Written by Brenna Moloney
Last week I attended the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo. I was excited about the conference this year for many reasons but chief among them was the opportunity to see how Buffalo has cared for its historic resources in the face of its shrinking population. Buffalo once had a population of over 500,000 but it is now less than half that number. Even though Saginaw is a town of only about 50,000, I wanted to see if their respective right-sizing efforts were similar. What of Saginaw would I recognize in Buffalo and what of Buffalo could I bring back and integrate in to my work in Saginaw and Lansing? As it turned out, quite a lot.
I found the most potent answers to my questions during Wednesday morning's “Urban Agriculture in Emerging Neighborhoods” tour. The tour, led by Buffalo food critic and locavore, Christa Glennie Seychew of Feed Your Soul, gave me the chance to see neighborhoods not typically seen on other architectural tours. There were no monumental buildings. Instead I found that the neighborhoods of East Buffalo were strikingly similar to Saginaw: some empty lots and demolitions, new in-fill, even the wood-frame houses had a familiar tired look about them that reminded me of my adopted home back in Michigan.
What was heartening to me during this tour was to see how Buffalo residents of these “emerging” or declining neighborhoods have reclaimed portions of their space to produce food. Several of these projects have also integrated advanced hydroponic systems and fish-farming into their production, which has allowed higher yields on their small plots and a source of potential profit. These projects have connected Buffalo to the larger agricultural traditions and products of Western New York, and therefore created an authentic sense of place for the people that live and visit there. It did not take me long before I began thinking about how this could be applied in Saginaw.
A visit to the Saginaw farmer's market on the city's east side displays the area's enormous productive potential and a promise of new life for our shrinking city. The area around Saginaw is known for sugar beet production but the market overflows with lush berries, fruits and melons, herbs, vegetables, honey, and a vast array of locally produced food and health products. The city may be right-sizing but its market is as healthy and vibrant as ever!
What if, like Buffalo, Saginaw capitalized on this bright patch and used it to grow new life for itself in the ruins of the old? Can a farmer's market in a shrinking city act like a business incubator and inject new life and new money into the city? I can imagine downtown East Saginaw as a food and entertainment district, an area mecca, with people stopping at food carts along the street as they make their way to the Symphony at the Temple Theater. The area could be designated such a district by the planning commission in partnership with the DDA. Then locally-trained chefs and culinary arts students could be given space in publically owned buildings to start their own food-related businesses. The whole area, now nearly empty of commerce, could be approached as one giant lab for students at Saginaw Valley State University and Delta College where they could apply their skills while revitalizing the community.
To extend the idea even further, perhaps the Potter Street Depot, Saginaw's forlorn train station located in the center of the nearly decommissioned Green Zone, could be a local center for urban agriculture with classrooms, an outdoor market, and a section for indoor business while the surrounding land (mostly cleared through demolition) is used for urban forestry, parkland and gardens. The last remaining houses there, some of them regal and historic, could be preserved by being turned over to new uses. The city shrinks but some of its history remains intact. Lost parts of the urban environment are reclaimed for productive use and the people living here can begin to heal.
Is this dream at all possible in Saginaw? Some days, when I'm in the middle of the day-to-day work, I forget that a shrinking city can be a place of possibility. After a week of inspiration and encouragement among my fellow preservationists, I feel renewed and buoyed by their enthusiasm. If Buffalo can begin to change and use its historic resources to advantage, so can Saginaw.
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.