Talking Preservation’s Future on “Back to the Future Day”

Scenes from Cape Girardeau

Scenes from Cape Girardeau (Credit: Missouri Preservation)

I am in Missouri as part of a cross-country trip that began on Friday in Los Angeles and will end on Thursday in New York City.

The annual Missouri Preservation Conference – where I was the keynote speaker – brought me to Cape Girardeau, winner of a 2015 Great American Main Street Award.

The conference theme?  The Past and Future of Preservation.  As luck would have it, my talk was on Back to the Future DayWhat better occasion to talk about the future of preservation!

Here’s the description of Back to the Future Day from the New York Times:

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015, at 4:29 p.m., our today will finally catch up to the tomorrow depicted in “Back to the Future, Part II.” In that 1989 film, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) appear with a flash in their DeLorean time machine from 30 years in the past. Suddenly, they find themselves in the same town, Hill Valley, but surrounded by impossible technology and outlandish social mores. It’s a place where cars can fly, hoverboards are the norm and, most incredibly, the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series.

Remarks from the President of the local university preceded mine, and Dr. Vargus told a bit about what had happened in history on October 21st.

Here’s how I began my remarks:

It is a pleasure to be with you today in Missouri to consider the past and future of preservation. In his remarks, Southeast Missouri State University’s President Dr. Carlos Vargus told us of what happened on this day in history. Those comments reminded me that today – October 21, 2015 – is “Back to the Future” Day. For those who may not remember, today is the day that Michael J. Fox traveled to in the movie Back to the Future Part II. I cannot think of a better day to think about the future of preservation!

While I didn’t go into this aspect, the New York Times story looks at what the film’s producers got right – and wrong – about the future.  Among the trends that nailed:  community revitalization and the rebirth of urbanism.  Here’s the paper’s description of that portion of the movie:

For the town square, it was decided that the future Hill Valley would be more forward-thinking in its urban planning. Mr. Gale, Mr. Zemeckis and the production team all believed that community space would be emphasized and old architecture would be maintained, which mirrors the trends in urban design that gave birth to destinations like the High Line in New York. In 1985, the site in front of the Hill Valley clock tower is a parking lot; in 2015, it’s a luscious green park with a lake.

“That town square could exist now,” Mr. Carter said. “We’d build upon what was and either turn it, or embrace it.”

As it was, I spoke about a future for preservation as one where we embrace change and employ a variety of locally-grown tools that make our historic buildings, landscapes, and development patterns the norm rather than the exception. Those tools would be developed and employed by, for, and of the people. And we would have a political movement that embraces our movement’s grass-roots origins and speaks in a forward-looking language around the values of preservation.

Ste Genevieve

Ste. Genevieve

On my drive back to the St. Louis airport, I took a 15-mile detour to visit the small town of Ste. Genevieve – another Missouri gem along the Mississippi.  While there I explored a few shops, had lunch at the Audubon restaurant, and bought a 50 cent ice cream cone at Sally’s Soda Shop “End of the Season” sale.

Magical!

Historic places matter to people today and to future generations because of the changes, stories, memories, and inspiration that are embedded in our landmarks, in our vernacular buildings, in our older neighborhoods, and in our historic landscapes in places like Cape Girardeau and Ste. Genevieve. If preservationists tell that story in language that speaks to the values people care about, and if we work side-by-side with the people living in our communities, we can have a future in preservation where we save and continue to use these places that tell the broad and rich story of America.

I end this talk about the future of preservation with the following paragraph:

Together, we have the opportunity to make our historic buildings, landscapes and neighborhoods relevant in shaping the future of our ever-changing communities. If preservationists embrace change in where and how we work, we may find ourselves in the same situation as those who follow the advice of that other great native of Missouri – Mark Twain – about always telling the truth: “It will amaze your friends and confound your enemies.”

Here’s to an amazing future.

More to come…

DJB

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