Sometimes when I tell people that I am a “Preservationist,” I get mixed feedback.
“So you work in a museum/with antiques/know about some particular war? What can you do with historic preservation? My house was part of the Underground Railroad, that famous person lived in my house”
These are variations on questions or responses I have received. I’ve since developed some creative comebacks such as “I’m a building hugger, not a tree hugger” or “Some people save lives, I save places.”
Preservation is much more than stopping demolition for the next great parking lot (we’ve all been there), but it’s about places. Saving Places. Sure, we can preserve furniture or trinkets and put them behind glass at a museum and such. But isn’t a much cooler experience being able to be in the same place as major history once took place – but maybe now it’s as a restaurant, a specialty shop, and so on in the world of adaptive reuse. The historic elements create a place’s identity. Only being able to remember something with an interpretive sign in front of a parking lot doesn’t create the same sense of place.
Sometimes when I travel to historic places, I can feel that sense of place – or sometimes the spirits from beyond (usually battlefields). You just have to imagine what a place was like when it was first built or during its “period of significance.” For example, the popular night spot of the South Side’s East Carson Street. Sure you or your friends may go there for drinks or dancing, but the architecture defines that place and a reason to visit or live in the area. If it was a typical strip mall, you might not have that same sense of place or interest. It would just be “Anywhere, USA.”
A few years ago I worked on a project in Connellsville that turned a rusty eyesore railroad caboose into a community welcome center. Volunteers from all types of organizations came together because they saw a need for this service, an opportunity to learn a new skill, or desired to turn that eyesore into something better. It wasn’t necessarily about historic preservation but making it a better place.
South Side bar hoppers and caboose converters might not identify themselves right away as “preservationists,” but preservation plays a role in their everyday life. We are surrounded by countless historic places in southwestern Pennsylvania that have memories and histories tied to them, but more importantly still have history to make. Maybe that history is you saving that particular place that has special meaning to you or your community. Sometimes it takes a single building to define a place, or a single demolition to bring a community together to stop it from going any further.
To all my fellow preservationists (whether you think you are one or not): Keep saving places!
William Prince is a board member of Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh