Tuesday, January 30, 2007

History As A Resource

I find myself stuck between two seemingly competing sets of interests. On one hand, there are a lot of people in Sacramento these days who are excited about the prospects of making downtown a more livley, active place and overcoming a half-century of urban decay. On the other hand, I am intensely drawn towards preserving the existing culture, institutions and physical structures of downtown Sacramento, as they play an important role in making the city what it is, and, I think, a valid role in what the city can become. A lot of pro-development types seem to have a "knock it down, build it up" mentality that seems unaware (or unwilling to recognize) the value of the city's history, or minimizes it as an unimportant casualty on the way to the future.

History is a resource--an exploitable and non-renewable one. Go to any "great city" and you will find history at the forefront. Even in cities like Los Angeles, known for their rapid expansion and relative lack of historic preservation, elements of history like Art Deco architecture and their role in the history of American filmmaking are preserved proudly. In San Francisco, history is represented in static structures throughout the town, on islands around the bay and historic ships floating in it along Fisherman's Wharf, and even trundling around its streets in the form of cable cars and streetcars. In these cities, the past is not considered an inconvenient obstacle or something to knock down to make way for shiny stuff: it is a draw for tourism, a call for civic pride, and positive physical proof of a city's genealogy, heritage and seniority.

So why does Sacramento fear its old buildings? Why are urban phenomena like demolition by neglect so prominent here? I have theories--in part, based on a citywide shame over the destruction of many of Sacramento's older neighborhoods, to make way for freeways and civic structures. These neighborhoods often featured properties that urban planners hail as the hallmark of future development: mixed use, density, effective transit services, ethnic, cultural and economic diversity, and a distinct sense of place. Sacramento chose, consciously, to try to erase its urbanity during the era when urbanity fell from favor, and now we seem to be choosing to wipe out the remaining traces of our own urban history at a time when we can make the most use of this history to return downtown to its rightful (and previously held) place as the epicenter for culture, entertainment and retail activity for the region.

Extracting the resources of history is easier in places where the history has not been scraped off the face of the earth. In such places, more difficult methods must be used for extraction: this requires the specialized skill of a historian, who can coax the traces of history from scattered notes and interviews and physical landmarks into a coherent whole, a story that gives new and old Sacramentans an idea of where they live and what this place is. It is my hope that this process of resource extraction, and its presentation to the general public, will help introduce Sacramentans new and old to the city in which they live: a city that has, in many ways, sat unnoticed beneath our feet like the buried catacombs under downtown Sacramento's sidewalks.


Anonymous said...

First off, I'd like to commend you for creating a space on the web that should serve both the history and future of sacramento. I'd also like to note that your ambitions for this space must be high, seeing as you chose to tackle on your third entry what i think of as the most controversial of topics this city is currently facing.

Second I'd like to add a couple cents... I probably fall into your category of the pro-development type. I really see a limitless future for sacramento, and find it fascinating to be at the epicenter of a transitory faze of the city's relatively long history. I moved to this city knowing almost nothing of this history and quickly found myself at home amongst stately victorians, giant trees, big city vitality and gaping sores of urban decay.

When I first arrived in the city, living at 13th & H, I would wander the streets and wonder why a city populace of this size seemingly had no idea what a cool place they were leaving after they punched out at 5. But now, a lot of people are paying attention and it's creating a ton of buzz and a lot of stir.

I'd like to think that I'm quite aware of the importance of history, if not for as simple a reason as the aesthetic value of architecture. But there are so many buildings in this city that have seen decades of neglect, or worse yet, adapted through those lesser admired decades, and in the process erased what sort of tangible history they once held. Walking several blocks and scanning around quickly proves which land owners realized what they actually owned, and demonstrates those brave souls who were willing to pick up the torch.

When I see new developments such as high- or mid-rise condo types that absorb some of these lesser-cared for structures, I try to examine the merits of the project. And some of these projects in the pipeline are built for another hundred-plus years of relevance. And In my mind, if a project is to clean the slate of history, it should see well down the road.

Whether you or I like it or not - land value and money are the governing principals in nearly every project happening in the central city today. Some have found creative ways in realizing an old building's worth, some have been forced to cut the loss and set a future example, and then there are those who completely disregard the past for short term profit.

As the title of the post suggests, history should always be used as a resource. There were so many integral conveniences of society that were obliterated by those unwilling to recognize even recent historic value. With that said, the future should not be bound to reiterate history, seeing as though we seem to be waking from long and forgettable decades past.

wburg said...

I've been wandering around midtown and downtown wondering why the rest of Sacramento couldn't spot the city where they lived for the past fourteen or so years.

Some of the buildings that are the closest to their original shape aren't necessarily those owned by someone who cared about maintaining the original appearance--sometimes it was just someone too cheap to do any repairs or renovation.

And yes, economics drives everything. Part of my own desire to promote history as a resource is to add history to the mix of economic decisions involved in a historic resource's destruction or preservation. If someone like Thomas Enterprises is willing to spend $75-100 million to restore the Shops buildings in the old Southern Pacific yards, that sends a big message that someone who has proven themselves pretty good at making money considers those structures a good investment.

Jim said...

I love the phrase, "demolition by neglect", although I find the actual process appalling!