The WHY of Preservation Matters Now More Than Ever

Today’s post is brought to you by Anna Davis, the Communications Director of the Architectural Heritage Foundation in Boston, MA. She wrote this really wonderful post recently distilling why historic preservation matters. When all else goes away, she writes, “what remains is the stories we keep.” How profound and beautiful. Historic preservation is about more than preserving old buildings – it’s about community and our past and the stories that weave us together. That’s important to recognize, now more than ever. It will help guide us when we emerge from this period of extreme slowing-down, introspection and, honestly, grief to engage with our communities and our world differently and more completely.

Stay well, stay home. You will be alright.

Photograph of the Fellowship Hall at the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Museum in Lynn, MA. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is providing historic preservation consulting services to the Friends of GAR Hall.
Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Lynn, MA. Image courtesy of Jason Baker.

When life as we have known it comes to a halt; when the bonds holding society together grow brittle; when we cannot gather for fear of harming each other – what remains to us are the stories we keep. The reminders of those stories take many forms. A building. A battlefield. A burying ground. These physical affirmations of our histories and values are all around us. They help us to see ourselves as part of a community spanning generations and, in so doing, make us feel less alone.

Yet preservation can seem frivolous during a crisis like COVID-19. Why spend time and money on saving historic sites when people are getting sick, losing their jobs, and struggling to stop every aspect of their lives from unravelling? Answering this question requires a shift in perspective from regarding our historic places as luxuries to recognizing them as necessities. Catalyzing that shift in perspective is one of the main challenges facing preservationists over the coming weeks.

Successfully making the case for preservation will depend on how well those involved in restoration or adaptive reuse tell their projects’ stories. This means crafting a narrative focusing not on properties’ historical and architectural significance (though important), but on the material and intangible benefits that successful projects bring to their surrounding communities. Projects need a vision that extends beyond the historic places to the people who will use them.

A vision does not need to lock a project into a specific program, but it should offer a general idea of the role that the site could play in the community. For example, could a vacant building become much-needed housing? A mixed-use commercial hub that invigorates a business district? And arts or educational center? Which populations will the building primarily serve, and how will it benefit the most vulnerable members of society? And specifically, how will the project help the surrounding community to heal post-Coronavirus?

North Brookfield community members stand conversing in the Great Hall of the North Brookfield Town House in front of a stage with blue and red velvet curtains. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is providing historic preservation consulting services
Community members discuss the future of the historic North Brookfield Town House.

Though all preservation efforts are different, they share certain commonalities that are helpful to consider when making the case for a project:

Preservation strengthens the economy

Most likely to resonate with the widest range of people are the economic benefits of preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation notes that each year, historic preservation creates millions of jobs, attracts hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, increases property values, augments the affordable housing stock, and generates more money in tax revenue than it costs.

Preservation is green

Not only does preservation make economic sense, but it is an ecologically sustainable form of development. Demolition and new construction generate massive amounts of landfill waste and carbon emissions; by contrast, adaptive reuse of historic real estate reduces these climate impacts. Moreover, historic structures designed prior to the invention of HVAC systems are generally more energy efficient than many modern buildings. Preservation is a climate-friendly option.

Preservation brings people together

The preservation of a beloved historic property often inspires people who otherwise would not come into contact with each other to pursue a common goal together. Moreover, it gives people – not least those who often feel disenfranchised – a stake in improving their neighborhoods. This benefit, though unquantifiable, is particularly important to emphasize at a time of social distancing. As communities become ever more fragmented, projects that are unifying, uplifting, and meaningful can raise morale and connect people to one another.

Now is the time to speak up for historic places by articulating why preservation projects matter to the communities in which they are located. As Richard Moe, former President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, once said, “There may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here or there, but those days are gone. Preservation is in the business of saving communities and the values they embody.”

Photograph of the Shingle-style buildings of the Charles River Speedway framed against autumn foliage and sunshine in November 2014. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is preserving and redeveloping the Speedway as a mixed-use commercial complex.
The Charles River Speedway, November 2014.

The Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Don’t Freak Out. But Also, Don’t Be Cavalier: A Corona Survival Guide

I AM the vulnerable. You wouldn’t guess it to see me bouncing around on a daily basis in my Energizer Bunny way, but it’s true. I am a healthy, young (ish!), active mom, daughter, wife, sister, friend, employee, and athlete. But I also have an autoimmune disease.

Whenever you are washing your hands extra carefully or extra often, considering whether or not to cancel or attend a big event, wondering if this is all overblown, it’s not just the elderly or some hypothetical distant someone that you are protecting. It’s also people like me, the mom who lives just around the corner, who volunteers at the school, who you see cheering at the sporting events. There are more of us than you might realize, and this is a good time for everyone to understand that. Not because we need your sympathy or pity. But because we need your solidarity. Because the reason I can be an active, healthy mom and athlete is the boat load of immuno-suppressant drugs I take. I am in my 40’s but for over a decade this has been my norm:

RA Meds

You know when they review your medications when you go to the doctor? We run through my lengthy list every time and the conversation nearly always ends with the nurse saying, “Anything else?” and me responding, “Isn’t that enough?” I mean, for real. Don’t even get me started about how many doctors appointments I have in a year or how much I pay annually in co-pays for medication even though I have health insurance. That’s for another time.

For now, I am here to tell you that immuno-compromised people worry every year about the flu and infection in general. And every year I dutifully get my flu shot, as does my family, mainly to protect me. And then we go about our lives like normal. Similarly, when I went to Guatemala last fall, before I left I had to think through carefully with my physicians the potential implications of my immuno-compromised state. I got 4 vaccines and filled 2 prescriptions for antibiotics to bring with me in case I got sick while there. No one else I was traveling with needed anything. But I went (and, incidentally, I loved it!). I live my life knowing I am generally at higher risk than others, aware of the implications of both my disease and my medications, but I choose to keep on stretching and living.

I say all this so you understand my reality. It’s a reality I have mostly accepted. I live a pretty normal life, and I am grateful for that. I have learned to work with the cards I have been dealt.

In light of all that, I have been taking this Coronavirus, I think, pretty well overall. I am aware of what’s happening, but have been measured in my response. I have not been panicking or buying shelves-worth of Purel. I did not completely stop socializing or obsess over every new headline. My heart beats at a fairly normal rate, day in and day out.

But early this week my doctors advised me, for now, not be on a cruise boat, a commercial airline, in a crowd, or to have visitors who have flown recently. They are taking this seriously and, in turn, so should I.

I’ll admit that my blood pressure and heart rate increased rapidly during that doctor’s visit, as the realization of the seriousness of the situation and my vulnerability to it dawned on me more fully. While my vital signs returned to normal shortly after, it took me a while to notice that I have spent the last couple of days feeling like I am already sick. By that, I mean, that I started to think more like an incident commander, to go into prevention and protection mode, to dwell more on the news. I have been lethargic and blue, unfocused and distracted, my head spinning with headlines and what if scenarios fast-tracking through my mind. Basically I forgot to live.

And then I caught myself. I woke up and realized this is going to be a marathon and I cannot exhaust myself in the first couple of miles. It also occured to me that I could be an excellent fiction writer because I am constantly making up narratives that just are not true! It’s called anxiety. And instead of allowing my anxiety to come along for the ride, I let it drive for the last couple of days. I started contacting puppy breeders so I won’t be alone in my isolation, for goodness sake. This is not rational behavior (though it was a lovely divergence). Puppies for everyone!

Don’t you feel better already?

In all seriousness, I suspect – I KNOW – that I am not alone. Anxiety buttons are being pushed the world over. The illusion that we have control in this life has been de-masked. We never did have control, folks, but now we can’t even pretend. So we control what we can: we buy all the Purel on the shelves and we read the news ad nauseum and we perseverate over what to do. But we have no more control over this after all that than we did before. Really. We can prepare, but we also need to make room to sit with this uncertainty and acknowledge it. And, then, deal with the cards we have been dealt. This is how I plan to do that:

  1. Seriously, wash your hands and wash them well (how to video here);
  2. Don’t freak out – it doesn’t move the needle one bit to do so. Take a deep breath, or, better, a couple (try 5 deep breaths every hour). Sit with the discomfort. This is a great time to get really good at accepting that we can’t hide or fix or control everything (or, really, anything). Sometimes the best thing to do is to acknowledge that and sit with it. Meditation is a good way to do that. But so is taking a deep breath and recognizing anxiety for what it is and not letting it drive.
  3. Limit yourself to checking social media and the news only once or twice a day; trust me, if something really important happens in the interim, you will get the deluge of texts and phone calls or see the helicopters overhead that will clue you in that something happened. Otherwise, it’s just an anxiety mob feeding on itself.
  4. This virus is clearly an equal opportunity event – anyone is as likely to get it as anyone else. Don’t be a racist or an asshole or a racist asshole and make negative assumptions about people. This is good advice in general. But, in particular, Chinese food, Corona beer, Chinese people, and immigrants of any stripe have nothing to do with whether or not you are going to get sick. So chill and show some humanity and compassion.
  5. Speaking of racism, take a minute to consider how devastating this virus could be – WILL BE – in places without strong medical facilities and protocols.
  6. Speaking of racism two – there is a massive locust swarm happening across parts of Asia and Africa right now. Thousands (possibly millions) of people WILL die from starvation as a result of this, and ever more will emigrate toward Europe in an attempt to save themselves. Have you read anything at all about it? Because a ton of human beings are dying already and it ain’t from the coronavirus.  Locust Swarms Put Millions at Risk Across Asia and Africa; Hundreds of Billions of Locusts Swarm Across East Africa
  7. There are great lessons we can learn from this – for starters, we are all living creatures, human beings of all colors and types, and we are all a little anxious and concerned about ourselves and our loved ones. Compassion, kindness, and caring for and about something bigger than ourselves are values we should espouse ALL THE TIME, not just in times of crisis; but now is a great time to up the ante.
  8. Words matter and so does your mindset. For example, use the word distancing instead of isolating; I kept saying I was isolated and it made me want to buy a puppy; distancing is less weighty.
  9. All of us are in this together, and many are uncomfortable about the situation. Hold that worry, concern, fear, sadness in the light and honor it.
  10. Maybe try just half a cupcake instead of eating the whole thing when you feel the need for comfort. I’m not going to tell you that I ain’t been panic eating. Sugar is still bad for you, but I am not going to judge.
  11. Consider the greater impacts of your actions – this is a good idea in general, but specifically now. It’s not all about you, nor should it be.
  12. For now. For now is a great phrase. Because difficult things are easier to bear when there is a perceived finiteness to them. For now gives the sense that things are temporary. And, it’s true, we will learn more about COVID-19 and eventually this crisis will be in the past. We need to take it seriously NOW, for now, and we need to show compassion and urgency to get there without too many lost lives along the way.
  13. If you or your kid is sick, own it. Don’t pretend that Motrin or Tylenol masking the symptoms is a reasonable choice for carrying on with your day. Sending sick kids to school or going to work sick isn’t a good idea under normal circumstances. It is a very bad idea right now. I get that work beckons, but, damn, that’s just wrong on so many levels.
  14. Don’t buy a puppy or any other living creature on a whim. Also good advice beyond a pandemic.
  15. Seriously, wash your hands.

Check out my Resources page for more information.

Drink Coffee
This has literally nothing to do with anything but it makes me smile