saginaw-rightsizing

Saving Schools in Shrinking Cities

Posted on: March 8th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

Figuring out what to do with empty school buildings is a major preservation conundrum in shrinking cities. The issue isn't one of figuring out what to do with one or two obsolete old buildings once the school district decides to build a new high school somewhere else. The issue goes beyond that and can reach almost epidemic levels. This is true of the two cities I work in for the National Trust and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

In Saginaw, Michigan, there are about 11 vacant public schools and many more vacant private school buildings. In Lansing, Michigan, the school board is currently debating which of the city’s two major high schools, Eastern or Sexton, is to be closed. With crushing budget constraints, a burgeoning private charter school market, and shrinking populations, these cities can no longer afford the level of educational infrastructure that they currently have and are looking to rightsize.


Lansing's Art Moderne-style Sexton High School. (Photo: redmudball on Flickr)

In addition, many of these buildings are architectural gems. Built in the early 1940s, Sexton High School is an Art Moderne building with curved yellow brick walls and stunning craft tile details on the interior. Opened in the city center in 1928, Lansing's Collegiate Gothic-style Eastern High School sports a copper cupola and gutters, carved arch windows and a slate roof. Additionally, they are both irreplaceable neighborhood anchors and once one of them goes, there is no telling what the future of the neighborhood may hold.... Read More →

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Holidays in the Heart of the Shrinking City

Posted on: December 1st, 2011 by Guest Writer 3 Comments

 

Written by by Brenna Moloney

Saginaw's Savoy Bar & Grill is a popular destination for a diverse crowd. (Photo: Brenna Moloney)

On a sunny afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, I take a short walk from my apartment on the East Side of Saginaw. I'm headed to the Savoy Bar and Grille on Franklin Street for the annual Thanksgiving dinner, which is served free of charge to anyone who needs or wants it. The air is unseasonably warm; the sky is a saturated bright blue and the brick Italianate buildings of downtown stand out warm against it. The red neon of the iconic Savoy sign is friendly and bright.

Downtown Saginaw, on the East side of the Saginaw River, where the Savoy is located, has seen a tremendous amount of disinvestment and demolition over the past 20 years. Many of the city’s largest, most historically significant commercial buildings are here, including the Bearinger Building, the former Bancroft Hotel, the Temple Theater, and the Armory Building. In addition, the area is home to many smaller, 19th century Italianate commercial buildings. This building type is a common sight in most Midwest towns and while they may not be significant in themselves, in concert they give Saginaw its distinctive character and texture.

At the Savoy, there isn't a free parking spot and people are milling at the doorway when I arrive. I've come to meet my friend Levante Carrington, a fellow preservationist and one of my Saginaw heroes who has saved several of Saginaw's residential gems from the wrecking ball. The inside of the Savoy is packed with people - most are sitting at tables visiting as they tuck in to their stuffing and turkey and pumpkin pie, while a few others dash from table to table bringing glasses of lemonade or water to the diners. I recognize two of the volunteer waiters behind the counter serving pie; they are historic district commissioners, Kevin Rooker and Bill Ostash. In a moment Bill comes over with two plates of food and Levante and I dig in while the three of us catch up on the local preservation news. All around us is the cheerful clatter of dishes and silverware and laughter.

Historic District Commissioners Bill Ostash and Kevin Rooker volunteerting at Savoy. (Photo: Brenna Moloney)

Many of the people sharing their Thanksgiving dinner with me at the Savoy this year may be poor, or pressed for time, or many perhaps are just lonely and want to be with other people. The restaurant is packed from 11am-3pm, as it has been every year for the past five years. To me, the people here are a representative cross-section of a shrinking city’s population. They are mostly working class folks but integrated in every other sense: race, orientation, and belief.

I read a lot of blog posts, articles and commentary about shrinking, right-sizing and post-industrial cities, all in the hopes of gleaning some meaning from the conditions I see in Saginaw. In most of these articles, whether they're about Cleveland, Detroit, or Indianapolis, there is an inevitable reference to having to make “tough decisions” in the face of population loss and decline. This, of course, begs two questions: who will make those tough decisions and who will have to live with them?

Though it is surrounded by disinvestment and decline, the Savoy has managed to not only hold on but also become a destination. With events like the free Thanksgiving dinner and their community involvement, owners Steve West and Jim Atwood, have made the Savoy a beacon for the surrounding neighborhoods and business district. The Savoy draws people to the area, and though it is not in one of the areas targeted for right-sizing, it can be an anchor for re-growth at the city’s core and can keep an area stable. My hope is that city leaders and decision makers will look to the Savoy, and similar businesses, to help them build a successful model for neighborhood revitalization rather than apply out-moded or inappropriate development models to commercial districts and the surrounding neighborhoods. Encouraging the types of places that draw people in, let them gather, and give them a sense of connection to the broader community are what shrinking cities like Saginaw need. I’m thankful that a few of those places still exist.

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.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Where Do We Grow From Here?

Posted on: October 27th, 2011 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

Local apples at the Saginaw Farmer's Market. (Photo: 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.... Read More →

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.

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Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Stop, Look, and Listen Before Right-Sizing

Posted on: September 22nd, 2011 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

Historic residences in Lansing, MI.

Historic residences in Lansing, MI.

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.

Historic residence in Lansing, MI.

Historic residence in Lansing, MI.

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.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

The Pragmatism of Historic Preservation

Posted on: August 18th, 2011 by Guest Writer 4 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

The Hill House in Saginaw, Michigan. (Photo: Brenna Moloney)

In a recent article in the Saginaw (Michigan) News, a local reporter covered an on-going preservation battle in the Central Saginaw Historic District - specifically the proposed demolition of the stately Hill House (pictured), which is one vacant building in a residential historic district where homes are otherwise occupied and being rehabbed. One thing that he wrote struck me as off-key but not unusual. He began,

“Pragmatic and romantic notions face off at the northwest corner of Thompson and South Jefferson in Saginaw’s Cathedral District.”

To me, the issue over whether or not to invest in a city’s historic district is not a matter of ideology: tender-hearted dreamers vs. level-headed penny-pinchers. On the contrary, historic preservation and investing in a city’s key cultural resources is often one of the most pragmatic financial moves a municipality can make, especially when facing population decline and right-sizing. Just ask Charleston, South Carolina. Home to one of the first local historic district in the country, Charleston - while of course facing its own serious social and economic problems - has been able to make itself into a place where people want to go for vacation and to live. And where people go, money follows.

Even in Michigan, we have Holland, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Bay City …shall I go on? In various ways, these communities have committed themselves to protecting and promoting their historic properties. They have created a sense of place. In part because of this, these communities have been able to attract new industries and businesses, as well as build on heritage tourism to create a more diverse economy - one that has proven far more resilient over the long term than places that have not done so.... Read More →

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.