A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: Rightsizing in Saginaw

Posted on: December 16th, 2010 by Guest Writer 12 Comments

Written by Brenna Moloney

The streets of West Saginaw are bleak this time of year. This is partially the effect of the season: indifferent gray skies, cutting Michigan winds, trees still and bare.

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.

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12 Responses

  1. Holly

    December 16, 2010

    “… because Saginaw is what the future of historic preservation looks like.”

    There are plenty of us at work to save historic properties that don’t have that view – thank goodness! I’m surprised the NTHP would agree with that. Wow.

  2. MLVB

    December 16, 2010

    Why were these beautiful houses abandoned? Did it turn into a “bad neighborhood”? If so, due to what? Immigrants, minorities, a highway ripping it apart? Why did the disinvestment start?

  3. MWBrown

    December 16, 2010

    I believe Saginaw is the canary in the coal mine regarding preservation and the challenges confronting it as a discipline. Many of the cities facing population decline and disinvestment also are home to vast collections of outstanding structures. The problem that has typically faced preservation has been one of “highest and best use” and the humanly scaled properties inability to provide a return on investment deemed appropriate by the owners. In this environment the prospects of saving these structures is bleak indeed as the property is viewed as a public health hazard and prospective buyers are hard to come by.

    I think this is a another example of the nexus of traditional planning, land-use and preservation coming together in order to craft long-term sustainable solutions to the problem of urban disinvestment. I wonder what the population change in Saginaw has been over the last 10 years in the metropolitan area?

    Preservationists won’t find the answers working alone.

    Good luck Saginaw I’m rooting for you!

  4. anonymous

    December 16, 2010

    Dealing with the effects of “right-sizing” is, in large measure, the future facing the field of preservation (at least in the rust belt). Congrats to you, Holly, for finding the rarefied air, far from this reality!

  5. SaginawSupporter

    December 16, 2010

    To answer some of the above questions:

    Saginaw was the lumber capital of the world from the 1860s – 1900. Once the White Pine forests of Michigan were cut down Saginaw went into a period of decline, albeit a small one. By the teens, Saginaw was prospering again with the burgeoning auto industry. In the 1970’s Saginaw was home to seven major GM manufacturing plants. Three were huge foundries; one, Grey Iron was the largest grey iron foundry in the world. Combined, these plants employed some 20,000 workers. Outsourcing, NAFTA, and a host of other corporate decisions has decimated the local economy and its manufacturing base. Only two of the facilities are left standing today and employ a combined total of around 4500 people. The city’s population was 100,000 in the early 1960’s and is currently around 56,000. Many of the city’s most magnificent mansions were cut up into apartments in the 1970’s. Others have caught fire and many have become abandoned with the loss of population. There is a strong movement in several of the historic neighborhoods where many of these incredible homes are either restored or undergoing restoration. Many are still available at fantastic prices. Here is a link to two Facebook pages devoted to these endeavors. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Preservation-Saginaw/168236589872605
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cathedral-District-Neighborhood-Association-of-Saginaw/130553753666941

  6. jeph

    December 17, 2010

    It’s astonishing to me that anyone half-aware of the disinvestment in places such as Saginaw still believes preserving each of these admittedly-handsome structures is economically feasible. That’s the bottom line. Even if some of these houses can be moved, or find willing buyers, who will then tackle the half-million dollars-worth of work needed to essentially build a new house within an old shell? Who has those resources?

    There will never be enough yuppies migrating into these neighborhoods to make a meaningful difference. There will be no federal or state or local monies available for a mass public reinvestment, at least not any time in the foreseeable future. If that type of governmental assistance ever returns, these structures will be long gone.

    I, for one, am not willing to watch them collapse, one-by-one, as is happening with Baltimore’s long-vacant row houses.

    MW Brown, you are absolutely correct. This is the time for some realistic thinking about how to de/re-construct cities whose physical remains are at complete odds with their populations.

    I know this is brutal, and it comes from an architect who has worked on a dozen restorations/renovations over the previous 20 years. But facts are facts, and no magical thinking or hoping can blunt the enormous forces that have emptied city centers.

    There ARE answers to this horrible, sad problem. Will preservationists fret by the sidelines or will we get proactive and engage other disciplines in seeking solutions to problems that are here to stay?

    One last thing: I read recently that the Michigan prairie ecosystem is actually reasserting itself, flora and fauna, on empty city blocks in Detroit. Wild turkeys-and even deer-are these blocks’ new occupants. I find something very hopeful and comforting in that.

  7. Anne

    December 17, 2010

    Saginaw IS what the future of preservation looks like!! Saginaw is home to commercial and residential buildings constructed with enough skill and attention to detail – not to mention solid materials – that they have stood for a hundred years or more, even after 20 years of neglect in a punishing environment. These buildings are a testament to the founders of that city, the settlement of Michigan, and the evolution of human existence in America. Cities across this country, like Saginaw, are faced with a simliar plight, and it is the recognition of what these properties mean to the communities in which they stand that is the heart of preservation. It is both environmentally and socially irresponsible to remove a standing property with the potential to be rehabbed in favor of another new-build requiring new materials and additional energy – especially when that property will be unlikely to stand for a fraction of the time these “historic” buildings have perservered. We send recycleable construction materials from demolitions across this state into the landfills and slap cheap astylistic buildings together with synthetic materials to replace what we’ve lost. The greenest building is the one already built. You cannot save everything, admittedly, but you also cannot ignore the importance of our cultural past. What is humanity if we dispose of our story? We dont need yuppies or magical thinking to make a difference. We need proactive, future-thinking citizens to focus on creating an appropriate built environment for the current populace without sacrificing all that the community stands for.

  8. Claire

    December 17, 2010

    It sounds like “Holly” wakes up on the sunny side of preservation everyday. Brenna is out facing the bricks and mortar–blood and guts– of preservtion that folks in Saginaw and Michigan are tackling to preserve, protect, and smartly plan for Michigan’s ever changing, shrinking cities. The tide in Saginaw is rippling all across our nation. Saginaw is the current face and future of preservation. In Saginaw, there is an abundance of relics that foretell the history, culture, and architectural gems of earlier generations. Kudos to the NTHP and MHPN for hiring Brenna who appears to have her game face on weathering the storm in Saginaw. If everyone was a fairweather preservationist, we would have lost the battle of preserving our architectural and cultural history long, long ago.

  9. Brenna

    December 17, 2010

    The comments strike to the heart of the situation in Saginaw (and Detroit, Toledo, Gary, etc. etc.) and I thank every one for their input. Thanks to SaginawSupporter for providing a little more background information.

    The truth is that there is no easy solution; no magic fix. While yes, we’d like to think that we don’t need yuppies or magical thinking to save our buildings, the truth is that tools to save places like Saginaw are based in the material conditions of the community: access to capital for homeowners and small business, insurers willing to insure in high-risk areas, contractors with the skills to do the repairs, educational opportunities for contractors and city employees, developers willing to pay higher labor costs, education on tax credits, the list goes on and on. The value of these buildings from a historical and cultural stand point is self-evident to most every one reading the National Trust website. But the work in Saginaw is not just about saving a few monumental buildings. This is about finding a way to stay the disintegration of an entire city; to apply reason to the process of shrinking, a process that has accelerated with the influx of federal funds. The happy ending where the community gets a huge grant or corporate endowment at the midnight hour is not enough because Saginaw needs a thousand such happy endings. So what is to be done?

    As MWBrown said above “I think this is a another example of the nexus of traditional planning, land-use and preservation coming together in order to craft long-term sustainable solutions to the problem of urban disinvestment.” Exactly.

    jeph: While I agree with most of what you say in your above comment, I pause at drawing hope and comfort from the bucolic returning to the heart of the city. The post-apocalyptic “disaster porn” that pervades the media discussion around places like Detroit make me uncomfortable. While it is true that there is something starkly beautiful about pheasants roosting in the remains of the Packard Plant or trees growing from the floors of the Book Depository, I think that celebrating this can lull us in to forgetting that these were once human “ecosystems.” That they are now standing in ruin is an indictment and a terrible waste.

  10. NTHP Advisor

    December 18, 2010

    Yes, MLVB, bait the immigrants and minorities. Make it clear that they stand in the way of “preservation”.

    Or go back to the 1950s.

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