Written by Dwight Young
For me, springtime in Washington means two things: lots of sneezing (stupid oak pollen!), and the announcement of the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This year’s list, like every previous one since 1988, is a near-kaleidoscopic roster of important places – everything from a skyscraper to a mountain to a highway – threatened by everything from plain ol’ decay to appallingly short-sighted (I’m biting my tongue to keep from saying “insane”) policies.
Two of this year’s treasures in trouble really speak to me.
One of them is Pågat, a place I’ve never seen on a faraway island I’ve never visited. Pågat is the site of an ancient village of the Chamorro, the indigenous people of Guam. Present-day Guamanians cherish Pågat as a link with their past, a place where they can gather for traditional rituals and celebrations. But now (cue the ominous music) the US Marine Corps wants to construct several firing ranges nearby – a move that would severely curtail public access to the area and send live ammo whizzing through the air above one of the island’s most important cultural landmarks. See what I mean? Insane.
The other is America’s State Parks and State-Owned Historic Sites. We’ve all visited them – first with our parents, later with our children – to play catch or fly kites in a grassy field, to explore a restored colonial house or frontier fort, or to eat lunch in a picnic shelter built by the CCC in the 1930s. They’re part of our lives – but now, all over the country, cash-strapped state governments are shutting many of them down, locking the gates to the campgrounds and turning off the lights in the historic buildings. These places were set aside and maintained for us, and now we’re losing them. I feel like I’m being robbed, and I don’t like it.
Solving states’ financial problems is a huge challenge, of course – and that brings up an important point about the 11 Most Endangered list: It usually isn’t about easy solutions and quick fixes. Beginning in 1989, some neighborhoods in Pasadena and South Pasadena, California, appeared on the list for five straight years because the state highway department wanted to ram a freeway through them – but after a lot of hard work by a lot of determined people over a lot of years, the highway plan was finally scrapped. Something similar happened in St. Augustine, Florida, where the beautiful Bridge of Lions was declared unsafe and slated for demolition – but instead of being smashed to rubble, the bridge was saved and restored, and just a few weeks ago – 13 years after it appeared on the 11 Most Endangered list – it reopened to traffic.
It may take a long time, but stubborn minds do get changed, wrong-headed plans do get shelved, wrecking-balls and bulldozers do go away, padlocked gates and boarded-up windows do get opened. If it wakes us up, makes us mad and inspires us to fight for the places that matter to us, the list has done its job – and happy endings can happen.
Dwight Young joined the staff of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1977. He currently serves as senior communications associate and writes the regular 'Back Page' feature in Preservation magazine.