Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Eulogy for our Neighborhoods

The year 2014 has been the most destructive in the history of Rochester. When future historians examine the record of this year looking for the cause of the devastation, they will not find narratives of fire, tornado, or bombs.  Instead, they will find that in 2014, when Rochester's landscape was riddled with the pock-marks of demolished vintage houses, the damage was wholly self-inflicted.

An amazing number of buildings in Rochester's residential neighborhoods have been razed during the past 12 months.  Not all were counted among the best of our historic properties, but some were - the 1888 Van Hoosen-Case house being a notable example and the most recent to fall to the wrecking ball.  We seem to be in the middle of an "out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new" cycle.  After all, old houses take a lot of time and money to maintain.  They are inconvenient - the walls are seldom square and plumb, the floors aren't completely level, they have inadequate closet space and the kitchens - gasp! - aren't usually roomy enough to accommodate an island cook-top and all of the latest appliances and gadgets.  So we rip them down and replace them with something more amenable to modern family life, and strip away a little more of our heritage in the process.

Just old buildings?  Not quite.  An anonymous person once said, "It's not good because it's old, it's old because it's good."  These houses are witnesses, if only we would take the time to listen to their testimony.  They all have stories to tell about the families they have sheltered over the decades, and the people in those families were the ones who built this community and left something behind for the citizens of today. Author and home restoration specialist Jane Powell once spoke quite eloquently on this issue; she said, in part:
American culture, and advertising in particular, has done an excellent job of convincing consumers that they are the center of the universe, and that their needs and desires should be more important than anything else. This has led to a huge sense of entitlement, including the idea that one's time is so valuable that it couldn't possibly be spent maintaining the house. Here's some news you may find distressing. You are not the center of the universe. I am not the center of the universe, either. We are temporary. We are not playing Monopoly, and there is no "get-out-of-maintenance-free" card. (Those who are elderly or disabled get slack.) A house comes with responsibilities, and a historic house comes with more responsibilities. We are only the caretakers of these houses, which were here before we owned them and which will be here after we are gone. They contain the wood from the old-growth forests, they are monuments to the skill of those who labored to build them, they represent our cultural heritage. To destroy them, or allow them to be destroyed by neglect, to remove their original fabric in the pointless pursuit of "no maintenance" is profoundly disrespectful both to the trees that gave their lives and to the labor and skill of those who built the houses - with hand tools, I might add.
The issue of historic preservation is now being studied in the halls of city government, and the coming year may see the topic addressed, perhaps by ordinance.  Personally, I hope that any discussion will include not only consideration of control by ordinance, but also a conservancy/trust model for the handful of our most precious historic gems.

A conservancy/trust for historic properties might look something like the greenspace initiative passed in Rochester Hills some years ago to protect certain land from development.  A millage was passed to provide the city with the funds to acquire these properties for the public good.  A similar approach could be used to acquire select historic properties, which would then be owned, operated and maintained by a public trust.  The properties could be leased - with the appropriate restrictions on the activities of the tenants in order to protect and preserve the buildings - and the income realized from the leases would be returned to the trust and invested, providing a fund for the perpetual care and maintenance of the properties. (If you are interested in such arrangements, check out the web site of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania Heritage Conservancy, which conserves both historic buildings and natural resources.)

In February 1968, Rochester suffered a loss when its Albert Kahn-designed Chapman mansion and ten acres of trees were bulldozed.  There was considerable public outcry at the time - after the fact, of course - and the Rochester Clarion was prompted to run an editorial under the headline "A Lesson Can be Learned."   The editor's closing words were these:
The lesson learned from this incident should be clear. Private industry is not in the park business. If enough citizens earnestly want to have a piece of land preserved, they should waste no time in urging some unit of government to grab it as soon as it is for sale - not six months later. They should also be prepared to possibly pay higher taxes to secure it. Natural beauty is not a luxury.
Forty-six years later, the evidence suggests we haven't learned that lesson yet. Demolition is a bell that cannot be unrung.  It is time to decide how we can progress while honoring our past, and how we can preserve our neighborhoods without heavy-handed infringement of private property rights.  This post is not aimed at the builders and developers who are doing what they have the legal right to do with privately-held property; it is aimed at their enablers. It is aimed at the citizens who signal by inaction their tolerance for bulldozers rolling down their streets, of graceless mini-mansions bulging at the lot lines and crassly towering over their neighbors in a vulgar attempt to make Rochester a clone of the zip code to our southwest.

My home town is better than that.


  1. Great article. Please send this to the newspapers.

  2. Kudos to Deborah Larsen for bringing this downtown Rochester concern to light.

  3. As a 5th generation citizen of this town I sympathize with this authors desire for non-money driven "substance" however, Rochester has always chosen to pervert its history over preserving it. My home town adores its image yet the barrage of SUV's passing under its holiday lights, might have one believe Rochester has sold its soul to the centers of the universe.
    ~Natural Born Foreigner

  4. As I recall, Frank Chapman offered to sell his home to the city for the unbelievable price of one dollar! Pause to think about this ..... I guess the town's priorities have not changed ....tragically sad

  5. Excellent article! I only hope it is widely published and read.

  6. Shared with the Facebook page: Rochester in the 1970's.

  7. Who issued the permits?