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Living in a Walkable Neighborhood. Testify!

Posted on: December 7th, 2011 by Priya Chhaya 5 Comments

 

(Photo: Flickr user Cougar-Studio)

A few months ago I moved from a 17 to a 92. That isn’t the probability of my going to the gym every day, or the ratio of museum trips to preservation-related movies watched. It’s my neighborhood walk score.

It wasn’t an entirely unexpected change, or even an unconscious decision. After talking the talk for over five years, this was an opportunity for me to (no pun intended) walk the walk. Also unsurprising is that I love it.

While living further out from the city, I did try to be sustainable - I would drive my car to a commuter lot to travel via carpool (the slug line, if anyone is familiar with it), or drive to the Metro (Washington, DC’s subway system). If I could, I would make sure to time all my shopping and socializing in the same area, so that once I parked I limited my driving time. And as much as I could control it I shopped local, and attempted to eat local.

But this - this is different. For five days of the week everything I need is steps away from my new home. I take public transportation 95% of the time, exercise, and get my hair cut without having to get into my car. There are restaurants galore - including my favorite socially-conscious coffee shop - and a few (semi-affordable) independent retail stores owned and operated by small business owners. Not to mention a branch of the public library system. Moving from a 17 to a 92 has made my life, in some ways, less complicated.

Last week I reflected a little on the materiality (or immateriality, rather) of historic preservation. In the post, I cited four elements that connect the physicality of preservation to the more ephemeral, meaningful pieces of what we do: Place-History-Memories-Character.

These four characteristics played heavily in my choice to live in my new neighborhood:

Place: This is my first home away from the place where I grew up with my parents. It was a big step for me, and I knew that when choosing the neighborhood it had to reflect what I wanted to be, where I wanted to spend my time, and a sense of place that reflected some of what I believed in.

History: The direct neighborhood in which I live is not historic in the usual sense of the word - although a large portion of the retail/foodie area was built in 1944. However it does lie adjacent to a National Register district that was once a part of the DC boundaries, and then developed by Defense Homes Corporation during World War II.

Memories: Having lived in the region already, I came to my new neighborhood with a visceral connection to it. My friends and I gather for monthly book clubs at my coffee shop, and I’ve celebrated birthdays at many of the restaurants.

Character: I think, above all else, this area has character. When leaving my apartment building I can run in one direction to see the amazing World War II area housing that still remains, and I am often immersed in green space that lines the sidewalks. While my building is of the 1970s variety, I can look outside my window and see the cityscape of DC arrayed in lights (including the Washington Monument). That feature alone is inspiring.

Going from a 17 to a 92 doesn’t mean I don’t miss my old haunts, my childhood parks/playgrounds, and favorite local restaurants that I still visit when I’m in the area. But I can say that it’s made me an even bigger proponent as a historic preservationist to protecting places that just like this for the future.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation

Posted on: November 30th, 2011 by Priya Chhaya 2 Comments

 

The bustle of Union Station in DC. (Photo: Flickr user jenpilot)

I once wrote a paper about a pressure cooker for a course on foodways. It was a plum assignment—find an object in your kitchen over the Thanksgiving holidays and write about it. Look at it in a way that you’ve never looked before: as a piece of culture, a mirror into the way we cook, the way we eat, and the role that object played in the history of your home, your community, America, and the world (yes, the world!)

So I went home, picked the one appliance we used the most—and told its story. The narrative didn’t begin with its physical description (stainless steel, about 10 inches in diameter) or with an origin story (Denis Papin, inventor) rather it began with a memory of my mother cooking an entire Indian meal in 30 minutes flat.

I was thinking about this assignment this past weekend when I strolled through Union Station (Washington, DC) on my way back from my Thanksgiving break, watching as shoppers milled through the stores, and travelers sprinted to their trains. I found myself struck with the materiality of it all.

What exactly do I mean by materiality? I mean that much of what we try to preserve is based in the tactile, in the physically present, something we can touch. Preservation is a pursuit to save the material culture of the past.

However, we also know the following: Preservation saves places. Preservation saves history. Preservation saves memories. Preservation saves character.

Through this lens we admit to ourselves that preservation is not just about the stuff. The materiality of preservation is very much rooted in these places and objects ability to tell a story - to evoke the intangible in such a way that makes it more certain, more reliable, more real. Place-History-Memories-Character, are all names that describe either something so big it isn’t easily defined without examples (place, history), or an intangible detail that evokes feelings and emotions on a human level (memory, character).

Recognizing that distinction is key when trying to preserve. It isn’t the building, landscape, or the neighborhood that is going to garner support alone, rather it is those intangible elements, the memories, the character, the history that will pull in the unexpected advocates. For me it was the visual of my mother, cooking dinner during that half hour that made the pressure cooker real - just as our stories will make this piece of material culture a continuing part in the history of your home, your community, America, and perhaps…the world.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.