Written by Brenna Moloney
However, the austerity of Saginaw is not just a trick of the climate. It also arises from the built landscape. The streets are lined with monumental buildings, both residential and commercial. A few of these buildings--lovely Queen Annes, big-shouldered Prairie Four-Squares, Italian villas, Kahn steel-framed office blocks--are well-kept.
Many, however, are not. They linger sadly, everywhere, in various stages of decay. Ostensibly, this is a human environment and yet, one sees so few people as one explores the neighborhoods. This is what disinvestment and economic collapse look like.
Neighbors in the Saginaw City Center National Register Historic District have seen one house after another come down. But what are city leaders supposed to do? There is no one to live in these houses and many of the buildings have been abandoned for years. They have been stripped of their valuables and some stand open to weather. Others have even been gutted by fire. Faced with a crumbling housing stock, a diminished population, and high foreclosure rates, demolition seems all but inevitable.
Despite this, neighbors always gather to watch as a house is pulled down. No one speaks because they’ve seen this before and feel powerless to stop it. The crunch of hundred-year-old woodwork as it’s crushed by a bulldozer is a heart-rending sound. This is what a shrinking city feels like.
All of this is not to say that one should abandon hope. On the contrary, the people of Saginaw, who are filled with love and pride for their city and its important history, have drawn on vast stores of tenacious optimism to keep what is here intact and to create community in unthinkable conditions.
Community gardens, neighborhood meetings, and people who get up day after day to clean up and carry on despite the harrowing economic conditions are the reason the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network brought me here. They are the ones who will find a way to protect our shared built heritage. I will be here to help connect Saginaw residents to resources and provide education.
Make no mistake: What has happened to Saginaw is a tremendous tragedy, and it is a tragedy that is being duplicated in city after city across Middle America. The challenges are daunting, but now is not the time for preservationists to remain silent. Now, more than ever, we should fight for the places that matter because Saginaw is what the future of historic preservation looks like.
In October, Brenna Moloney was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network as a preservation specialist in the city of Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw.