08
Aug
11

Institutional self-preservation

Suppose for a moment that you’re on the executive of Alexandria, VA’s Historical Preservation Office.  Like many East Coast municipalities, Alexandria has a number of beautiful old buildings whose presence, it can be argued without stretching credibility until it snaps like an abused rubber band, enriches the city as a whole.  Your job is to preserve these treasures of architecture for present future generations to enjoy.

There’s just one problem: pretty much de dicto, there are an effectively finite number of historical architectural treasures in Alexandria.  Oh, sure, every once in a blue moon someone might build another pretty building, a rare example of Art Deco interpreted through the lens of a neo-brutalist strip mall or some damn thing, but for the most part you’ve found all the architectural desiderata, catalogued them, and threatened their present owners with a SWAT team should they so much as replace the leaking eaves-troughs with something noticeably modern.  That leaves rather little work for you to do, and In These Tough Economic Times little work means the municipal government’s looking hungrily in your direction, wondering how much of the budget you’d free up if you were somehow to find yourselves floating down the Potomac.  There must be something else you can do.

Apparently that “something” is preserving slums.  Because, um, historical context and stuff.

McArdle quotes a WaPo story thus:

Anita Hall grew up in the Buchanan Street rowhouse her parents bought in 1963. It’s in the city’s Parker-Gray neighborhood, hard by the Metro tracks. […] Three months ago, [her cousin Dallas] pulled out the old chain-link fence and put in a black aluminum fence, its narrow posts topped with arrowhead-shaped details.

[…]

Dallas hadn’t gotten planning permission — “I didn’t even know this section was deemed historic,” he told me — but he did approach the city’s zoning folks with a question about replacing a stockade fence at the back of the property. When they came out to take a look at that, they noticed the chain-link fence was gone.

“They asked me, ‘Where is that fence? Can you recover any of that fence?’ ” […]

As the historic preservation staff wrote in its recommendation: “While many feel that [chain-link] fences have negative connotations, this material has played an important role in the development of mid-century vernacular housing and their cultural landscape. . . . By eradicating this ‘simple fencing solution,’ the applicant would be removing an important contextual clue to the original occupants of this neighborhood.”

Then, she cranks up the wharrgarbl:

[T]he preservationists now seem to be saying that people have to keep their “historic” homes looking dreary and utilitarian so that the rest of us can get a kick out of looking at the houses and ruminating on how charmingly plebeian the original occupants were.  I didn’t think that the elements of privilege and classism already inherent in these historic preservation districts could be made more obnoxious, but boy, was I wrong.

Oh, yeah.  Can’t have those “honest” and “rustic” old neighbourhoods gentrifying or anything, now can we?

On that subject, Ta-Nehisi Coates has

It occurs to me that we really need a world with more murders, more failing schools, more grocery stores with rotting vegetables, more bodegas with old milk, more teen-pregnancy, more homeless, more crack, more heroin, more fathers on the lam, more disease, more joblessness, and generally, more death. And we need to concentrate every one of those those ills in black neighborhoods.

We have seen the enemy, and it is change. Clearly the only way to preserve black neighborhoods from the scourge of white people is to render them as post-Apocalyptic as possible. It’s not even enough to roll them back to the days of Jim Crow–that would mean an actual black middle class in Bed-Stuy and Columbia Heights, and great jazz clubs in Harlem.

[…]

Only when black folks are reduced to human rubble can we properly pay homage to the ruins of the ghetto. Only when property values have plummeted to hell, and died there, can we be safe from the scourge of the white interloper, who would add our cultural distinctiveness to their own, and then subjugate us under the tyranny of Urban Outfitters and Coldplay.

Don’t you dare replace that chain-link fence, or the hipsters will get you!

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