Reflections: The Future of Public Building Preservation

6 May

by Tom Thompson-

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of final course reflections from graduate students.

During the semester we met numerous people who are passionate about history and present it to the public in many different ways.  That passion rubs off on us as students and makes us want to continue their legacy of preservation.  However, I am concerned whether major historic preservation projects, of the type we learned about, will be completed in the future.

When I look at the old YMCA in Belleville as a public historian I see the architecture and the role the building played in improving lives of city residents.  But as a taxpayer and realist I just see a stalemate.  The building is too expensive to repair and the city does not have the money to tear it down.  So it continues to be exposed to the elements and become harder to restore.  Even if the economic environment improves, will the funding come forward to rebuild such a large building?

We’ve seen that cities like Lowell, Mass., have been able to use their historical past to lead preservation efforts for the city as a whole.  But Lowell’s experience was driven by a few people with vision, federal funding, and the continuing support of the National Park Service. What is to happen to our local cities with much smaller populations and no driving force for change?  I am normally a positive person but I have to say that I am not optimistic about the future of these large-scale projects.

The fiscal future points to reduced federal funding across the board and likely further reduction in the arts and state historical projects. Certainly in the short run it appears that the State of Illinois will have to fund people and infrastructure projects at the expense of the arts. What will happen to the smaller cities that want to preserve their inner core like Belleville and Granite City? Even a large project like Old North St. Louis has huge financial challenges. How will they find the funding to preserve significant buildings or historic areas?

Many cities we have learned about are considering converting these areas to an “arts” center. We’ve heard this in Belleville and Granite City. Other mid-size American cities like Reading, PA are going this route to save their inner core and reduce flight of younger residents from the city.  Reading has a head start with the drive of millionaire Albert Boscov, but what are the rest of us to do?  Can the arts attract enough businesses to save all of these cities?  Again I am skeptical.

So, rather than a call to action, I just want to point out to my fellow public historians that we are in an era where we may have to pick our small battles rather than win the whole war. So, in Belleville, the Historical Society is preserving a small old saloon while keeping an eye on the larger YMCA.  A manageable project with, perhaps, a manageable budget.  The way of the future.

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