"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Does Place Matter?

I grew up in New Britain,Connecticut, called the Hardware City of the World for good reason.  During the early part of the 20th century major manufacturers such as The Stanley Works, Corbin Locks, and North & Judd, were headquartered in the city and for most of my life there, they cranked out screwdrivers, bolts, and wire.  I have vivid memories of gnome-like creatures moving eerily in the semi-dark of basement factories and the banging and clatter of machines. Other than these scary glimpses, I had nothing to do with the factories, the workers, or their children.  I lived in the West End of town where all the captains of these industries lived.  It had old colonial houses, picket fences, rose trellises, spacious lawns and a very old-world English feel.

It had nothing at all in common with the multi-story buildings that housed Polish immigrants – the gnomes I saw working the lathes and metal cutters.

New Britain was particularly interesting because of its varied and very distinct social strata.  There were the old-monied WASP factory owners; first generation Italian and Polish doctors, dentists, and lawyers; shopkeepers, painters, schoolteachers, and civil servants; and factory workers – a Marxist mix if there ever was one. People of each class stayed together.  There were no carpenter’s daughters at the Country Club; no St. Grottlesex offspring at the Roller Rink.

My mother recently died at 99, and my last ties to New Britain were cut.  Except for my ten years overseas, I visited the old homestead every year for 60 years and always drove around the city, curious about changes, and hopeful for some kind of renewal for the downtown, which had become tacky and shiftless. Beauty parlors, nail shops and psychic readers had replaced solid clothing stores, banks, and pharmacies.  I lamented any gussying up of my old West End neighborhood and the intrusion of iffy newcomers.  Of course in 1952 as the first non-WASP family to buy in this privileged enclave, we were once iffy newcomers.  According to our neighbors my father wore wife-beaters, smoked cheroots, swigged cheap Chianti, and threw things.

I saw no contradiction in all this.  I simply wanted nothing to change.  I wanted the West End, the well-kept four-story walk ups on Monroe Street, the Polish delis on Broad, the Frederick Law Olmstead park, the Country Club; the working class neighborhoods of Belvedere and Stanley Street; Jimmy’s Smoke Shop and the Miss Washington Diner to always be there.

On another level I don’t really care if and how New Britain changes.  I have never really had a stake in the place.  I and my friends were always on the periphery, dipping in to get gas, buy cigarettes, girly magazines and the occasional pair of galoshes; play pickup at the park.  Our life centered around the Country Day School, the Club, and holiday parties in Farmington and West Hartford.  I went away to school at fifteen, so never was plugged into the high school culture.  New Britain was a place to slide through on the way to someplace else.

In fact I don’t care if everything changes. I have never been active in historic preservation movements; never gotten fussed over social and demographic movements.  I am not surprised or angry at the McMansions built in the DC suburbs or at the city’s gentrified inner city neighborhoods.  The proliferation of luxury high-rises replacing older New York City neighborhoods doesn’t bother me at all.  America is all about the free movement of capital and the private market.  People move out of some neighborhoods because rents are too high while others move in, force positive changes in schools, community services, and infrastructure, and contribute to the city in their own way.

I have often been asked why I don’t see some intrinsic value in preserving old neighborhoods.  Isn’t there something important about assuring historical continuity? I have never thought so, because in most cases preservation is not about inherent cultural values but about property values.  The last thing most well-educated, upwardly mobile professionals attracted to the DC area would ever want to do is to live in some rambler in Gaithersburg or North Arlington.  They feel comfortable in the restored 19th century brownstones in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Bloomingdale.  For all their love of diversity, they want to dip into it only when it is convenient – like I did in New Britain – but to keep its nastier bits at bay.  They want to create a familiar, traditionally Anglo-Saxon enclave – no Latino parlor excesses, no black stoop culture, no gay club scene across the street.

Eventually these Bloomingdale newcomers will get tired of urban living and move out to get more air, space, and greenery; perhaps to find better and less corrupt government.  Some other eager and optimistic 30-somethings will take their place and revise the neighborhood’s sense of place, and the old-timers will not be missed.

No one wants to preserve the North Arlington ramblers, to ensure a historical continuity with the post-WWII 50s, the GI bill which made affordable housing possible, and which created inexpensive, livable, but mind-numbingly boring suburbs.  Preservation movements are very, very particular and self-serving.

I had a long discussion recently with a young architect who had been very much involved in historic preservations while in graduate school.  He had become as circumspect and wary as I had because the very concept of preservation was vague and ill-defined. Although it is clear that if you restore an existing building to its original condition, you have preserved it; but what if you only save the façade and redo everything else?  Or if you only keep some of the boards and planking? Or just keep the footprint?  Or tear everything down but build new buildings in the same style as the old?

A classic case of this is the rebuilt Old Town of Warsaw which had been completely destroyed by the Germans during WWII.  Based on photographs, historical records, and firsthand accounts, the Poles were able to rebuild the Old Town exactly as it had been. What was the point?  The most striking sense of historical preservation is the Hiroshima Memorial:

The Japanese did not rebuild the city or even parts of it ‘as it was’; and preferred a single, powerful, emotive memorial. The Chinese are similar in approach and attitude.  Major cities like Shanghai are rapidly and dramatically changing and modernizing with little thought to the past.  Both of these countries value tradition, but see core cultural values as important to retain while at the same time embracing the explosive rush into the future.


I have a close friend who lives in a community on the West Coast which has been for decades a conservative, old-monied refuge.  She and her friends are preservation activists and invest time, effort, and money in trying to keep the enclave pure – that is, to preserve its delicate balance of small-scale residences, wild, open spaces, small local shops and restaurants, and no-boardwalk beaches. The community’s real estate values are high and climbing because of its charm, character, and history; and it is no surprise that developers from Los Angeles are making exorbitant offers to older longtime residents who have run through their trust funds; pressuring the local council; and mounting a persistent PR campaign to relax zoning and other restrictive standards.

The activists’ protests have a lot to do with environmental protection - golf courses and swimming pools are less ecologically friendly than marshes, salt water, and gorse fields – but my friend’s desire to preserve the community and to keep it the way it always has been is more in her own personal interest than anything else.  

Her community is one of the most beautiful, sophisticated, and socially attractive places I have ever visited; and on a personal level I am all for her preservationist activities.  She and I are from the same conservative, WASP culture (in my case by rubbing shoulders, not by birth) which values such pristine, Anglo-Saxon, reserved, places.  Politically and philosophically, however, I am opposed to her efforts. Her activism is a thinly-veiled attempt to keep out the culturally different who want to play golf, shop at Neiman Marcus, and build big.  While she has a right to do so – to enter into the struggle of market forces – I feel there is a greater value in dynamic change, the mix of populations, classes, and interests than there is in preserving an old guard.

In this early part of the 21st century, the whole concept of place is changing.  People are less attached to solid earth, and brick-and-mortar, and physical community than they ever were.  Our community is defined by social networks, mobility, and rapid change.  The only people ‘attached’ to their communities are those who cannot move, whose economic choices are limited, and whose lot in life was cast long ago.

The new 21st community is increasingly virtual and will only become more so as the mind-computer interface becomes more efficient. We will correspond, interact, and socialize in virtual environments more than ever before.  The idea of a protected, preserved enclave will soon be a complete thing of the past.

I am still close to my West Coast friend and visit her often.  I love to poke around the small bookstores in her town, shop at the local butcher and greengrocer, take walks on ocean trails, never have to see a McDonald’s, Walmart, or multiplex, and never have to rub shoulders with anyone but our crowd.  On one level I am just as elitist as she is.  On another profoundly different in the way we see the world.

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