The Problem with Preservation

The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia works to “actively promote the appreciation, protection, and appropriate use and development of the Philadelphia region’s historic buildings, communities and landscapes.” I was intrigued by the question posed by Professor Bruggeman at the end of our discussion with Patrick Grossi. How does one balance between the preservation of important historic sites, encourage redevelopment, and avoid indulging in the glorification of a white-washed past? Preservation is a complex problem. Freeman Tilden said the “protection and preservation of the physical memorials of our natural and historic origins is primary, of course.”

But, what if these natural and historic wonders only tell a small percentage of the story?

In a way, I feel that this week’s discussion goes hand-in-hand with last week’s visit to Eastern State Penitentiary. At one point, the Penitentiary entered the National registry of historic places in 1965 (while it was still an active prison). Eastern State’s preservation is a testament to themes discussed in Amy Tyson’s work. How does one preserve the nature of a site, but also create an inclusive experience for all those who visit or engage with the area. As developers gobble up area in developing communities, such as Fishtown and NoLibs, the history of these areas is erased. The history of these areas ranges from the 18th-century farmland to 21st-century urban sprawl.

How can cities avoid the complete obliteration of historic and authentic structures worth saving? They can move towards “adaptive reuse” programs. Adaptive reuse encourages the redevelopment of existing structures to accommodate new use. Adaptive reuse allows for the integral structure to remain while encouraging new development.

But, where do you draw the line?

Being particularly invested in the “Save Jewelers Row” campaign last year at Hidden City Philadelphia (I’m an intern there) has allowed me to really weigh on the options between demolition, redevelopment, preservation, or reuse. When discussing the Jewelers Row campaign, I have encountered various opinions ranging from “yes, save it,” to “no, it’s not worth it.” The most compelling argument to come from my interactions with the Jewelers Row problem is that idea that: “just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s worth saving.” Now, this may be true in some cases. However, I believe we can again return to Tilden to explain this issue: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” Grossi discussed his roundabout way to his position at the Preservation Alliance, but in reality, he is working one-in-the-same. Interpretative engagement with audiences (be it visitors, patrons, or clients) can foster understanding about why it is important to preserve sites.

How can we move forward?

Well, we can work to help those understand that certain areas are deserving of preservation. It is also important to understand that redevelopment is not the worst thing in the world in some instances as well. Balance is hard to find, but it is necessary to preserve our past.

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