Executive Director’s Blog
Pokemon, Popcorn and Public SpacesAugust 1, 2016
It started the night before at the public tennis courts, when a mismatched gaggle of young people skipped straight through our game, clutching cell phones, laughing and oblivious. They were heading for the cemetery. In relaying the story to my son later that night I added that I thought they were looking for a place to smoke pot. “Uh, no, mom. They were looking for Pokemon.”
I downloaded the app and was hooked in five minutes. The next night found me at Queen Anne Square at 10 PM “walking the dog”. (I was looking for Pokemon. Newport is lousy with them.)
The Square is lovely; beautifully landscaped and sloped gently towards Narragansett Bay under the lights of the Trinity Church steeple, a church built in 1725 and a familiar landmark to those walking, driving, or boating.
Strangers were connecting quickly to get updates and learn strategy. A sweet young man, Gerald, helped me and another middle-aged newbie with strategy. We had an easy conversation while the dog waited patiently. It turns out we are work neighbors: Gerald at Inpopnito, a place that my family loves, and me at 1772 down the street at IYRS. I pass him every day.
The square and the surrounding area are rich Pokemon hunting grounds. The streets and public spaces (including many historical sites and markers) are the framework of the game, which uses GPS and local landmarks as touchstones like the historic Redwood Library and the League of American Wheelman Monument. Outside of a historic preservation conference I have never heard this many historic places being discussed with such intensity.
The Pokemon Go phenomenon reminded me why the board and staff at 1772 have been thinking so much more about the importance of public byways and places to preservation- how we navigate and use the connective tissue of our historic cities. We are increasingly aware of the value of getting out of cars and moving by bicycle and by foot- how these modes of transportation clearly promote human-scale interaction and deeper appreciation of place.
It was evident last month on my trip to Copenhagen as we were gliding by bike through the incredible medieval city and I was surprised to feel a similar response while enjoying a little childish adventure in Queen Anne Square with Pokemon Go, a smashing success at enticing people out of their houses and into the streets and public spaces to explore the richness that has been there this whole time.
When we think of restoring historic cities, we have to pay serious attention to the role of the “arteries”; spaces where the energy of residents and visitors should flow freely. Car-free byways and public spaces are where we connect face-to-face and where community bonds are formed. This is both the historic use and the promising future of public byways and spaces. We have coined a term at 1772- “integrated historic revitalization” and these spaces are what integrate all of the historic pieces. A little Pokemon Go on a warm summer night reminded me why. After a horrifying week of escalating worldwide violence it was especially uplifting and reassuring to find so many strangers connecting on a warm summer night under the glow of the Trinity Church steeple.
My Pokemon Go career ended at level 5. I still don’t really know how to use it. But, I had a blast for a day or two and I got out of my house and rediscovered parts of my home city that I had missed or forgotten about. I also got to meet my neighbor Gerald and that was great, too. Go see him at Inpopnito: Popcorn in Disguise at 387 Thames Street in Newport, RI.
Historic Cities After Cars…June 22, 2016
New York, Philadelphia, DC, Milwaukee and Richmond were all on my travel docket within the past month which wrapped up with a week-long Citybuilders Symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark. The first thing I noticed, on the first morning in this medieval city of 600,000 was the noise- or the lack of it. Even at the busiest time of day, in the busiest part of the city, there was more of a hum than the cacophony I had recently experienced in other cities.
Most people cycle or take public transportation in Copenhagen. Over the past 30 years, automobile traffic has been relegated to a more appropriate place in the transportation food chain. The streets have been systematically reconfigured over the years to favor thoughtful protected bicycle lanes that make cycling the fastest, cheapest, most efficient and pleasurable way to get around the city.
While none of our lecturers stated this as one of the desired impacts, it was my observation that the emphasis on bicycles actually has been an incredible boost to historic preservation/revitalization there.
Why? Bicycles have a much smaller footprint than cars. Check out how big a difference at http://indy100.independent.co.uk/image/29187-m4oqnr.gif Far fewer parking spaces, garages and square feet of road are needed for them. They pollute less, make less noise, and allow commuters and tourists to move along at eye-level, at moderate speed, unwalled off by glass and chrome, and in concert with other humans.
Citizens shop, dine and live very locally in Copenhagen, as was the case for hundreds of years in historic cities before cars choked out this historic way of life. Public life is rich and varied and connected and very local- the way it was before cars became the priority.
Better transportation options make the streets, which comprise a very large percentage of public space, public again. All over the world, we have let cars devour ancient roads and lifeways. Our most important public spaces (and this is key) were not built for cars. They were built for people and horses. Streets were where much of daily public life unfolded, before cars made it too noisy and dangerous in most places to serve that critical function.
In short, historic revitalization of cities is strongly supported by the bicycle- they do not require huge amounts of public space and they have a gentler, more fluid interaction with old buildings and with the historic uses of the street- the connective tissue that makes the historic city whole.
The return to my home city of Newport, RI reminded me that the needs of people here have been taken over by those of cars in this beautiful city and made me wonder if a better transportation system here could be as successful as in Copenhagen. Both are historic cities, with a significant seasonal tourist influx. They are vibrant, creative, densely populated places with museums, libraries, and scores of unique architectural gems. Their histories are shaped by the sailing and the sea and thus know old connections with the rest of the world. People are drawn to these cities, for their historic charm and natural beauty.
But, in Newport, the car is still king. This is truly unfortunate. We can do much better and, in doing so, we could serve as a great example to other historic cities. It is not easy to challenge the cherished theory that cars are the only way to get to the heart of Newport and that cars are the best way to move people. A better way to reach the heart of this city is to go back to the future, when the needs of people were more important than those of cars. I look forward to the day when the paradigm shifts to allow people to safely move through this historic city without creating noise and air pollution and in a way that honors the historic buildings and streetscapes.
Brent Runyon: 60 Years of Preserving our PastApril 8, 2016
We are reprinting an article written by our colleague, Brent Runyon, which was published today in the Providence Journal…The image above is of Brent at the Wedding Cake House on Broadway in Providence…
April 8, 2016
A little more than 60 years ago, on Feb. 20, 1956, a group of Providence residents incorporated a new nonprofit organization: the Providence Preservation Society. The group was formed, in part, to protest a proposed urban renewal plan for the College Hill neighborhood. Like many such plans at the time, the proposal called for demolition of numerous 18th and 19th century buildings in an attempt to improve the area.
In response, PPS brought together planners, policy makers and preservationists to produce the iconic College Hill Study, which became a model for preservation as a means of community renewal. For the first time in national history, urban renewal funds were used to save old buildings — rather than to destroy them.
PPS’s “founding feat” preserved the past, but also contributed powerfully to the future. Walk down Benefit or Main Street today for a vivid picture of the lasting impact of that effort. Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, College Hill and Providence would simply have far less appeal — appeal that is now recognized worldwide, and that has attracted and will attract investment in our city — had it not been for PPS’s forward-thinking founders who valued the past and believed that our future depends on it.
That kind of forward thinking is still one of our institutional values. It runs through all of our present day education and advocacy efforts, from a conversation on building livable neighborhoods at last fall’s Providence Symposium, to our 2016 Most Endangered Properties list, which features a collection of industrial, educational, and religious buildings that could net tremendous returns to Providence if repurposed.
We also recognize that Providence’s future success hinges not only on preserving the past but also on our city’s environment, economic development, and neighborhood vitality. There is an intrinsic relationship between these concerns and the quality of the places where citizens live, work, learn and gather.
That is why we introduced Jennifer Bradley, at the time a fellow and senior adviser of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, to Providence in 2014, when she discussed how Providence’s assets — chiefly our cultural heritage — can be used to build a bright economic future. Her former colleagues, Bruce Katz and Mark Muro, reinforced this notion in a Providence Journal Commentary piece, in which they cited Rhode Island’s “historic industrial character … and quality of place” as assets that “are investments in the fundamentals of economic development.”
Taking the long view is particularly critical as the city considers its single greatest present-day opportunity: the former Route 195 land. On the surface, development of the land is not primarily about historic preservation; it is about the city’s future. The future of this city has been a clear concern of PPS’s since our founding; in fact, it is stated in our mission to improve Providence by advocating historic preservation and the enhancement of the city’s unique character through thoughtful design and planning.
To that end, we concur with the recent Rhode Island Innovates report, which stressed the importance of including Downtown and nearby areas in the innovation district, which would help knit together Capital Center, Downtown and the Jewelry District, producing a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.
And even while we crave “cranes in the sky,” we should demand high standards for architecture and siting, knowing that what is built on the land must be excellent for this generation and all to follow. Where there is any lack of political will, or laws that do not ensure excellence, PPS will advocate, as it has since 1956.
Like our founders, we envision a Providence that celebrates and preserves its past, building a vibrant and sustainable future where people and the economy thrive. This vision is only realized with a breadth and depth of partnerships with our members, donors, volunteers, and event-goers. Please visit us often at our new headquarters at The Old Brick School House (24 Meeting St.) and on the web at www.ppsri.org. We hope you will join us for an education program, advocacy effort, or signature event in 2016, our 60th anniversary year.
Brent Runyon is the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society.
Four observations about black historyFebruary 23, 2016
If you are like me, born white in 1964, chances are your exposure to black history is limited and maybe a little skewed. Mine was both, but I’ve been playing catch-up and here is a quick synopsis of what I’ve learned.
First, it is fascinating and inspiring. Read about the brilliant entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker, The Periwinkle Initiative which strives to locate and mark the graves of enslaved Americans, Joseph McGill’s narratives that bring history to life through the Slave Dwelling Project , Garrett Morgan (you can thank him for traffic lights, among other inventions) and other incredible historical figures at Black History mini-docs. Visit the first, second or third African meeting houses in Boston, Nantucket and Portland, ME: Museum of African American History Abyssinian Meeting House. Read about The Green Book and what it was like to travel during Jim Crow. (with thanks to Dr. Gretchen Sorin, historian and 1772 trustee, who has studied and written extensively on this topic.) Tip of the iceberg- fascinating and inspiring.
Second, I learned it is too easy to avoid the reality of how a thousand threads of historic injustice permeate the fabric of our current world. Inequity is an ecosystem and it is analogous to the environmental movement; my recycling does not mean the air and water everywhere are clean and pure. If I don’t attend to the bigger system of pollution/injustice, I am not doing enough. Check out this video about the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the first slavery museum in the U.S. In particular, I was struck by the importance of the answer to the (rather dumb) question, “Why can’t they just get over it”? We have to know (all of us) the magnitude of what “it” is. Understanding “it” is not for the lazy or those who avoid being uncomfortable. I am both, but I try anyway. Black history is our history- learn about it, discuss it, understand its importance to all Americans. As one of my teachers reminded me, “sunlight is a powerful disinfectant”. No one is lazier than I and I’ve learned first-hand that it is worth the effort to bring our history into the sun for a good, long clarifying discussion. See #1-it is also fascinating and inspiring.
Third, and this isn’t fair at all, I learned that there are African-American history scholar-angels among us who continue to do more than their fair share to bring all of us to a greater understanding. I have been privileged to learn from some of these amazing teachers. They know their subject matter cold and they have the added burden of patiently walking me and others through history so that we can well and truly get it. When I think about what will move the needle on the much-hyped and much-needed “national discussion” I know these chosen ones probably hold the keys to success and, with it, they carry the added burden. I for one am grateful for their bridge-building and patience with a remedial student. Let’s support these history heroes whenever possible: Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project, Sandra Arnold of the Periwinkle Initiative, Dr. Lonnie Bunch and staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Leonard Cummings at the Abyssinian Meeting House to name a very few. There are many, many more which leads me to my last observation: I have much more to learn- a lot more listening and reading to do. But, I want the opportunity to be a tiny part of a better ecosystem and I welcome the chance to learn from and support the scholar-angels who will lead us all through history to a more just, richer and sunlit place. It is a fascinating and inspiring journey.
P.S. There is always a For Dummies book- ISBN-13: 978-0764554698
Volcanos, bicycles and moving forwardJanuary 13, 2016
Copenhagen photo from Great City.org
Art’s Brief History of the World
If you haven’t seen How We Got to Now, check it out. In this series, Steven Johnson takes a fresh, wide-angle look at history and puts together seemingly disparate pieces to show us what really happened. Think skimpy bathing suits have nothing to do with the Chicago sewer system? Think again. Unlike the straight-arrow timelines we endured in history class, this is the real history deal- messy, haphazard, exciting and sometimes explosive. How We Got To Now
At the 1772 Foundation, we have been thinking a lot about how our field has become too much like a straight-arrow timeline. We know that there are architectural and historic gems that need and deserve care- they are the jewels in our built history collection and they are well-suited to the timeline approach to history. But they only account for a small fraction of the historic building stock in this country. The entire spectrum of historic structures needs attention and it is messy and exciting business.
Like repairing a bicycle, historic preservation is not just getting the paint color right, but contributing to dynamic system in which the gears, wheels and brakes work together to propel us forward. We need to consider the whole bike if we are to propel this preservation puppy to a successful and sustainable place. Urban planners, low-income housing developers, environmentalists, city officials, transportation experts, business owners and residents all need to work together if we want historic preservation to become a true historic revitalization movement.
And, interestingly, bicycles might be one of those disparate pieces that helps move us forward – one of the slices of the of the historic preservation pie of collaborators that will help historic revitalization evolve.
Historic cities lend themselves beautifully to the incorporation of non-motorized transportation options. Like my home city of Newport, older cities were not built to accommodate the huge influx of car traffic that is dealt with every day. Parking in the summer is a competitive sport, the fragile colonial houses and churches shake when big trucks thunder through, and pedestrians must brave cross walks in a man vs. car situation that has ended tragically far too many times.
But it could look more like Copenhagen, where about 55% of daily trips are by bicycle. This is holistic, sustainable systems change and it directly serves the preservation needs of fragile historic downtowns. Check out Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes for a little inspiration.
Creating protected bicycle lanes in historic cities greatly reduces pollution, congestion, and frustration. Bicycles are efficient, compact and quiet. They promote human-scale interaction. They take up far less space than cars. Construction costs for protected bike lanes are a fraction of that eaten up by building car infrastructure. As my friend Bari Freeman of Bike Newport summed it up- bicycles are gentle on our fragile historic cities.
Economically it makes sense, too. Comprehensive bicycle infrastructure would expand historic downtown residential options because it could relieve would-be developers of the burden of providing unnecessary parking spaces. Typically hard-to-develop second floor lofts above businesses could be created with greater flexibility for the millennials and baby boomers who overwhelmingly want to live in places where cars do not dictate how their daily life unfolds.
Bicycles gliding through the tight narrow streets of historic cities looks and feel right, because it is. It is an inspiring image that reminds us that we can be more involved as preservationists than just guardians of crown jewels. As preservationists, we can and should support this type of wholesale change that makes cities more livable and lovable. (If the word lovable sounds too mushy, a must-read is How to make smart growth more lovable and sustainble by F. Kaid Benfield. Fantastic.)
- Dr. Arthur Spivack explains, “The 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora was one of the largest in recorded history and put a bunch of aerosol into the stratosphere. This led to the “year without a summer” in Europe due to the reflectivity of the aerosols blocking the sunlight. As a result of the associated crop failures due to the lack of a summer, there wasn’t enough feed for horses in Germany. This inspired Karl von Drais to invent the first proto-bicycle as an alternative means to get from town to town. About 50 years later, the ball bearing was patented as a device to be used in bicycles which were then fitted to the winning bicycle ridden by James Moore in the world’s first bicycle road race, Paris-Rouen, in November 1869. The ball bearing ultimately enabled much of the Industrial Revolution.”
Beowulf, Bread and Car WrecksNovember 30, 2015
Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning ‘Hwæt’ (‘Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r. – See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/03/monsters-and-marvels-in-the-beowulf-manuscript.html#sthash.otwMznqQ.dpuf
“Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellenfremedon!”
(traditional translation: “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings”)
Hwaet! (rhymes with sat) is the first word of Beowulf, written about 1,200 years ago. But Jonathan Brown reports a challenge to its meaning in the Independent (Tuesday 5 November 2013) in his article, “Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years”
In graduate school, most of us used a “Listen up” approach to Hwaet. But Brown reports that since it was first published in 1819 “it has variously been translated as “What ho!” “Hear me!” “Attend!” “Indeed!” and more recently “So!” by Seamus Heaney in 2000.”
And there shouldn’t be an exclamation point. Oops.
According to Dr. George Walkden at the University of Manchester (U.K.), the better translation of the opening line is “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” Subtle, but important in the world of Beowulf.
Historical scholarship is hugely fascinating and sheds a light on pieces of the past- Walkden’s scholarship shows us, for instance, that the original listeners probably weren’t unruly. His work and the really fascinating work being done around African American history in this country matter- their scholarship enriches our lives by helping us understand how we came to be the people and civilizations we are today.
But Hwaet! (old school) Let’s go from the 1,200 year-old Beowulf kerfuffle to today. Five people see a car wreck from different vantage points- various ages, eyesight, experiences. Ask them what happened five minutes later. Five different accidents.
So, how do we treat historical scholarship? If one event can produce a multitude of responses minutes later and a 1,200 year-old text still has a misinterpreted FIRST WORD, then what should we think of history in general? There are some very big reasons to look at all of documented history with a very cautious eye.
First, it’s history, rarely herstory, kidstory, or enslaved peoplestory. All of our forebears had stories worth telling; most are forever gone. Until fairly recently, you had to be able to read, write and be chosen for publication by a small group of outlets to have your story told. We also should consider that most of written history focuses on wars, politics, major social upheaval, not the story of routine life. So, we only have a sliver. It is important, but we should know it will never be whole.
In the field of historic preservation, I often hear that buildings tell a story- told through architecture and placement and the narratives of the lives spent within. I would respectfully suggest that like car wreck testimonies and Hwaet!, this is where our approach falls apart a bit and leads to what I believe is The Big Question for historic preservation – Are we spending equal time looking forward or are we stuck over analyzing the sliver of the past we have documented?
Once a building is preserved and its story told it is like baked bread. Done. Preserved in its final format. We can spend earnest hours discussing the subtleties of the preserved history, the Hwaet! of the house, but it would be a true revolution if we in the historic preservation field instead spent fully half of our time looking forward. Unlike an ancient transcript, we have a whole usable building. In fact, we have hundreds of thousands of buildings in this country that are historic and still very much needed, now. If we restore and use them thoughtfully and artfully, they will do much for the future- they will keep an incredible amount of wreckage from our landfills, they will contribute to vibrant downtown cultures, economic revitalization, provide needed homes and spaces to create art and, yes, they will still tell a historic story.
So, perhaps we need to stop trying so hard to bake history and begin to employ a sourdough bread starter approach- bake some, but leave some to feed the future. Perhaps we should focus fully half of our historic preservation efforts on historic revitalization, preservation with a future.
In Paterson, NJ, the historic brick Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange building on Spruce Street has been turned into transitional housing for kids “aging” out of foster care. http://www.njcdc.org/housing/independence-house/ It is a very cool contributing building in a historic area that has recently been named an urban National Park.
“New Jersey Community Development Corporation worked with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to create William Waldman Independence House, a safe, inviting and inspiring place which provides housing and supportive services for young people in their final years in the foster care system. The residents are supported 24 hours a day by NJCDC staff and receive assistance in building independent living skills and in developing vocational interests. This assistance includes creating Individual Success Plans that measure regular progress in attaining personal goals. During their time at Independence house, the ten residents pursue educational opportunities (high school diploma, GED, college courses, vocational training) as well as regular employment, preparing them to face the world of juggling various responsibilities as adults.”
Hwaet! Listen up! Yo! Oi! Indeed! What ho! Attend! The Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange tells an important historic story AND provides a little starter dough for a better future. Let’s hope that the next 1,200 years give historic preservation and revitalization equal time because maybe one of these Paterson kids will become a dragon slayer. Maybe he or she will become the most important story ever told by this building. We don’t know, because their stories haven’t been baked yet.