They just don't build them like they used to.On the one hand, it's true: They don't build them like they used to. On the other hand, ninety percent of everything is crap and our love of old buildings is rooted in the fact that the ones that get old were the cream of the crop to begin with. The rest of the crap long ago got torn down.
The book How Buildings Learn has a series of photographs showing how wonderful old buildings are wonderful because they are old. They weren't built that way to start with. They got added onto over time and they matured into something terrific.
Jane Jacobs spoke passionately about this need for ongoing development at the city level in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. A quote:
Neighborhoods built up all at once change little physically over the years as a rule...[Residents] regret that the neighborhood has changed. Yet the fact is, physically it has changed remarkably little. People's feelings about it, rather, have changed. The neighborhood shows a strange inability to update itself, enliven itself, repair itself, or to be sought after, out of choice, by a new generation. It is dead. Actually it was dead from birth, but nobody noticed this much until the corpse began to smell.One of the local "claims to fame" is that Aberdeen, Washington has more historic homes than any other town in the state. This helped inspire a local Historic Homes project with signs pointing to the neighborhoods where they could be found and a website with some of the background info on these mostly still private homes.
Lots of programs talk a lot about the value of historic properties for doing economic development. I have done some looking around and been unable to find the kind of research I wish existed but I do not believe that Historic Homes projects constitute economic development work.
Aberdeen has those homes because it was quite wealthy at one time. It was very wealthy at a time when it was known as The Lumber Capital of the World because local industry was clear cutting old growth forest and churning out incredible quantities of lumber.
Residential homes are not engines of economic growth. Big, fancy historic homes like the ones featured in Aberdeen are the outgrowth of a wealthy economy. Those homes are typically built by captains of industry but the homes themselves are not essential to economic development and I am inclined to believe it does not enhance Aberdeen in any way to have a Historic Homes program.
Aberdeen's preponderance of historic homes strikes me as evidence we were very wealthy at one time and then Aberdeen was largely abandoned. They remain because no new development has pushed out the old buildings. It is a town time forgot once locals stopped clear cutting the forest as a quick and dirty means to grab all the gusto it could, but in a completely unsustainable fashion. The town is a shadow of its former self.
My understanding is only one of those historic homes is a bed and breakfast. The rest are private homes. Signs directing tourists and other people passing through Aberdeen to them potentially amounts to signs telling people "Rob these homes first. They got the most stuff to steal. The owners have money and here is a convenient map of all of our currently wealthiest residents with the biggest houses."
Some people may value living in older homes because they may have features you can't find in more contemporary homes. As long as you don't demolish them, things that were legal to build at one time can still exist even if zoning laws have changed and you can no longer build those things.
But that tends to be most valuable when those homes are part of a mixed-use neighborhood, not part of a suburban-style development of just homes. They are typically sought after for the lifestyle they afford for being able to walk to amenities nearby and people tend to put up with the uncomfortable quirks of actually living in an old building for that benefit.
This is one of the reasons Historic Downtowns are so valuable: They were often built before the cult of the car and they allow for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods to exist at all.
This love of old things is in part rooted in our faith in our incompetence. We just accept that it's not possible to update zoning laws well or get good projects approved currently, so we throw in the towel and go with what's already been built, defects and all, as our least worst answer for having something, anything that kind of, sort of works at human scale.
Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effect of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building.I spent some time trying to work with a couple of local non-profits. They both seemingly followed this formula for how to lift this small town out of poverty:
-- Jane Jacobs
1. Get a bunch of volunteers to work for free.
2. Do X.
4. Suddenly, everyone in town is no longer poor!!!!!!
One of them was one where I applied for a job on a lark after being up all night. I did not get the job -- nor did I expect to -- but drama ensued where I kept being strung along with promises of another shot at the job someday.
Eclogiselle grew directly out of all that. One of the things I kept thinking about was that it was a non-profit trying to do economic development work and two things bothered me.
The first was that the people running the program clearly knew nothing about economic development. They knew something about running a non-profit project, not a for-profit project, which means they weren't actually qualified to help local businesses which are for-profit enterprises.
The second was that if I ever got the job and actually did it right, that would make me a fool. I would be supplying all the ideas and energy for doing development work and getting a paltry salary out of it rather than my slice of the pie.
I kept thinking that "If I'm actually any good at development work, getting my slice of the pie is a means to get rich. Getting a salary for providing all that would make me a putz. It only makes sense as a salaried position if you can't actually do development work successfully. It only makes sense as a salaried position if it's government pork barrel: A black hole the city throws money into without real oversight."
I don't know if I have any hope of actually doing development work. I don't have deep pockets. I don't have connections. Etc.
But at some point I wrote them and told them "If it actually needs to be said at this late date, I am no longer interested in working for your organization."
From what I gather, Venture Capitalist funds are generally run by people with past experience running successful businesses. They not only provide an injection of funds, they typically provide feedback on the project, make introductions to other important people in the world of business, etc.
They are not simply laying a bet. They are tending their garden and doing what they can to encourage it to flourish.
In contrast to big business being funded and shepherded by experienced business people, programs for small businesses and small communities seem to make the mistake over and over of wanting government entities and non-profits to somehow foster the health of local small businesses. That seems like a generally unrealistic expectation. It takes business acumen to foster business success, something career bureaucrats and do-gooders tend to not have.
These programs sometimes involve beautification programs, a thing I have written about before. Beautification programs typically revolve around adding plants to the area, cleaning up litter, etc.
These can add real value to an area but not necessarily because it makes the space pretty per se. It can help add oxygen, lower bacteria levels, reduce crime and have many other real world impacts.
If you follow the standard play book and plant real plants, not plastic ones, you get those real world benefits even if you don't recognize that oxygen is valued by humans and you just think "plants are PRETTY!"
I have in the past looked into beautification programs and the consensus is that "pretty places are wealthier" but I have been unsuccessful in finding the kind of data I want that breaks down exactly how that works. I am skeptical of the easy answer that pretty places magically make more money because they are pretty.
I think it much more likely that "beauty" -- what the human mind finds visually pleasing -- is mental shorthand for "I recognize a pattern that typically has real value for humans." It's a metric that can be hacked at times. It's not perfect. You can make it superficially pretty, like stories I have heard of some cities painting the grass green to look good when world events had eyes on them for some reason, but when it's not faked, it's a meaningful signal of something of real value.
Local economic development in Aberdeen has revolved largely around beautification projects of various sorts: Murals all over the downtown area, flowers all over the place, "stars" in the sidewalks. I've seen no evidence this has made a meaningful difference in the economic health of Aberdeen.
The downtown area began to come back to life after a bad winter storm caused structural damage to an overbuilt mall in South Aberdeen. The mall was shut down and the tenants had to find someplace else to go. Some of them moved to downtown.
What else is injecting life into the downtown area of late? I don't know. I doubt very much it's any of the local economic development non-profits that I tried to work with for a time.
There does seem to be fewer dead storefronts downtown of late though.