Written by Kristen Griffin
A reference to historic districts in the music video for country singer Alan Jackson's "Little Man" caught my attention one night. In the video, Alan Jackson drives through small town business districts and sings "boarded up like they never existed, or renovated and called historic districts."
To be fair, it was kind of a throwaway line in an otherwise well-messaged song. Jackson drives home the point that we are losing something culturally important when we lose small towns and local businesses to chain and suburban-style development. But the implication that business and renovated historic districts are mutually exclusive made no sense to me. My experience with historic districts is just the opposite.
Historic districts make up half of Spokane, Washington’s core downtown business district. I started to make a mental list of all the times I walk across the threshold of a historic building to do business in a historic store, restaurant, hotel, office building, or theater. Not only do I work in a historic building, but I mail my packages in a historic building, go to the gym in a historic building, buy my books in a historic building, and get my hair cut in a historic building. My accountant is in a historic building, the newspapers I read are published in historic buildings, and my favorite coffee is roasted in a historic building. The list goes on.
Downtown Spokane. (Photo: Bryan Gosline on Flickr)
Last year for fun, and to demonstrate how deeply the historic buildings and districts in Spokane are integrated into the local economy, I impulsively committed for the month of April to try to find everything I needed in businesses located in historic buildings or within historic districts.
I realized immediately that this commitment was more involved than I had anticipated. Some important basics were hard to find (gas, for example) and my daily routine involved many non-historic destinations. Friends and colleagues stepped in to support me though, making recommendations of where I could find services and agreeing to reschedule meetings and social gatherings in historic buildings.
At the Rocket Bakery in Spokane. (Photo: Sarah Nitt on Flickr)
By the end of the first day, I noticed that my feet hurt. My usually close parking location in a non-historic garage was now off limits, which sent me farther afield and on foot. I was getting a daily demonstration of the fact that historic buildings and cities were designed and built for pedestrians.
Walking the footprint of historic Spokane was also heightening my awareness of its geography, texture, and density. I felt a new appreciation for the efficient early-20th-century commute between the small apartment buildings that housed the city's early residents and the nearby factories that employed them. I thought often about the streetcar system that influenced Spokane's development and the ease of catching a streetcar home, across town, or to the park at the end of the line.
A view of Spokane's historic Davenport District. (Photo: Adam Jones, Ph.D. on Flickr)
The month went by quickly and has had a lasting impression on me. Business owners inspired me with their pride and dedication to the buildings in their care. I received daily demonstrations of the principals of historic preservation and revitalization in action. I was able to support businesses at the forefront of revitalization in my community. Most importantly, my sense that Spokane’s history is well integrated into the local economy was confirmed in the impressive diversity of businesses that are alive and well in Spokane’s historic buildings and districts.
Kristen Griffin is the City/County Historic Preservation Officer in Spokane, Washington. She will be glad to give you some shopping tips to use when you visit Spokane, the site of the 2012 National Preservation Conference.