Thursday, October 4, 2012

Preservation Plus, Part 4: The Preservation Paradigm Shift

This is the conclusion of a four-part series.

 Be sure to check out our previous reactions: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

As the opening plenary of Preservation Plus’s Friday session came to a close, several questions about development, train travel, and sustainability were raised. After they were answered, the moderator, Terry Robbinson, turned back to the audience and made a closing statement.

Mayor Byron Brown speaking to open up Friday's all-day Session
Photo courtesy of Bernice Radle
“I have to close out this part of the session, but we’re getting to broad ideas—transportation, gentrification. It’s almost as through there is a paradigm shift occurring.”

It was strange, considering we were at a conference called “Preservation Plus” with emphasis on the “plus” of urban planning, sustainable energy and development, and community revitalization, that this idea hadn’t been brought up earlier in the conference.

In many ways, the preservation community has become a more holistic group. Attend a Buffalo’s Young Preservationist happy hour and you will meet individuals working with Campaign for Greater Buffalo, the Clean Air Coalition, urban planners and urban farmers, private historians, and even the occasional neurological researcher.

It is no longer enough to simply chain yourself to a building. Today, for every group that is locking arms in front of a threatened property, there needs to be one pursuing legal options, one for thinking of new ways to utilize that property, and several for actively getting as much attention to the building as possible by focusing on a variety of issues.

Today, for every individual who sees an old building as a placeholder to be bulldozed for a completely new project, there are a dozen who see that structure as the starting point for something functional and modern. Preservation is not just about maintaining old structures, but also about finding ways to incorporate them into the fabric of 21st century life.

Looking at the lists of sessions, it is clear that Preservation Buffalo Niagara understood this when they planned Preservation Plus.

“One Region Forward: Buffalo Naiagara’s Sustainable Communities Initiative”: “Preserving our Ethnic and Religious History in the Physical and Digital Worlds”: “Green Design Guidelines: Reconciling the Differences between Preservation and Sustainability.” Even “Raw Material to Finished Product: Community Beer Works Brewery,” made it onto the conference.

“Community,” wasn’t just found in the Beer Work’s session however, as it popped up in several sessions where community was “revitalized,” and “preserved.” The emphasis has shifted from buildings as part a past narrative to their role in the lives and neighborhoods of current residents.

Katelin Olson, Executive Director of the Albion Main Street Association, spoke about the change in her presentation “Preserving the Past with our Future.”

She noted that modern preservation grew as a reaction to Urban Renewal programs throughout the country, as historical buildings were torn down in favor of modern structures. Today, the issues are a lot more varied, and just as the preservation response is more varied, so too is the community reaction.

“Each generation owns this space,” she said, noting that messages about historical significance often fall on deaf ears.

This was in response to a question contrasting Albion, a largely homogenous community where residents often have generations of connection to the city, to the East and West Sides of Buffalo, where current residents are often the first or second generations to live in those neighborhoods.

For Olson, the issue then wasn’t as much about the historical context as the current. “This is where you live; what do you want out of it?”

During the last presentation of the day a poll of ages in the audience was done. While not a majority, a significant portion of the attendees were 30 years or younger.

For this new wave of preservationists, the issue isn’t about why a building should be saved. For these new preservationists, often the environmental impact alone is enough to save a building and the historical context is just added significance. For these new preservationists, community is at the center of development, and the importance of buildings lies not in the past, but in the present and future.

This new wave of preservation is about preservation plus the dozens of issues it connects to. It is not just about saving buildings, but about claiming them.

Preservation in this city has a new message.

Buffalo is where I live, and this is what I want to see happen here.

Welcome to the new Paradigm Shift in Preservation. 

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