To preserve or not to preserve
A piece in
yesterday’s Friday’s Tribune — I just moved this weekend, so this post is delayed a couple of days — about Chicagoland’s old elegant theaters and my involvement with a trail-reuse group got me thinking about historic preservation and its role in the city.
I went to a docent training meeting this week of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a group working to convert the no-longer-used rail viaduct on Chicago’s Northwestern side into a three-mile elevated park à la High Line in New York or the Promenade Plantée in Paris. Preliminary design for the trail is underway, and Mayor
Daley Emanuel has thrown his support behind it. In the news, the Tribune story I read profiles a number of theaters: The Chicago Theater downtown, on Randolph/State, remains iconic; while the Highland Park Theater has apparently been “grotesquely” cut up, although I don’t know what this means unless it’s some sort of garish interior design; while the Uptown Theater remains boarded-up altogether.
Both of these are positive and speak well toward historic preservation. It seems obvious that we should save these old structures, particularly the theaters, and if possible reuse them. After all, one of the strengths of cities is the dense land use and regulations — now largely made illegal — that allow cities to creatively reuse old buildings. It’s easier to convert an industrial building (or freight line) close to sidewalks, residences and other shops than to convert a big-box store zoned only for commercial use.
The Bloomingdale Trail will be a a well-needed addition to Chicago’s public parkland to be one as well (it will also entail the creation of street-level parks). Reuse of Chicagoland’s elegant grand theaters allows us to maintain a sense of architectural and entertainment history while meeting modern needs.
So it seems that historic preservation is all-in-all and on the whole a good thing. On the other hand, Emily Washington, at the Market Urbanist, notes that a move in Arlington to set new standards for historic preservation risks preserving a number of banal, anti-urbanist architecture. Ed Glaeser argues in Triumph of the City, which I read earlier this year, that over-exuberant historic preservation has the effect, he says, of artificially limiting the otherwise market-driven supply for housing, driving up costs for walkable, urban areas and thus forcing many who might otherwise desire to live in cities to move out to the suburbs.
Washington’s height limit, for example, seems to be historic preservation writ large, and while I truly enjoy the European vibe there, it also drives up the cost of real estate; it’s also produced office towers in Rosslyn: thanks in large part to Metro, these have turned out to be transit-friendly, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which they didn’t. By contrast, Glaeser cites Chicago’s propensity for new development and construction to be a reason why it’s relatively affordable compared to other big American cities such as DC. (I suspect that our easy winters are also a factor.)
It seems easy to draw a line of what should be preserved. Landmarks, such as grand theaters, train stations, grand palaces, seem obvious — I don’t think anyone would re-tear down old Penn Station in New York, and I’m glad Chicago’s Union and Dearborn stations are still with us today. Merely limiting preservation to landmarks, though, would have entailed the destruction of structures such as the Bloomingdale viaduct-to-be-park — Chicago isn’t exactly lacking in elevated rail.
And it begs the question of what exactly is a landmark? We clearly can’t just go on size or “oomph factor,” for lack of a better description. And if we’re preserving landmarks and city buildings for their historic value, then everyday, smaller buildings — such as the 1950s-era strip malls that Arlington is aiming to preserve — are just as valuable. After all, many of the most valuable exhibits in museums are the smallest or most ordinary. Taken to the logical extreme, we can’t really tear anything down because everything has historic value.
No one is suggesting that, of course. But it speaks to the tension between city-as-museum and city-as-home. Frequently, they do work together beautifully: conversion of factories to condos, use of an old rail viaduct as a sorely-needed public park or the adaptation of Twenties movies palaces to modern functions. Neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, within reason, fit this well: they were built in the pre-auto era and have many of the urbanist characteristics that we should prize today.
But when they don’t, we have to think about what we want our cities to be. If we want (and I do!) to make our cities walkable, transit-friendly and dense places, not all infrastructure, architecture and buildings are going to contribute toward the goal. Landmarks such as theaters, individual buildings, train stations — which seem to have a particular propensity for being bulldozed — are easy. It gets messier with larger, more comprehensive districts, and I think we have to think carefully about what we want our cities to be. Beautiful, historic, low-slung city centers are a joy to visit; and the alternative doesn’t have to be soulless Corbusian skyscrapers. But our cities, after all, are places for real people to live, and it’s paramount to keep that in mind.