Written by Brenna Moloney
For the past year, my work for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the National Trust has been based in Saginaw, Michigan. The focus of this position was to find a way to intervene in the city’s right-sizing process on behalf of Saginaw’s historic buildings and neighborhoods. This month I began a new and exciting phase of this work by expanding it into an additional city: Lansing, Michigan, the state capital. That I am able to work and problem solve full-time in two Michigan communities was made possible through two grants. One from the Americana Foundation, which also funded my first year of work in Saginaw, and another from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority which is administered by the State Historic Preservation Office.
Though I’ve only been on the job in Lansing two weeks, I am excited by the opportunities I see here. Additionally, I am fascinated by a different form of right-sizing taking place. In Lansing, much of the area targeted for right-sizing is being looked at because it sits in a 100 year flood plain, not necessarily because of vacancy. Lansing, being the state capital and close to Michigan State University, has a much more robust economy than Saginaw, which is primarily manufacturing based. Additionally, Saginaw boasts a plethora of local and National Register districts while Lansing has focused its efforts on single resources.
What both of these river cities have in common, however, is far more important to historic preservation efforts in a shrinking city. That commonality is strong neighborhoods full of committed people. That was the most striking feature of Saginaw when I first arrived last October and now as I get to know Lansing, I see this is Lansing’s strength as well.
In a shrinking city, what is most important to preserve is not necessarily the monumental buildings, or the interesting river front warehouses, or the breath-taking architect-designed mansions. No, the most important things to save are the places that the people that do the living and working in those places themselves love - the places that define who they are. Honoring self-defined significance may mean that the people in the neighborhood are more deeply attached to the "ugly" mid-century roller rink than they are to the brewery building from the 1850s. After all, that brewery has been empty and spooky for as long as they can remember but the roller rink was where they had their first kiss!
This is not to say that the role of a preservationists should not be to help neighbors see the places they love with new eyes, absolutely they should. But in places where historic fabric is deeply threatened across the board by shrinking and demolition and economic crisis, listening is the first step. It can be the most helpful.
Brenna Moloney is a preservation specialist for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network in Saginaw and Lansing, Michigan. Read her earlier posts on right-sizing.