Written by Brenna Moloney
I am currently working in Saginaw, Michigan to bring a historic preservation perspective to the work of right-sizing. As I’ve reported in previous posts, there are large areas of the city where the housing stock is so deteriorated that it has become ripe for demolition. As I do my work, it is important that I also keep in mind the bright spots in Saginaw’s preservation.
One such bright spot is Old Saginaw City on the west side of the Saginaw River. This commercial historic district boasts a remarkable collection of late 19th-century Italianate warehouses and commercial buildings, and lies just a few blocks from one of Saginaw’s beautiful residential historic districts, Heritage Square. While it is true that many of the buildings in this area remain unused, a thriving number of businesses have found their home here, making a walk down Hamilton Street or Michigan Avenue a pleasant way to spend an afternoon or evening.
While stopping in for coffee at the Red Eye, shopping for outdoor gear at the Stable Outdoor Outfitters, enjoying Pad Thai at Pasong’s, or meeting for beers at JB Meinburg’s (all businesses housed in historical buildings), there is a feeling of community here that is unique and special. This is no accident, nor is it something that grew spontaneously from nothing. Like a rare plant, a disinvested community’s sense of place must be nurtured and coaxed into existence. Behind each of the businesses and events found on the Old West Side is the West Saginaw Civic Association, a community group that works tirelessly to promote the area and to ensure its success. The people of the West Saginaw Civic Association consider themselves not only business people, but also the caretakers of their city, community crime watchers, and the shapers of Saginaw’s future.
Older buildings are vital economic and cultural catalysts for cities. Because of low rents, older buildings allow a myriad of small business people and nonprofits to set up shop where they couldn’t otherwise. These small businesses not only add texture and character to a community, they provide vital services to the neighborhoods in which they exist, acting as the eyes and ears of every block. One of the tasks that I have undertaken in Saginaw is to convince both business people and community groups of the enormous power of historic buildings and districts. If the Old West Side can thrive, it will create a ripple effect in adjacent historic residential neighborhoods, ensuring their continued use and protection.
In an effort to assist the West Saginaw Civic Association and other groups like it in Saginaw, I try to attend as many community meetings as my schedule will allow. Further, I consider every encounter with anyone in Saginaw as a potential historic preservation networking opportunity. Most importantly, I frequent local businesses whenever I am in Saginaw, not just to spend my money, but to talk with owners and to get a sense of what they need and how I can connect them to preservation resources. My goal is for these efforts to not only help with the revitalization of the business district, but to jumpstart preservation efforts in general – and especially within the adjacent Heritage Square residential historic district where some of the right-sizing activity is taking place.
In the beginning, this multifaceted and interpersonal approach to historic preservation in the face of right-sizing was often clumsy and difficult. However, in the end, I believe it will pay off.
In October, Brenna Moloney was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network as a preservation specialist in the city of Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw. Read her earlier posts.