I expected to hear about foreclosure issues when I attended the CHAPA dinner on October 22. And, indeed, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of US Department of Housing and Urban Development, did talk about foreclosures in his speech. Donovan said that even though foreclosures are down by nearly 30% from a year ago, there are still too many people losing their homes. But, I was surprised to hear about foreclosed and abandoned properties the following week at the Preservation Massachusetts Fall Event on October 28. That evening Preservation Massachusetts presented its 2009 List of Most Endangered Historic Resources. The list included a variety of specific historic resources (a house, church, bridge, and landscape).
The list is actually quite diverse, representing sites with important connections to Native-American, African-American, Colonial, 19th century, 20th century, urban, rural, and suburban history. But the most unusual listing of all was the "Foreclosed and Abandoned Neighborhood Properties in Massachusetts."
This listing isn't site-specific - on the contrary, it's quite general. The listing's generalness is part of what makes it so interesting and drives home the point that historic resources (even run-down abandoned homes) are not just icing on the cake - they are actually critical elements of community character and neighborhood stability.
As Jane Jacobs emphasized in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," neighborhoods need old buildings. She was speaking of cities, but I believe these principles can be translated to neighborhoods in many contexts:
Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation - although these make fine ingredients - but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. . .
The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over years.
As the event's guest speaker Timothy Orwig, Ph.D. candidate in American Studies/Architectural History at Boston University, emphasized in his presentation, the preservation movement has come a long way from its origins of preserving only buildings with connection to our founding fathers and houses of the wealthy and elite.
Bravo to Preservation Massachusetts!