Within the past few months, it has become abundantly clear to me why historic preservation and the attitude of a community to preserve its past is so dearly important. It is not just a matter of saving some old or pretty buildings. We have taken for granted what preservation means to the city and to the identity of the place as a whole. As demolition to the old Pekin Community High School’s West Campus is now underway, it should serve as a reminder that a building is more than just a structure.
Being a relatively new resident to town and not having attended West Campus, I should be the last person to care. But it is not just the effort to save the building that I support; it is the community itself.
A city is only as strong as its ability to understand and preserve its history. Without knowing its past, how the city has evolved, and its ability to preserve what is cherished, we stand to lose more than we stand to gain. A quote by Winston Churchill comes to mind that summarizes our built environment very simply:
We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.
Lately, I have seen this quote come up in many posts and articles. In the wake of this demolition that is currently underway and another demolition in town set to happen shortly (the Pekin Daily Times building), I have been trying to make sense of how this quote relates to my community.
When a community fully believes in preservation, it shows its continued commitment to itself. Today, we seem to justify our lazy behaviors by saying, “It would cost too much to repair.” Or, “It has outlived its use.” Even, “It’s an eyesore, tear it down and build somthing better in its place.” Certainly, the neglect, lack of vision, and mismanagement have led many buildings in the same state of disrepair to the wrecking ball. With enough foresight, preservation (often historic) leads to a mindset of sustainability and a continued practice of reducing the amount of wasted space around town.
Sadly, the three buildings that make up West Campus sat vacant for 14 years. There have been attempts to repurpose them. However, many obstacles have made it difficult to overcome. Originally, the school board had sent the property to auction where it was sold for $60,000. Unfortunately, a greedy real estate speculator was on the other end of the winning bid. He then put it up for resale to the tune of $2 million. As you could imagine, even in 1998 (at the beginnning of the transfer of property), there were no takers. While the property itself was maintained for a couple of years, it quickly turned from an asset into a liability. Fast-forward to 2012 – there has been some community involvement but the sentiment around town has turned into something akin to taking a pet in to be put down.
As you can see, without the entire community – spanning from the city leaders and elected officials, down to the everyday citizens backing preservation whole-heartedly -the slow, painful demise is bound to happen. If this was an isolated incident it would be nothing to write about. However, like many cities that gave way to sprawl, there are neighborhoods, streets, buildings, and a downtown district that faces the same lack of reinvestment and vision. It has become all too easy to build further away from the core and too easy to hope that some angel of fortune will reinvest where everyone else has left.
A city must lead by example if they want its citizens to abide by their laws, codes, ordinances, and comprehensive plans. If the people of the community see that the leaders of the city understand the importance of preservation, then they too begin to follow suit. They are more likely to maintain and protect their properties, which in turn lessens future incidents from occurring. While the costs of renovation/preservation are perceived as high, the cost of not preserving these cherished places is even higher. It tears into the social fabric in which a community comes to identify itself. With preservation you are restoring a sense of pride and ownership in the city that is missing. You celebrate the building and the people who have come before. By ripping down and building new elsewhere, you’re sending a message that places and things aren’t important, therefore the people treat them as such.
With the demolition of West Campus (which dates back to 1916) and the future demolition of a downtown landmark slated, the city stands to become a shell of itself. A community identifies itself with its built environment, and behaves accordingly – just as Churchill stated, “these buildings shape us.” Without these buildings, and who knows how many more, it is very curious to see how the city will come to identify themselves and the place they live.
Preserving our landmarks and historical treasures shouldn’t be the job of a few who understand the beauty and intricate role they play. Instead, preservation should be the job of the entire community. Our past provides a genuine view into the identity of a city and its people. I will continue to fight the good fight, encourage others to do so, and write more on this topic… but until then, I’m off to see if we can’t stop further bleeding…