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Move in Traffic With Good Sense and Prudence

Ants

Ants marching (photo credit: PSG of Mercer County)

Who knew that Pope Francis was an urbanist?

I’m not a Catholic and only occasionally follow news out of the Vatican, but I was taken by reports that Pope Francis had commented on driving habits during his most recent New Year’s Eve homily. As reported in the press, Francis — who is also the Bishop of Rome — included the following in his remarks:

“’I feel gratitude in my soul, thinking about the people who live with open hearts in the city,’ Francis said.  As examples of that spirit, the pope began with a for-instance that will echo the frustrations of many a Roman resident – ‘those people,’ he said, ‘who move in traffic with good sense and prudence.’ By consensus, the poor state of maintenance on Rome’s roads, the lack of accessible public parking, and the city’s paralyzing traffic, are among the top complaints from locals….

The pope then went on to cite other examples of heroism from the silent majority.  He praised ‘those who respect public places, and report things that aren’t right; those who are attentive to the elderly, and people in difficulty; and so on,’ Francis said.  ‘These and a thousand other behaviors express concretely love for the city,’ the pope said, adding that they come ‘without giving speeches, without publicity, but with a style of practical civic education for daily life. In this way, they cooperate silently for the common good,’ the pope said.”

Helping to ensure that the places where we live contribute to community life has been a part of my work through the years as a preservationist.  In an earlier note commenting on the sign in a coffee shop window to “Be Civil, Be Urban,” I suggested that how we live and work together is a key to productivity, learning, growth, and happiness.  Civility is—unfortunately—in short supply in much of our national and international discourse today.  I think Pope Francis was making a similar point, but with his optimistic point of view that millions are moving together with “good sense and prudence.”

It is Holy Week on the Christian calendar, so a reference to the teachings of Pope Francis—even on how we live together in cities—isn’t that far-fetched.  However, if you are uncomfortable getting your urbanist insights from a world religious leader, you can always turn to the natural world.  Because they give each other a lot of headway, which buys them more time to react to any incidents up ahead,  “ants don’t get stuck in traffic jams.” Living and working together has its challenges, especially in these times of heated political divisions, but we can take heart in the lessons learned from the teachings of a pope or from the navigation styles of some of the smallest creatures on the planet.

Wishing you a week of civility, productivity, love for the people and places where you live and work…and no traffic jams.

More to come…

DJB

Legacy and Promise

Restored Franklin Theatre

Restored Franklin Theatre (Credit: The Heritage Society of Franklin & Williamson County)

NOTE: This post first appeared on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.  It is adapted from remarks I made at the February 23, 2019, National Trust for Historic Preservation Board of Trustees meeting, my last Board meeting after more than two decades with the National Trust.

Over the past 22 years, I made it a practice to regularly reflect on both the legacy and the promise of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We were founded by Congressional Charter after America’s leaders had seen the destruction that war could inflict not only on people but also on a nation’s culture and heritage. Our founding chairman, David Finley, was one of the famous Monuments Men who risked their lives to save the cultural patrimony of Europe during World War II. Bill Murtagh, an early predecessor of mine in senior management, went on to a distinguished career in preservation as the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, establishing the tool to tell America’s story. Clearly, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The National Trust led the successful fight to save the West Front of the U.S. Capitol from an expansion proposal that would have desecrated one of the sacred spaces of our democracy. Great names and families from American History—Rockefeller, Gould, Woodrow Wilson—have entrusted this organization with their property and their stories. But others—who didn’t have access to wealth and power—have also turned to the National Trust to tell their stories and protect the places that matter to them.

The places we choose to preserve tell us who we are as a people and as a nation. Every one of us has personal stories that help define us, and often those stories are rooted in place.

The Franklin Theatre and the Future of Preservation

My grandmother believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop, and I’ll never forget the times she told me, “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental!” My father, having heard those same words, got his first job when he was still a teenager. Franklin, Tennessee—my parents’ hometown—has a lively Main Street, and that is where he went to work—selling tickets, making popcorn, and serving as the back‐up projectionist at the Franklin Theatre. I’ve heard stories of that theatre all my life. My parents went there on dates. And I saw films there in the 1960s, though the area was slowly deteriorating with the arrival of the malls.

Fortunately, a dedicated group of people loved downtown Franklin and led a Main Street comeback. This Great American Main Street award–winning community is now a cultural and economic engine in Middle Tennessee, and my father’s beloved Franklin Theatre is part of that renaissance. New music stars and current films play in the same space where his generation went to dream about a brighter future during the darkest days of the Depression.

Before he passed away two years ago, my father was able to attend the re‐lighting of the marquee and to see the restored theatre. We “bought a seat” in his honor, so that Tom Brown’s name—a name from the theatre’s past—would be connected to its future.

Individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time to create community and national identity, are at the heart of why we save old places—why old places matter.

As I look to the future of preservation, two key points from my family’s story stand out to me. First, relevance is more important than ever. The Franklin Theatre remains a place where entertainment, music, and stories bind us together in the 21st century, just as it was during the Great Depression and WWII.

Second, for a movement that many assume is resistant to change, the way we save places keeps changing—and that’s a good thing. The Main Street program began as a push against both modern mall development and traditional preservation practice. Main Street buildings like the Franklin Theatre weren’t the crown jewels of American architecture—but they were places that mattered to local communities for reasons that went well beyond their architectural style.

The National Trust conceived and nurtured the Main Street movement and supported the adaptive reuse of buildings for changing needs. We initially pushed for Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits and then, just last year, led the charge to save those credits. So much of what led to the renaissance of downtown Franklin came from the work of the Trust. We are well positioned to lead future change, but we must understand how and why change is important. Saving the past has a past—and that history is worth knowing as we look to the future.

A Look at Relevance

Former New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp said that “the essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”

The A.G. Gaston Motel was described in 1955 as the “most lavish Negro owned hotel in the nation,” but this Birmingham, Alabama, landmark was abandoned and decaying just five decades later. Built by the state’s first African American millionaire, it became the epicenter for those campaigning to break the back of segregation in 1963. The infamous bombing and murder of four young black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred one block away.

March Birmingham cr MarkSandlin

Volunteers leading the March for the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (Credit: Mark Sandlin)

Well-coordinated National Trust advocacy, public affairs, and legal efforts led the city to donate a portion of the motel to the Trust in 2016. We immediately transferred it to the National Park Service, which enabled President Barack Obama to create the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

This is clearly a place of memory and relevance.

Over my time in the field, I’ve seen that when many people think about historic preservation, they think only of “great architecture” or places “preserved in amber.” Unfortunately, they often don’t connect the work of saving places with helping people express meaning for the present and hope for the future. Why is that? Well, we haven’t always connected places to the lives of real people. Perhaps our tools, like the National Register of Historic Places, push us to see our cultural heritage as something rare and unique to be carefully preserved, as opposed to something ubiquitous, ordinary, and everyday to be celebrated.

In preservation, we reference the “period of significance” that is always somewhere in the past. I’ve pushed our staff to answer the question, “What if the period of significance is now?” Why is the A.G. Gaston Motel significant in 2019? President Lincoln’s Cottage, where Lincoln conceived of the Emancipation Proclamation? The President Woodrow Wilson House, another National Trust Historic Site? Why is the National Trust’s headquarters, the Watergate Building, relevant to people today? These questions give our work new relevance.

The benefits of preservation extend across many areas that we would identify as relevant today—environmental sustainability, economic growth, health, and more. But to be relevant, historic preservationists need to get comfortable with the emotional ways most people see their past. Once we can understand how most people perceive and value older places, we can then make our case through their lens, not ours.

Continuing to Change the Way We Save Our Past

Fortunately, we’ve proven ourselves good at change. Forty years ago, preservation was an outsider movement with citizens working against the grain of normal policies, plans, and development practice. Many preservation tools were created as exceptions and Band-Aids, designed to give older buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods a chance to survive in an otherwise hostile environment. Tens of thousands of citizens across the country rose up to fight the nature and pace of change in their neighborhoods. This instinct to shape the communities we want, instead of accepting what others conceive for us, remains.

Here’s a powerful example: The residents around Memphis, Tennessee’s Crosstown Concourse recently came together to push for new zoning to preserve their neighborhood’s historic fabric. “Suddenly, the impossible has happened,” one resident said. “So let’s figure out what’s next.” What had seemed impossible? Taking a decaying 1920s former Sears distribution facility three football fields in length—filled with rats, standing water, and wild dogs—and turning it into a thriving, urban vertical village.

Crosstown Concourse

Crosstown Concourse (Credit: Aerial Innovations courtesy of Looney Ricks Kiss and Crosstown Concourse)

One of the largest LEED-certified rehabs ever completed, the Crosstown Concourse is almost fully occupied with hundreds of residents, an arts auditorium, school, YMCA, restaurants, and health-care providers. The National Trust Community Investment Corporation was a New Markets Tax Credits investor in this project. This is what preservation can do when the right tools are in place.

Crosstown Concourse credit Crosstown Concourse

Crosstown Concourse Grand Opening (Credit: Crosstown Concourse)

But while America’s cities are now magnets for the young, the challenge for the next 50 years is taking the values and proven benefits of preservation to scale while adapting our tools for today’s environment and issues. In contrast to the amazing success story of the Crosstown Concourse, let me tell you about how America’s only World Heritage City and the birthplace of our constitution—a city rich with architectural landmarks, walkable neighborhoods, and diverse ethnic communities—is currently facing a preservation crisis.

In Philadelphia, demolition rates are climbing while the percentage of buildings protected through landmark designation is far lower than the national average. City leaders turned to the National Trust for help; working with the Mayor’s Task Force, we evaluated Philadelphia’s preservation programs, gathered national best practices, and provided data-driven research. The 2018 Task Force Report is a blueprint for preservation practice in a new urban era—one we look forward to sharing with other cities nationwide. Recommendations for advancing the future of preservation in cities include:

  • We are far behind in the use of technology, and we must leverage open data and geographic information system (GIS) technology to move beyond survey exclusively focused on architectural attributes and completed by preservation professionals. Let’s find out what people value in their communities and then engage with them in accessible and compelling ways to save it.
  • We should reconsider our one-size-fits-all classification tools. We need a variety of methods and tools to effectively encourage the preservation of a diversity of buildings.
  • In a country where more than half of the structures in many communities were built before WWII, but only an average of 5 percent are protected through traditional preservation tools, we need to consider alternatives to historic district zoning. Conservation and sustainability districts are not “preservation lite”—they are preservation for the future.
  • The change from working against to working with marginalized communities in retaining their community structures—both social and spatial—is among the central challenges for preservation today.
  • Finally, we need to conceptualize cultural and environmental conservation as the same thing, but along a continuum. Our ReUrbanism principles note that historic preservation is an environmentally conscious activity, but our work should also be about the conservation of landscapes, including their living components and ecological systems. That puts preservation in the mix of the efforts to address the impacts of climate change.

Pushing the Envelope for Change

Over my two decades, the National Trust—together with a variety of partners—has saved some of the country’s most important places, connecting past to present to future. The Trust also has a record of pushing the envelope for change.

Cooper Molera Opening cr Mike Danen Photo

Cooper-Molera Gardens in Monterey, California (Credit: Mike Danen)

With a long history of fighting development that threatens historic properties, why would we partner with a shopping center developer to radically re-imagine a shuttered historic site? Because saving Cooper-Molera Adobe—a National Trust Historic Site that has been a locus of community and commerce in Monterey for longer than California has been a part of the United States—required new perspectives.

Cooper Molera Alta Bakery Opening

Alta Bakery at Cooper-Molera Adobe (Credit: Photo Courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Today, a sign on the entrance advises visitors that “this is not your usual house museum.” At Cooper-Molera, they choose their own path through bilingual exhibits that mix historic collections with contemporary art. It is truly an astounding transformation, and—just as it did five decades ago at Drayton Hall—our work at Cooper-Molera gives other historic sites permission to try new approaches. The National Trust has been at the forefront of the effort to transform preservation through the years. Belief in, and support for, staff who are eager to test new models is necessary to stay there.

My colleagues and I have worked to share and celebrate stories from our nation’s past that opened new understandings of its history and of why we are who we are today. Together we have made the National Trust a leader in the fight to ensure that old places are part of our individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time to create community and national identity. Together we have shown that there is a future for our past.

I look forward to what’s next. Thank you.

I want to extend my appreciation for the work and writings of former National Trust colleagues Tom Mayes, acting chief legal officer and general counsel, and James Lindberg, vice president of the Research and Policy Lab—as well as Jeremy C. Wells, Ph.D., assistant professor in the historic preservation program at the University of Maryland and chair of the Environmental Design Research Association.

About “More to Come…The DJB Blog”

DJB overlooking San Marco Piazza 04 02 16Hi.  I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this blog more than ten years ago to send random thoughts on a few things I care about to friends, family, and others who may share the same passions.  I began this as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation.  After the trip was over, I simply continued writing.

Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus, which is reflected in the new menu items and new look.  Several years ago I began writing a Monday email to my staff about things that were on my mind, and this discipline led to a regular feature on the blog which you can find under “Monday Musings.”  Professionally, I am a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. In this work, I combine deep industry knowledge in historic preservation with proven fundraising experience, national program conceptualization and delivery, effective public engagement, extensive governing board involvement, and forward-looking strategic planning. Throughout my career, I have been passionate about connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

Because my professional background and career is in historic preservation, I write about places that matter to me (although this section also includes the quirky “Observations From…” category, which can cover just about anything.)  I also provide recommendations regarding books I’m reading and music I’m enjoying.  There are also a significant number of topics covered under the “Random DJB Thoughts” menu item, including posts where I brag on my children, talk about baseball (Go Nats!), and reflect on the lives of people who have touched my life.

This personal blog covers a broad range of random topics, so other things have and will crop up.  Please feel free to respond, but as a friend of mine says, if you want to disagree strongly, get your own blog!

I hope you enjoy.

DJB

Honing Your Craft

Draft No. 4

“Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process” by John McPhee

Vision. Skill. Time.  All are usually required to produce something of lasting value.  All are at the heart of craftsmanship.

Traditionally linked to items made by hand, craftsmanship can be applied to a wider array of undertakings that benefit from an attention to detail through the application of a skill sharpened over time and practice.

Take writing, for instance.

For several years I’ve considered how best to refine my writing skills. However, other commitments became excuses for never taking serious steps forward to actually hone that craft until a former colleague recently noted that my passion has always been best expressed in my writing. It is where I seek to tell a story or share a memory in hopes of inspiring and making a meaningful connection to colleagues and friends. One of my favorite sayings is “Let’s see how it writes.” This same colleague suggested that I may have been the best first draft writer in the organization.

I knew exactly what she meant, and it was that particular comment that led me to pick up John McPhee’s 2017 book Draft No. 4:  On the Writing Process. I wanted to consider getting from a good first draft to a great fourth draft. As a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker, McPhee has some definite thoughts on how to move in that direction.  Writing to his daughter, McPhee once explained that, “The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once.”  Three or four revisions are not always possible in a work context with tight deadlines, but I agree with his premise that the essence of the writing process—the heart of the writing craft—is reflection and revision.

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)

In Draft No. 4, McPhee takes the reader on a delightful and well-considered journey from ways to structure a piece of writing to an ending chapter on omissions.  That last feature is just as important as the first.  A mantra McPhee continues to use with his writing students is,

“A Thousand Details Add Up to One Impression.”

He notes that this is a quote from the actor Cary Grant, with the implication that “few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential.”

What to keep and what gets taken out are equally important.  As the sculptor Michelangelo said, “I’m just taking away what doesn’t belong there.”

In the business context, I have been known to say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” However, when working on your craft—be it a stone carving, your speaking skills, a handmade musical instrument, a painting, or a piece of writing—don’t let the merely good keep you from sharpening, refining, and honing the thing until you have created something worthy of the term craftsmanship.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin at the 9:30 Club

Last Wednesday, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin performed to a large and appreciative audience at Washington’s 9:30 Club. Featuring songs from her recent self-titled album, Griffin showcased her significant songwriting chops and wide-ranging musical interests from rock to Latin romanticism to gospel to beautiful acoustic folk. It was my first time to see Griffin live, but not the first time I was smitten with her work.

No, that would have been about fifteen years ago while standing in a record shop listlessly flipping through CD bins while fixated on the sound of Griffin’s 1000 Kisses album and the unique, emotional vocals coming out of the store’s sound system. I’m happy to report that the decades haven’t diminished that vulnerable voice. Wednesday evening she performed Long Ride Home, one of my favorites from that 2002 album, as well as the rousing Move Up from the remarkable Downtown Church album, recorded in a historic Nashville house of worship that is an architectural masterpiece and, from a personal interest standpoint, was founded by a great uncle of mine six-or-seven times back.

Patty Griffin remains on tour through the summer.  Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

On Becoming Who You Are

You’ve no doubt heard the motivational quote, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”  Frankly, it has always struck me as excessively sentimental, or—to use my preferred description—sappy.

But on my first day of unemployment since 1977—even though a planned move—I’ve certainly been thinking about who I am and what’s next.

Hiking With Nietzsche

Hiking With Nietzsche

To help in that process, I turned to John Kaag’s recent book, Hiking With Nietzsche:  On Becoming Who You Are.  I’ll be honest: I know nothing about philosophy, but was simply taken by the book’s title and jacket blurbs.  We buy books for all different reasons, I suppose, and I’m glad I picked this one up a few weeks ago.  Kaag, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, writes about two journeys he took to Piz Corvatsch, the Swiss mountain so important to the writing and life of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The author’s first journey to Corvatsch was when he was a youthful nineteen-year-old.  The more recent one came at age 36, with wife and young daughter in tow.  Both were real and philosophical in nature.

“Journey” is the appropriate word choice here, if we think of a journey as active movement where we encounter slips and falls along the way; where we find that sometimes the only way is the long one.  Kaag writes:

“As it turns out, to ‘become who you are’ is not about finding a ‘who’ you have always been looking for.  It is not about separating ‘you’ off from everything else.  And it is not about existing as you truly ‘are’ for all time.  The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it.  Selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process, in the German verb werden, ‘to become.’ The enduring nature of being human is to turn into something else, which should not be confused with going somewhere else.  This may come as a great disappointment to one who goes in search of the self.  What one is, essentially, is this active transformation, nothing more, nothing less.”

Kaag chronicles how his approach to Nietzsche’s philosophy changes over time.  He recognizes that some call that philosophy juvenile, but Kaag argues that there are lessons in Nietzsche lost on the young who don’t understand the ease with which we can be lulled into being satisfied with mediocrity or how “difficult it would be to stay alert to life.”  Kaag suggests that he aligns with Nietzsche’s thought that transformation into becoming who we are requires that we physically rise, stretch, and set off.  It is a world view about “aims once more permitted and sought after.”

DJB on the loggia

More to come as the journey continues

I’ve committed to keep days free on my calendar in order to take this time of new-found unemployment to stretch, to set off, to sometimes fall backward, but always to “lean one’s present self into something unattained, attainable, yet out of view” where even “slipping can be instructive.”  It isn’t what is at the top that’s important, it is about what is discovered and how we are transformed along the way.

And so the journey continues.

Have a good week.

More to come…
DJB

Location, Location, Location

Take a look at this map:

MLB Fan map

Do you have any idea what information is being conveyed?  (Hint:  Think about the time of year).

If you suspect you have the answer, click here to see if you are right.

This map came to me from a colleague from the National Trust, and I think I was stumped because this wasn’t what I would call “within his area of expertise” (or interest).

If you are still reading and haven’t clicked through to the website, it maps where Major League Baseball fans live in the United States, by county.  Now that you know the answer, click through to the article above and learn some other fun facts, such as which MLB team’s fans live in the most counties and the most out-of-state counties, the largest land mass covered by a fan base, and the state with the most number of teams.  (That last one is Pennsylvania.)

“Though it is home to only two teams, no state is the site of fiercer competition than Pennsylvania, which has its allegiance split across seven different teams. The Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates hold 26 Pennsylvania counties apiece, with strongholds on their respective sides of the state (Phillies to the east, Pirates to the west). The Orioles, Indians, Yankees, Blue Jays, and Nationals split the remainder of the state.”

Opening Day is past but we are still within the window of what the MLB Network calls “Opening Week!”

Go Nats!

More to come…

DJB