofit historic preservation organization based in Windsor, VT. She can be reached at jhayward@restoremedia.com.

 

 
 

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