Endangered Species

Yesterday, I attended a press conference announcing 2012’s Top 10 Most Endangered Landmarks in Illinois. It is a yearly preservation effort that has been going on for over 40 years presented by the Landmarks Illinois Foundation. It is certainly a worthy cause and one that will, hopefully, benefit my local community by raising awareness and renewing preservation support.

My previous blog entry The Eve of Destruction focused on the fate of a historic old high school in town. Pekin Community High School’s West Campus, which dates back to 1916, received designation on the Most Endangered list yesterday. There has been plenty of conversations about whether the building should be torn down or preserved and what role it can play in the community.

With over 50 submissions, the selection committee whittled the list down to a Top 10. I don’t know this is a good list to be at the Top of, but nonetheless, it is appreciated and hopefully a negative list will lead to a positive outcome for this building. The shocking part of the big reveal was that this high school was selected as part of a theme with four other schools.

I think that this theme is noteworthy and really should be looked at deeper here in a state with serious budget concerns. It indicates that the governing bodies are not working together in-sync to figure out how to best use their resources. As soon as it’s believed that more space for a school is needed or updates need to take place, thoughts turn to constructing a new building. Generally, that construction is placed further away from the core of the population. In this development’s wake, a building that the community feels a connection with is left behind.

To keep this brief, I’m not going to go into the process of how a school district comes to the decision of vacating a property. What is worthy to speak about is how many neighborhood schools have been left vacant, demolished, or underutilized. Most decisions have been made with short-sighted goals in mind. What gets built is built with the needs of today in mind.

I’m a sucker for stories that appear on the MSN.com homepage. Imagine what I saw yesterday when I got home? Just that Illinois schools may consider a pay-to-ride bus program. It appears that budget shortfalls and higher transportation costs have gotten people thinking. I’m not an urban planner or master mathematician, but if we build new schools further away from neighborhoods and kids no longer are regularly encouraged to walk to school or ride their bikes, won’t the transportation costs be higher? Top it off with tearing down schools that were once located in densely populated neighborhoods and I think we might have discovered our problem!

While Pekin’s West Campus is not alone, it is a representation of a problem that goes back decades when poor decisions were first made. The neighborhood school has always been a core need of communities. It enables both students and teachers to be in close proximity to the learning institution. Massive structures don’t need to be made – appropriately sized buildings that are adaptable to populations are more fitting. The grounds on which they stand can be used for multipurpose functions (parks and gardens) instead of duplicating those elsewhere in the city.

It’s surprising to hear arguments from people thinking that these schools are just a building. I doubt that it’s just fond memories of a Math class that makes us want to save just a building. To hear arguments that a neglected building of such superior archeticural craftsmanship is an eyesore is laughable. If the needed TLC takes place it would surpass anything that is standing near it. The question then becomes, “Whose property is the eyesore now?” There is a deeper instinct that we know of that is guiding us to preserve these landmarks. What has become endangered today is exactly what needs to be saved to begin repairing our hobbled communities.

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