What’s Historic?

We live in a historic neighborhood, as in a named-on-the-National-Register-of-Historic-Places neighborhood. It’s the only neighborhood we’ve lived in during our time in Iowa. We didn’t rent or buy here because it was historic. We chose this neighborhood because it’s convenient to work and downtown, and because it’s walkable to both areas.

The big thing you quickly learn about living in a historic district is that it’s a massive pain in the ass to do any improvements to your property, at least any that are visible to the public. You can’t just get a permit to get a fence put around your backyard, for example. You have to get a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Commission, which meets once a month and which will often tell you either no or yes with some very specific qualifications. You can try to bargain with them, and to their credit, sometimes they’ll even concede points depending on the specific situation, but all this takes time. Time during which your furnace and then your AC goes out and whatever money you were thinking on spending on a fence evaporates like spit on a June sidewalk.

I’ve been to a few of these meetings. They can be interesting, if you have the energy for it. The people who serve on the commission know a lot about the history of the city, of its architecture, of how the city grew and evolved, and that can be fascinating to learn about. But what becomes immediately clear about their conversations and decisions is that they have a very specific notion of what historic means, and they don’t vary from it much. Maybe they have reason. I’m not even a layman when it comes to urban planning or preservation or any of those subjects, so I’m not here to challenge their practice in any way. But I do still have questions about what gets to count as historic in a neighborhood and what is disposed of.

That picture is of the lot that what is locally known as “the old Planned Parenthood building” used to sit on. It’s in this neighborhood, on the north west corner. I think it’s been mostly vacant for a while now, perhaps since we moved into the neighborhood. In the last couple of years, I think, there have been 2 or 3 projects discussed for the location, all of which involved tearing down the building and replacing it, some commercial, some residential. I was at the commission meeting for one of those, a proposal by a local union for a new Union Hall. They had preliminary plans drawn up and there was a lot of talk about facades and the desire to have the outside of the building look like what commercial buildings from the early 1900’s would have looked like.

But what struck me about the conversation was the way it started. The City Planner, in his summary about the lot, described the old Planned Parenthood building as having no historic significance. And I know what he was saying in a way. It was a fairly nondescript brick set of offices, built in 1985 according to this story about the demolition in the Des Moines Register. Nothing about it stood out or shouted “I am unique and worth preserving!” It’s the kind of building you can find almost anywhere, and I’m not particularly heartbroken that it’s gone now.

However, while the building wasn’t anything special, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t have historic significance. In the 22 years that Planned Parenthood inhabited that building, there were numerous protests against them, and the fact that the Register identifies it as the “former Planned Parenthood building” even though they’ve been gone from it since 2007 tells you how strong the association is. And given that we’re in a time where there’s a real threat that the Supreme Court of the US could overturn Roe v Wade or find more ways to chip away at the ability of women to get abortions in this country, it’s particularly important that we recognize the importance of both groups like Planned Parenthood and the places they inhabit(ed).

And it’s that division, I suppose, that got me wondering whether or not this method of historic preservation of neighborhoods is such a good thing. Because while there are a lot of very old houses in this neighborhood (ours being one of them, originally built in 1889 with the basement to prove it), there are also some older houses which were moved in from other neighborhoods, and there’s a lot of new construction meant to look like it’s older (to a pretty unconvincing degree). It would not surprise me if that kind of construction pops up on that parcel of land, honestly. And that’s fine, because neighborhoods are organic, living things. The apartment buildings from the mid-20th century which sit next to these old Victorian houses help give this neighborhood life, and more importantly, they’re evidence that this neighborhood didn’t stop evolving in 1912. (They also make it possible for the area to house people of vastly different income brackets, something that some members of the neighborhood association are less fond of than I am, but that’s another discussion.)

But there’s another reason why I’m always suspicious of what I see as attempts to preserve too much of bygone ages. For too many people in this country, the past is a hellscape where their ancestors were denied basic rights of autonomy as human beings. When this house was built, women in most parts of this country couldn’t own property on their own and couldn’t vote. Black men had the right to vote in theory, but Jim Crow laws made it a practical impossibility, and segregation was the law of the land. Chinese immigrants weren’t allowed to naturalize and become citizens (though their children born in the US were automatically citizens, despite claims from certain right-wing activists and politicians that they should not be). I could list examples of this sort of thing for days, but I think I’ve made my point. History is important, but fetishizing particular time periods and privileging them over others can lead to nostalgia and a very limited and inaccurate notion of what the past was like.

I’ve experienced this already. I was raised in the south in schools that taught The Lost Cause version of the Civil War. I was taught that slavery wasn’t all that bad and that many slaves were actually happy with their lives; that the war was about tariffs and self-government and slavery was a minor issue; that Robert E Lee was the Marble Man and that Grant was a lucky drunk and a corrupt president. And architecture played a big role in that fetishization of the pre-war south. Those restored antebellum mansions with the oak trees dripping with Spanish moss were a source of pride, a symbol of a time when the South was powerful and graceful and glorious and let’s not talk about the slave quarters on the back of the property. In fact, let’s tear those down and never talk about them again and accuse anyone who does bring them up of not being able to get over the past.

I’m not suggesting that’s what’s going on here with the demolition of the old Planned Parenthood building, not by any means. Planned Parenthood has 3 locations in and around Des Moines and they’re not going anywhere despite the best efforts of right-wing activists and politicians. But I do think it’s worth re-examining just what we’re trying to preserve when we talk about historic neighborhoods and places, and not just do it because it’s old.

Published by Brian

I'm Poetry Editor of The Rumpus, as well as a published poet. My first book, A Witness in Exile will be published later this year by Louisia

One thought on “What’s Historic?

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