Historic preservation has a little bit of an image problem. Most everyone knows the stereotype: little old ladies saving the dead white guy's mansion. And from Mount Vernon on down, preservationists have in fact saved more than a few abodes of the rich, famous, Anglo, and deceased.
It is important work, to be sure. Saving, maintaining, and sharing the places involved with major figures and events in American history has a great deal of value. But to think that this is all there is to historic preservation, however, would be to sell it short. Preservation has also become a critically important tool for community development and revitalization.
This type of work was the focus of the tour I took this morning, which was led by the staff of Historic Saint Paul. They showed us several in-process restorations in the Dayton's Bluff and Payne-Phelan areas of east St. Paul, where they are working with lower- and middle-income residents and immigrant communities to use historic preservation as the main tool for revitalizing their neighborhood. Their primary focus is exterior rehabilitation, to improve the streetscape and draw in further investment.
I was incredibly impressed by what I saw -- the transitions these houses are making are remarkable. With the seed funding and technical support provided by Historic Saint Paul, homeowners are removing weathered asphalt siding to reveal authentic Victorian-era carvings, stained glass, and other long-hidden detailing which transforms the look of not only the house, but the neighborhood as well. The program has also been a tool to build community relationships: one participant spoke of learning about of the grants from the sign posted in her neighbor's yard, while another spoke of how she has been encouraging her next-door neighbor to apply.
It's not an overnight process, of course. It takes time and funding and more than a little sweat-equity. After one woman encouraged us to step into her side yard to see the unfinished portion of the house to get an idea of how it looked "before," our guide pointed out that these projects are not all-or-nothing, and "a small step is better than no step at all."